Operation PLUTO

Ratcatcher, Going Postal

Whilst discussing the future liberation of Europe in 1942, Lord Louis Moutbatten discussed how fuel could be supplied to an invading army with the Minister in charge of the Petroleum Warfare Department, Geoffrey Lloyd. Previously, fuel had been transported in disposable 4 gallon tins. These had been superseded by coping the German ‘Jerrycans’ which although reusable, would have meant a considerable burden on men to load and unload from ships as well as the ships themselves presenting a very large and dangerous target during and after what became D Day.
Lloyd was in no doubt, a pipeline could be built that could operate night and day and provide enough fuel for the forces to take harbours where ships could be brought in more safely once the Axis had been forced back in to the mainland.

The pipeline was to be based on current technology of undersea electrical cables. The foremost manufacture of underwater cables at that time was Callender who were based in Erith, Kent. They had the expertise to adapt their current designs as well as manufacture the lengths necessary. Late 1942 saw the adoption of the name PLUTO to the project though there has been some conjecture as to why. Some consider it to be Pipe Line Under The Ocean, others point to this being the name of the ruler of the underworld whilst some say it stood for Pipe Line Underwater Transport of Oil – regardless, it would forever be known as PLUTO.

Given Erith’s location, enemy action never interrupted the production of the pipeline with the only real delays being self inflicted – that of the activities of the then famous and extremely talented Callendar brass band which was made up of Erith employees!

The pipeline was essentially a 2 inch lead pipe which, owing to its malleability, meant it was flexible but not strong. This led to the need to make the pipe armoured. This was done by wrapping the pipe in four layers of steel strip with an outer wrapping of galvanised wire with many wraps of paper and tarred jute yard in between. The manufacturing process meant that initially, the 2 inch lead pipe was extruded and this then fed in to an armouring machine that wrapped the required materials and coiled the finished cable.

The maximum length of a single piece of cable was 700 yards and it was estimated that around 30 miles in total would be required to link Britain to mainland France. This meant that a good number of joints in the pipeline would be required. Jointing lead pipe in those days was referred to as ‘leadburning’ and was a role requiring not inconsiderable skill. A specialist company consisting of brothers Frank and Albert Stone were expert leadburners and the two were summoned to appear at the Siemens cabling works in Woolwich, South East London for a discussion of the project. After much hard work and testing, a suitable alloy was found that enabled the required flexibility whilst maintaining rigidity and of course, was leak proof. The Stone brothers worked 20 hour shifts day in, day out to complete enough pipe for a thorough testing. It worked.

Following changes to account for an increasing fuel requirement, an order was placed in August 1943 for a 3 inch pipeline, 300 miles in length – this extra length was necessary as the landing site for D Day had to be moved from the Pas de Calais to Normandy following fortifications to the defences at Calais. Production difficulties meant that during the next 5 months, only 30 miles of pipe had been completed. This perhaps shouldn’t have been unexpected given that the new cable was a different beast altogether with the increased bore creating many problems that didn’t exist with the previous, smaller pipe. After putting in 24 hour shifts and 7 day working, almost 250 miles of cable had been completed by August 1944. Not all production delays were due to manufacturing by the way, the sheer scale of the project can be seen below. Considering that this was wartime and almost all of the material had to be either manufactured alongside other war materials or imported via hazardous sea routes, it is almost a miracle that it happened at all:

  • 6,843 tons of lead
  • 2,500 tones of steel tape
  • 4,250 tons of galvanised, steel wire
  • 275,000 yards of cotton cloth
  • 540 tons of jute
  • 1,100 tons of petroleum compound

The plan was to lay PLUTO 18 days after D Day from Shanklin on the Isle of Wight to a yet to be determined location off Cherbourg. Feeder pipelines were run across the Solent using pipe manufactured in the US and allowed a 500,000 gallon reservoir to be built on Shanklin. The Isle of Wight was fairly run down at the time owing to the war and so it wasn’t difficult to disguise pumping stations and reservoirs as bungalows and in one instance, an ice cream factory.

Laying of the main sections of pipe were carried out by two 7,000 ton cable laying ships however Thames barges were pressed in to use when cabling terminating ends given their shallow draught. Jointing of the pipeline was carried out on board ships, a remarkable feat given the difficulties of jointing lead pipe under difficult circumstances.

By D Day, PLUTO was ready. Pipelines had been constructed across Britain to allow fuel carrying ships to dock in relative safety in Stanlow and Avonmouth. by this time however the Cherbourg peninsula had been mined and booby trapped so PLUTO couldn’t be completed until the 12th August when the first, section was laid between Querqueville just off Cherbourg to Sandown. After some minor mishaps with ships’ anchors and the pipeline, petrol started to flow to the continent on the 22nd September – a full 10 weeks after D Day. The pipe between Sandown and Cherbourg finished pumping on the 4th October owing to the rapid advances of Allied forces. This allowed the now installed pipe between Dungeness and Boulogne to be brought online.

Ratcatcher, Going Postal

The pipeline between Sandown and Cherbourg was designated Bambi and that between Dungeness and the Pas de Calais, Dumbo.

If war were a profit and loss exercise, it would be easy to look at PLUTO and consider it a waste of time and materials but one shouldn’t rush to this conclusion.
PLUTO carried 172 million gallons of fuel, often at 1 million gallons per day with not a single failure in operation. The amount of shipping and manpower required to move that amount of highly flammable material should not be underestimated and the fact that PLUTO was still in operation pumping fuel up to the Rhine until July 1945 is a testament to its usefulness.

Ratcatcher, Going Postal

Perhaps, and not for the first time, the final words should go to Sir Winston Spencer Churchill:

“Operation PLUTO was a remarkable feat of British engineering, distinguished in its originality, pursued with tenacity and crowned by complete success. This creative energy helped to win the war.”


© Rat Catcher 2017