[Gasoline distribution problem]
The entire distribution problem was severely aggravated in October by a growing shortage of 5-gallon cans. The lowly "jerrican," so named by the British, who, followed by the Americans, had copied the German container after discovering its superior merits, had a role in gasoline supply hardly suggested by its size. Gasoline might be shipped from the port via pipeline, tank car, or tank truck; but it had to be delivered in packaged form to the ultimate consumer. In the last analysis, therefore, the retail distribution of gasoline depended in large part on an adequate supply of 5-gallon cans.
U.S. forces had built up a stock of about 12,000,000 cans before the Normandy invasion. But this number was expected to suffice only for the initial stages of continental operations.
Quartermaster planners subsequently concluded that about 800,000 new cans per month would be required to cover losses (estimated at 5 percent per month after D plus 60) and to maintain a can population commensurate with the troop build-up.
The chief quartermaster accordingly placed an order with the British War Office for nearly 4,500,000 cans to be supplied from U.K. manufacture by the end of 1944. Nearly 2,000,000 of them were intended for the air forces with the understanding that they would be turned over to the ground forces after their first trip in accordance with the practice of using them only once for aviation fuel. A large portion of U.S. can requirements had already been met by British production, in part through the shipment of an American plant to England early in 1943.
Tactical developments in the first three months were largely responsible for upsetting
the chief quartermaster's plans for supplying an adequate number of jerricans.
The rapid advance, in addition to increasing the consumption of POL, had, by placing Allied forces far beyond planned phase lines, resulted in a much longer turnaround time--that is, the time required to fill, forward, and return cans--than that on which the required supply of cans had been based.
The loss of cans had also been much higher than expected. Retail distribution of gasoline in the early phases had been based on the principle of exchanging a full can for an empty one. Units were permitted to draw 100 full cans only by turning in an equal number of empties. This simple but essentially sound SOP was widely disregarded in the heat of the pursuit, resulting in a trail of abandoned or discarded jerricans stretching from Normandy to the West Wall. Hundreds of thousands lay in abandoned dumps and bivouacs; thousands more had been used to build sidewalks in the mud, or as chairs, and for hundreds of other purposes not intended; others had found their way into French homes.
By mid-October the chief quartermaster noted that 3,500,000 could not be accounted for.
Meanwhile two of the sources of supply showed signs of drying up.
The air forces had given notice that they could not ensure the return of their quota of cans, stating that they were needed for static reserves because of the depletion of current working stocks.
As for procurement in the United Kingdom, which U.S. forces had counted on as their main source after D Day, the British War Office first advised that it could allocate only 221,000 cans per month to the Americans against the request for 500,000, and subsequently expressed a desire to retain the entire U.K. output for British forces. In mid-September the chief quartermaster therefore reluctantly turned to the War Department to meet the theater's needs, placing a requisition for 7,000,000 cans. The War Department offered to provide only 5,400,000 of this number.
All but two can-producing plants in the United States had been closed down, it explained, and it did not favor reopening idle plants and drawing labor away from other urgent production.
It would be much more economical, the War Department suggested, to increase going production in the United Kingdom.
Can production was one of the several fields in which the United States and Britain eventually found it necessary to collaborate closely. Early in the fall, when it became apparent that requirements were outrunning production facilities, British and U.S. officials in Washington agreed to set up an Allied Container Advisory Committee to co-ordinate more closely the collection of information on requirements and potential sources of supply and to allocate production. Late in November, apparently as a result of the committee's initial deliberations, the British agreed to provide about 550,000 cans per month to American forces.
Also the chief quartermaster had begun to explore the possibilities of meeting a portion of U.S. needs from another source--local procurement on the Continent. Negotiations during the fall produced agreements with the French for the manufacture of 9,000,000 cans and with the Belgians for 2,000,000.
Both programs were dependent on imports of sheet steel from the United States. Production was scheduled to get under way in February in Belgium and in April in France.
Early in January the chief quartermaster re-estimated U.S. requirements and, on the basis of maintenance and turnaround factors developed during operations thus far, concluded that U.S. forces would need about 1,300,000 new cans per month in 1945 to maintain a workable can population for the gradually increasing troop strength. U.S. and British officials agreed then that approximately 550,000 of these should be provided from British production, and that the rest should come from U.S. and continental production, the zone of interior contribution depending on progress in getting French and Belgian production under way.
The local procurement programs failed to make a significant contribution to U.S. requirements before the end of hostilities, largely because of difficulties in getting sheet steel from the United States. As of V-E Day the French had manufactured only a token number of the original commitment. Shortly before the end of hostilities the chief quartermaster estimated that U.S. forces needed a can population of 19,000,000 to support the current troop strength.
But the target was not met.
What the actual count was in the last month is not known.
The theater also had initiated a vigorous campaign to recover some of the lost cans. With the help of the Allied and U.S. Information Services, and employing The Stars and Stripes, the French and Belgian press, and the radio and newsreels, it widely publicized the importance of the jerrican's role in winning the war, and made an unprecedented appeal to civilians and soldiers alike to search for the wayward containers and return them to the supply stream. Through the French Ministry of Education a special appeal was made to French children to round up cans, offering prizes and certificates for the best efforts. In this way approximately 1,000,000 cans were recovered.
At the end of November 2,500,000 were still "AWOL."
About 75 jerrycans were left here (full) at home by USAAF observers !