Post Sat May 11, 2013 7:37 pm

P.L.U.T.O Pipeline

PipeLine Under The Ocean or Operation Pluto

Pipeline Under the Ocean
In the darkest years of the Second World War the Island was the site of the deployment of one of the great secret weapons of the war, the revolutionary Pipeline Under the Ocean PLUTO.

The Inception of PLUTO

In October 1941, two years in to the Second World War, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the king’s cousin and commander of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, received a message from Prime Minister Winston Churchill “We want you home here at once for something which you will find of the highest interest”.

Mountbatten, then just 41, had suddenly been promoted to Admiral of the Fleet and Chief of Combined Operations. This job meant the preparation of the invasion of Nazi Europe.

It seems extraordinary then that Churchill was thinking of invading France at this time. The Axis powers had completed the conquest of Europe and most of North Africa. Britain and the Soviet Union had suffered a series of terrible defeats and the Japanese had conquered most of China and Indochina and were about to attack the British and US forces in Asia and the Pacific.

Characteristically Mountbatten threw himself into the task at hand. He devoted himself to the task of preparing all the technical aspects of what would become “D Day”. By 1942 he realised that it would be almost impossible to capture any of the heavily defended French ports, therefore any attacking army would need to be supplied on open beaches.

In early April he was watching an experimental weapon he had encouraged, the flamethrower. After the demonstration Geoffrey Lloyd of the Petroleum Warfare Department asked Mountbatten if there was anything else the Department could do? “Well,” replied Mountbatten, “could you lay a pipeline across the Channel?”

The experts immediately agreed that this was impossible, like the Admiral’s similar science-fiction ideas for artificial harbours and unsinkable aircraft carriers made of ice, but like these ideas they tried to find solutions. The project came to be called PLUTO - Pipe Line Under The Ocean.

Solid cable telegraph and later telephone cables had been laid in the sea since the 1850s and oil pipelines existed on land but needed constant manual maintenance.

To imagine how to invent a hollow metal tube, long, strong and flexible enough to survive the sea pressure and battering of the sea floor, and to maintain massive pressure as liquid fuel was pumped through in huge quantities was, as the future Earl said, “a bit difficult”. Every firm in the country with the relevant expertise began to work on the problem with an energetic display of co-operation.

On April 15th Clifford Hartley, the 53 year old Chief Engineer of Anglo-Iranian Oil supplied the simple answer, a single pipe that could be rapidly laid. In a matter of days Siemens had successfully tested 200 yards of Hartley’s design. On May 10th 1,100 yards were laid across the Medway and tested with high pressure pumps. By December 1942 the converted HMS Holdfast laid 30 miles of the cable across the Bristol Channel from Swansea to Ilfracombe.

This test pipe was tested by German bombing and by being pulled up by the slipped anchor of a US ship. As the project was top secret this only came to light when an informer overheard a seaman in a Cardiff pub saying his ship had snarled with the gigantic coils of a serpent which spilled blood (the pipe was then carrying red aviation fuel). The pipeline was a success, supplying the South West with fuel and allowing teams of engineers to be trained. As the months passed they were able to more than double the pressure to 1,500 lbs per square inch.

By 1943 ten British companies and others in the USA were busy producing two new types of cable. One firm had to build a forty-five foot high gantry 1,600 feet long. Each thirty mile stretch of cable required seventy-five lead hand-engineered joints. A monstrous vessel called the HMS Conundrum (left) was built to lay the pipe. It resembled a vast cotton reel, ninety feet wide with a forty foot diameter and weighing 1,600 tons when loaded with 80 miles of three inch steel pipe.

The Decision for Normandy

Up to June 1943, just a year before D Day, the Allied high command could not agree on whether to attack the main German forces in the Pas de Calais, opposite Kent, or the relatively undefended Normandy beaches.

Up to this time most professionals assumed the invasion would be made on the Pas de Calais. Mountbatten described this as “too obvious”. On June 28th he convened a meeting of twenty generals, eleven air marshalls and eight admirals in western Scotland and convinced them that with the “Mulberry” artificial harbours and PLUTO, that Normandy made the most sense.

It was one of the most important decisions of the war. The German fortifications of the Pas de Calais were so formidable that they did not surrender until May 1945, after the fall of Berlin and the surrender of the Third Reich.

Operation BAMBI

The new commander of the PLUTO project from April 1943 was Sir Donald Banks. With the decision made to target Normandy he came to the Isle of Wight, the nearest point in the UK, to scramble with his staff along the rocky southern coastline in search of the best point for PLUTO. They decided on Shanklin. The Island operation received a new code name, BAMBI. This was no elaborate acronym like PLUTO. As Sir Donald Banks later recalled “We found him in grown-up antlers, a full fledged stag’s head, amid the rubble of a bombed villa”.

Island at War

The Island was a good place for a secret project, as no civilian was allowed on or off, it was effectively under total military control. Secrecy was a vital part of the operation. Shanklin itself had been badly hit by German aerial bombing. The seafront had been cleared of all remaining civilians. The army moved into the ruin of the Royal Spa Hotel near the cliff elevator and began to build a massive secret pumping station.

PLUTO had already reached the northern shore of the Island. Oil from the tankers arriving in the Mersey and Bristol Channel disgorged their cargoes into a network of overland pipes that ran across the country and down to Lepe, south of Fawley, from where they crossed the Solent to Thorness Bay.

Recharged by a secret pumping station at Whippance Farm the fuel pipe ran through Parkhurst Forest and across the Island to a massive 620,000 gallon reservoir under Hungerberry Copse, west of Shanklin.

From here the fuel ran by gravity to the pumping stations at Shanklin and, in case of destruction by enemy action, to Sandown. In Sandown the operation was based at the Grand Hotel and the pipeline ran into the Victorian fortress. In the two towns twenty-eight pumps were built in the strictest secrecy. The Sandown archivist Terry Hall takes up the story in the Sandown Chronicle:-

A number of bricklayers who were too old for the armed services and a small number of bricklayer apprentices were drafted from various I.W. building firms. As a young apprentice Eric Brett recalls his involvement as a bricklayer in the construction of buildings associated with ‘PLUTO.’

"I was told to report to the Grand Hotel with a kit of tools and joined all the other recruited tradesmen. We were all ushered into the hotel’s ballroom and welcomed by the Officer in Charge of the Royal Engineers and Pioneer Corps, who were already on site preparing and laying foundations. The officer gave us all a lecture on security with an emphasis on secrecy regarding the assignment that lay ahead of us. Both parents and families were made unaware of our movements and we were given instructions not to use regular tracks whilst walking across the greens. It was suggested that our movements could be monitored by enemy reconnaissance aircraft. It was a long time before we ourselves had any idea what our work was all about.

After our induction we were all taken to various parts of the site and given plans of what transpired to be buildings to house the pumps. There were around about one hundred Pioneer Corps soldiers who acted as labourers and kept us supplied with cement mortar.”

Inside the shell of the Royal Spa Hotel on Shanklin seafront was a huge concrete mixer. Lorries mysteriously drove in and out of the building, doors quickly opening and closing, details of men quickly brushing away the tyre tracks so that they could not be seen by aerial photography. Any industrial plant that had to be moved was shifted under the cover of darkness. The other hotels were stripped of all their timber to strengthen the major works. One could look up from the ground floor of these false buildings to see the roof tiles.

The fuel pipeline itself fell by gravity from the reservoir to descend the empty cliff elevator and then ran along the gutter of the Esplanade to the pier. From the end of the pier the pipeline joined the underwater section that was eventually laid from just outside Cherbourg.

Secrecy was so successfully maintained that the Germans never had an inkling of what was going on. They continued to bomb Shanklin and Sandown, but without targeting the essential pumps.

The Invasion of France

By D-Day, June 6th 1944, BAMBI and PLUTO were ready. In the event the pipeline was delayed by the stubborn German defence of Cherbourg and their elaborate mining of the port which added another month of delay. In the meantime oil went ashore to the Normandy beaches directly from tankers along mini-pipelines.

Each of the conuns weighed in at 250 tons and had a combined capacity to carry up to 60 nautical miles of HAMEL pipes

By the time that two pipelines were working, on the 18th September, delivering some 100,000 gallons of fuel a day, Allied forces had already broken the German army in France. As they advanced the pipeline went with them, either south of Paris and east to the Rhine with the American advance or north east into Belgium with the British and Canadians. Both BAMBI pipes were working below pressure thanks to problems with the shore connection. Banks tried to increase the pressure with dire consequences.

When both BAMBI pipes failed on October 3rd it was decided they were no longer needed and BAMBI closed the next day. US tankers were now delivering fuel direct to Cherbourg and Le Havre and the other PLUTO pumping complex at Dungeness (DUMBO)took over the cross channel traffic. The seventeen pipelines at DUMBO achieved 1,350,000 gallons a day.
Technically the PLUTO project was a failure. The critical fighting in Normandy was over before the PLUTO fuel began to arrive. However it was an outstanding engineering achievement. More significantly it gave the Allied command the confidence to attack the Normandy beaches, fooling the German command in the process, and dramatically shortening the end of the war.

Once the war was over PLUTO was quickly salvaged, from 1946 to 1949, to recycle its valuable scrap metals. In recent years some pieces of the pipe missed by the salvage have been rescued by Martin Woodward for the Bembridge Maritime Museum.

In 1958 a plaque donated by an anonymous resident of Shanklin was set up on Shanklin seafront. During the 1987 Hurricane it disappeared along with Shanklin Pier but recently turned up in a scrap-yard!

There are two pumps left, one at the Imperial War Museum and one kept in storage. In 2002 following the publication of the first edition of Adrian Serle’s book "PLUTO" the latter pumping station was rebuilt at Bembridge Heritage Centre. (For full details of this story see the second edition of "PLUTO", published by Shanklin Chine for £7.99)

PLUTO Pump at Sandown Granite Fort Zoo on the Isle of Wight

A blue plaque to commemorate the project has been unveiled in Sandown. Dignitaries from Normandy and the Island marked the site at Browns Café. At Shanklin itself the Heritage Centre has a unique collection of pipe-line memorabilia. This year on 19th September the 1958 plaque was again unveiled by Countess Mountbatten of Burma, daughter of the late Earl. A number of veterans, including men assigned to the PLUTO project, attended.

More info;
PLUTO manifold at Thorness beach
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