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Pipe Line Under The Ocean (P.L.U.T.O.)

A notorious navel cliché uttered by the late Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey to a group of attentive officers effectively summed up PLUTO, the end-of-war engineering triumph of 1945. “Gentlemen”, he said solemnly, “There is one force in the whole of this invasion business which has never given me a pain in the neck – FORCE PLUTO!”

Picture of PLUTO being laid

The initials of course stood for “Pipelines, Under the Ocean”, that stupendous boost to the fuel supply for the voracious vehicles which were playing such a vital role in ensuring the success of the Second Front. No less than 172 million gallons were pumped across the channel before the war ended, at the rate of 1,000,000 gallons a day, a large proportion from the two pumping stations on the Isle of Wight, one at Sandown, the other at Shanklin.

The Portsmouth Evening News on 24th May 1945, it was that reported that the pipe-line from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg, which had been linked to the 1000 mile inland pipe-line across Britain, had been highly successful. “Since August 12th, 1944 130 million gallons have been pumped across” the paper stated.

Pluto started with a bright idea of Lord Louis Mountbatten, at that time he was directing Allied landing in Normandy. At the end of a demonstration of flame-throwers being carried out by Geoffrey Lloyd, who was at the time Minister-in-Charge of the Secret Petroleum Warfare Department [set up in 1940]; Mr. Lloyd turned to Lord Louis and asked him if the Department could possibly do more. “Yes”, was the reply. “Put a pipeline across the Channel?”

And so, as on that other great occasions when a famous man had a flash of genius which change the destiny of lesser men – Winston Churchill’s hunch that a combination of armored car and caterpillar tractor – in short, a tank – should be tested and put into action on the Somme in 1916, the embryo of what became Pluto came into being.

The actual birth was the responsibility of a magnificent midwife of mechanics, Mr. A. C. Hartley, C.B.E., B.Sc., who was told of the proposal when he visited the Petroleum Department on 15th April 1942. He suggested that the obvious solution was to lay a pipe in one complete length without stopping, and at a speed high enough to combat the powerful currents of the tides. He remembered a similar problem in the Hills of Iran where a 3 inch pipe had been chosen to deliver more than 100,000 gallons – 25,000 Jerricans - a day through 40 miles of terrain.

Picture of Pipe laying ship

In co-operation with Sir William Fraser, chairman of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company and managing director of Siemens Brothers Limited, a trial length of armored cable was prepared for a test run, samples being shown to Mr. Lloyd and Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister. It was realized that secrecy was essential and so the code name “Hais” was chosen for the operation and the word “cable” used to describe the line instead of “pipe”. The first two hundred yards were ready in a week, the line being only 2 in., in diameter, the design pressure 500 lbs. per square inch. A Post Office cable ship was used in the test, which was highly successful. Mr. Lloyd reported back to the service chiefs and to Winston Churchill, and the order to proceed with the project was received immediately.

After laying trials in the Medway at Chatham and in deep water off the Clyde, the more severe conditions in the Bristol Channel were braved, and the final design approved for laying to Boulogne and Cherbourg. The “cable” had now grown to 3 in., in diameter as this could be manufactured almost as easily as 2 in., and would handle about 2 ¾ times the quantity of petrol. It was however found necessary for Mr. Hartley to visit the United States to ask them to assist in the pipe’s manufacture, which they were delighted to do. Hampshire hands employed in the work were those at Pirelli’s of Southampton, and welders at Portsmouth Dockyard.

In June and July 1944, it was decided that the English pipeline system would be extended to Dungeness and the Isle of Wight, and that pumping stations of 3500 and 3000 tons a day each should be built at these points. At Shanklin there were 10 pumps comprising of eight reciprocating and two centrifugal, and at Sandown, 16 reciprocating and two centrifugal. Bomb damaged houses in Shanklin and Sandown were chosen to house the pumping plant in order to fox the enemy. The tumbledown appearance was maintained during installation work and constantly checked by aircraft for signs of life which might have betrayed the operation to air-borne marauders. Each vehicle bringing equipment to the site was camouflaged with the greatest care and cunning, and movements were planned in darkness, headlights emitting only the barest chink of light to probe the way to the derelict buildings.

Map of the PLUTO pipline network
PLUTO Pipeline Map

A total of 20 pipelines were laid, four from Shanklin to a point near Cherbourg and 16 from Dungeness to Boulogne. From his main base in Southampton, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey commanded “Force Pluto”, comprising of a varied collection of ships and merchant seamen. The cable laying plant was installed in the ships by Messrs. Johnson and Phillips of Charlton in South London. After the invasion the pipe lines were laid by HMS. Holdfast, [later renamed Empire Ridley] from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg at a rate of nine miles per hour without mishap, the pipe line had a breaking strain of 65 tons. The pipeline was laid to a point above the waterline, where the Royal Army Service Corps and the Royal Engineers took over and extended the lines to Antwerp, Eindhoven, Emmerich am Rhein, Frankfurt and other places. This released oil tankers from task of supporting the armies in Europe for service in the Pacific.

On the 13th September 1946, the Portsmouth Evening News, reported that salvage operations had started, and that white-haired Mr. A. C. Hartley had photographed the first few feet of his pipeline as it rose from the depths like a reluctant sea-serpent. The pipe was said to be adversely affecting the G.P.O’s submarine cables and interfering with anchorages.

Source: Contributed by a Wootton Bridge resident.

This page was last edited on: 26th January, 2022 17:50:44

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