How American Drillers saved the Secret British Oil Industry; or, How Robin Hood won the Second World War

 

The importance of oil to Great Britain during the Second World War can hardly be overstated. It sustained the civilian population and enabled the military effort. On the Home Front, it provided heat, light, food, clean water, working hospitals and a basic level of comfort. For the military, it was the source of toluene for explosives, of synthetic rubber for tyres, of wax for packaging, and of petrol, that magical mainstay of modern warfare.

In May 1940, the magic was enhanced by the arrival in Britain of an improved form of fuel. Known as ‘100 octane’, it was the result of a process known as catalytic cracking, and it gave an instant boost to the power rating of Fighter Command’s Spitfires and Hurricanes. British pilots were surprised by increased speeds and enhanced rates of climb and acceleration. The sudden improvement in performance contributed significantly to their success during the Battle of Britain.

But all of this depended on oil being available in huge quantities – and the supply could not be taken for granted. It arrived by tanker, but German U-Boats, hunting in packs, threatened to stem the supply. Between September 1939 and February 1941, seventy-nine British or British-controlled tankers were sunk with the loss of over 630,000 tons of oil. And not only were the U-Boats picking off tankers, but the Luftwaffe was destroying hundreds of thousands of barrels in dock areas. In April 1941, for example, stocks were affected during attacks on Avonmouth, Purfleet, Plymouth, Thamesfleet, Thameshaven, Jarrow and Belfast.

In the summer of 1942, the Secretary for Petroleum, Geoffrey Lloyd, called an emergency meeting of the Oil Control Board. Discussion focused on an impending crisis – until Philip Southwell, a senior Anglo-Iranian Oil engineer, stood up to speak. His words caused a sensation. The most pressing matter regarding Britain’s oil requirements, he said, was the development of Britain’s own oilfields. His listeners were amazed. What oilfields? The board members was entirely unaware of an astonishing undertaking in Sherwood Forest. Almost three decades before the discovery of oil in the North Sea, an effort was underway to pump oil from the ground in Robin Hood’s backyard. At no other period would such an ambitious venture have been attempted – but these were radical times.

The impetus for Britain’s inshore oil industry had come from Lord Cadman, the government’s petroleum advisor. As far back as 1908, while overseeing drilling tuition at Birmingham University, Cadman had been convinced that oil would come to dominate world politics. In the build-up to the Second World War, he led a nationwide search for deposits – and when significant oil reserves were discovered near Eakring in Sherwood Forest in June 1939, Cadman pressed home the need to start drilling immediately. D’Arcy Exploration, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, quickly set to work – and a cadre of specialist drillers was called in.

One of these men was Sandy Ross, an Anglo-Iranian driller, who was at home on leave from Iran when his telephone rang. Told by an inscrutable voice to report to Newark railway station, he would be working at Eakring for the next five years. Men were needed in large numbers, and many of the first recruits were Nottinghamshire coal-miners deemed unfit for work underground. The Labour Exchange was called upon to provide others, so that unskilled workers found themselves training to become everything from labourers to well pullers to members of the drilling crew. Jack Clarke had been a miner at Ollerton Colliery, before starting work at Eakring. He remembers the small country roads clogged with double decker buses ferrying newly-created oil workers to and from the wells. ‘The lanes were so busy,’ he says, ‘that local people used to avoid travelling along them.’

At first, wells up to 2500 feet were drilled, which were soon producing an average of 700 barrels of oil per day. A national oil industry was being built up from scratch – an extraordinary undertaking at a time when the country was unsure of its own survival, and weakened by nightly aerial bombardment. The oilfield, with its derricks and pumps, seemed unlikely to be targeted by enemy aircraft, hidden away in the heart of England among the oak, birch and hawthorn trees. But any residual risk paled alongside the fact that Eakring crude was of an astonishingly high quality, purer than anything being produced in Europe or the Middle East. This made it ideal for the high octane fuel required by Spitfires and Hurricanes.

By 1942, the nation’s oil supplies had begun to run short. Stocks stood at two million barrels below normal safety reserves – even as military requirements were increasing. It was clear that ‘indigenous’ production would have to increase: the Petroleum Department urged a fourfold increase. This was why, in August, Philip Southwell went before the emergency meeting of the Oil Control Board to confess the truth about Britain’s secret industry.

The specific problems laid out by Southwell were the lack of skilled labour, and the difficulty in obtaining materials and equipment. The rigs in use had been designed for deep-drilling operations in Iran, and were not appropriate for the shallower Nottinghamshire reserves. They were also large and complicated to erect and move, resulting in wasted time and effort. Denis Sheffield, working at Eakring in 1941, recalls the struggle. ‘This heavy equipment would be pulled by hand and jacked by a gang onto a lorry,’ he says, ‘and they would literally manhandle it up at the next site.’ Smaller and more mobile American rigs were badly needed. Given the equipment, and the men to operate it, it was hoped that a hundred new wells could become operational within a year.

With this goal in mind, Philip Southwell flew to Washington DC – no easy endeavour mid-war. Once there, he set out Britain’s material requirements. He wanted to buy the latest rotary drilling rigs, drill pipe, and rotary rock bits – but United States law presented a problem. Drilling equipment could not legally to be sold to a foreigner – so a loophole was exploited. The equipment was sold to Lloyd Noble, an American appointed to carry out operations in the United Kingdom. Noble, founder of the Noble Drilling Corporation, also agreed to recruit drillers – and to forego any profit from the operation.

The result was that forty-two experienced oil workers, mostly from Oklahoma and Texas, were engaged to come to Britain on year-long contracts. They would be billeted together to make them easier to control. The billet chosen was an Anglican monastery in the Nottinghamshire village of Kelham. Designed by Sir Gilbert Scott in his familiar Gothic Revival style, it was imposing and well-appointed. But it was already populated by members of a religious order. How would the placid monks react to the arrival of drillers plucked from another world? Eugene Rosser, the Noble Drilling Corporation representative who would be looking after the men in England, was keen to reassure the anxious novices. ‘I’m figuring,’ he said, ‘that not many of them is going to feel like a lot of hell-raising and whoring around in their spare time.’

One of the would-be hell-raisers was Lewis Dugger from Louisiana. Interviewed many years later, Dugger was honest about his motivation for accepting the position: at $29 a day, he stood to receive almost twenty times the pay of an army private. ‘I said yes straightaway,’ he says.

The ‘roughnecks’ (as oil workers were known) met up in New York before sailing for Britain. One man was fired – for getting drunk and running wild – before crossing the Atlantic. And when Lewis’s group finally disembarked, they spent the day drinking before being taken to a hotel:

‘We were mischievous. The people at this hotel put their shoes out at night to be shined. We thought we’d mess this up real good. We didn’t steal the shoes, but we mixed them all up. It was a prank. We got a kick out of it.’

The monks of Kelham Hall were in for a surprise. The roughnecks arrived at the monastery on 18 March 1943, carrying banjos as well as bags. The next day, they were taken to Newark, where they innocently mistook the ruins of Newark Castle for war damage. In the town, they spoke cheerfully to impressionable locals, bought bicycles, and stood out in the crowd. Their Stetson hats, colourful shirts, and cowboy boots presented an unreal sight against a monochrome English backdrop. So incongruous did they seem, that a rumour spread that they were in Britain to make a film.

Small culture shocks were soon felt. One of the oil workers tried to place a telephone call to his family in the small town of Stroud, Oklahoma. After a confused discussion, the operator tried to place the call through to Stroud, Gloucestershire. The roughneck had never heard of that Stroud, the operator had never heard of the other, and a sad little argument ensued. ‘Hell, no, honey!’ the driller was heard to shout, ‘I want Stroud America! Not Stroud England, Stroud South Africa or Stroud Australia!’ Meanwhile, in The Fox pub, the men, accustomed to Budweiser and Schlitz, were unimpressed by the local beer. Once they had drank the pub’s whisky, they took to adding salt to pints of bitter and mild in a desperate attempt to improve the taste.

The roughnecks’ accommodation was in one wing of the monastery, two men to a room. Each roommate worked a different shifts, twelve hours on, twelve hours off, so they barely saw each other. Lewis Dugger’s room was spacious and warmed by a fireplace, and nearby was a recreation room with a snooker table. There were also good washing facilities – unusual for the time but important for men who spent their days in filthy conditions. There were six cooks and stewards (all soldiers recently released from hospital) who prepared and served some very unpopular meals. ‘It was either brussel sprouts, or mutton, or potatoes fried in mutton grease,’ remembers Dugger.

Once the men were settled, Eugene Rosser set them a target. ‘Guys we want to get after it! We want to drill a hundred wells in a year!’ And the roughnecks were soon showing their worth. After the first twelve hour shift on an existing Anglo-Iranian rig, they reported 1010 feet. The works manager refused to believe that this was possible. But there was no mistake; the American drillers worked much quicker than their British counterparts. And when the new American rigs began to arrive, their speed increased further. By the beginning of June 1943, they had completed 42 wells, at an average of one a week; the British crews had been taking up to eight weeks to complete a single well.

Astounded by this pace, the Anglo-Iranian Company asked Eugene Rosser how it was done. In front of Sir William Fraser, Anglo-Iranian’s chairman, Rosser explained what the English drillers were doing wrong. They were wasting time changing rock bits when the existing bit was still doing a good job. They were waiting too long for cement to set on their wells. And they were drilling with chemically-prepared mud when they could be drilling with water. Above all, though, they were too rigid in their application of the rules. They were failing to react to circumstances as they arose.

Speaking years later, Lewis Dugger is equally damning of the English drillers and their methods. He recalls being surprised to learn that a complicated operation carried out mechanically by the Americans – laying down a drill collar – was carried out manually by the English crews. When he asked a British driller how they went about it, he was told, ‘We get about fifteen men round and we push the bugger!’ Dugger was not impressed – and his description of most British drillers as ‘military rejects’ gives a sense of his feelings.

Dugger was equally unimpressed by British social conventions. ‘I had one Englishman working for me, he says, ‘and he told me he had to shine the boots of the driller.’ But Dugger was positively amazed when he met an Englishman in his twenties with a full set of dentures. American contempt for badly maintained British teeth stretches back a lifetime.

Though he is critical of much of the Eakring set-up (which was, it should be remembered, entirely new and operating under wartime conditions) Dugger was clearly enthusiastic about the job itself, saying, ‘I felt like I had an obligation, and I wanted to do it to the best of my ability.’ And he is happy to praise the younger British workers whom he trained. ‘The English roughnecks weren’t skilled when they started to work,’ he says, ‘but we taught them what to do and they’re quick learners.’

One of the British oil workers who learned quickly was Ivan Mitchell, a local boy recruited through the labour exchange. Attracted by the money – ‘£3 more than I was getting’ – he cycled through the forest to attend an interview at the oilfield. His first job, at the age of seventeen, was tidying up the yard, but he was soon assigned to a drilling crew. His attitude toward the Americans is revealing:

They were crackers, the way they fly about. Crackers. When they first came, the way that they performed, people were scared of them.

The British, according to Mitchell, learned from the Americans, and began to improve. ‘We went the same way eventually,’ he says. In Ivan’s case, this included dressing like them, in their cast-off clothes.

Despite their initial rate of progress, and the impression they made on the locals, the Americans began to experience problems. Mistakes crept in, levels of drinking increased, and the mood turned darker. The problem, it became clear, was lack of food. The roughnecks were used to a robust diet of red meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. They were not prepared for an English diet, and certainly not a wartime diet where many foods were rationed, and others were unavailable. Working twelve hour days, seven days a week, the men lost weight alarmingly. ‘It was food for an office worker,’ says Dugger.

One of the roughnecks tried to help the situation by growing his own vegetables in an allotment behind the monastery. Offered the use of a local family’s greenhouse, he began cultivating tomatoes, peppers and celery – but he overstepped the mark when he borrowed a shotgun and bagged a brace of pheasants. Somebody arrived at the monastery to warn him that local farmers had heard the gunshots. He returned the gun promptly, and decided to focus on beekeeping.

The black market was another way of boosting rations. Talking to a farmer, one day, Dugger agreed to trade five gallons of petrol for a dozen eggs. At 2015 prices, this works out at about £2 per egg, but as Dugger points out, ‘money don’t mean nothing when you can’t get stuff.’

Food matters finally came to a head when a steward announced that breakfast would consist of warmed up brussel sprouts from the previous night’s dinner. Fed up and hungry, the roughnecks announced that that they would work one more full month – but that if the food had not improved by then, they would be returning to America.

Deeply concerned, and aware of the army’s abundant food supply, Eugene Rosser travelled to London to speak to the Petroleum Attaché at the United States Embassy. He was sent first to see Major General John C H Lee, chief of supply of services, who, in turn, wrote to his chief quartermaster, Brigadier General Robert Littlejohn, ordering him to issue military rations to the oilfield workers. After a few days, however, nothing had happened so Rosser went in person to Littlejohn’s headquarters – where it became clear that the brigadier general was not prepared to see him. Littlejohn was a plain-speaking man with a huge logistical task on his hands – and no interest whatsoever in civilian oil workers.

Unwilling to return meekly to Kelham Hall to report an army snafu, Rosser plucked up the courage to barge into Littlejohn’s office. The astonished quratermaster began shouting – until a remarkably timely telephone call from Major General Lee silenced him. The chief of supply confirmed his order – leaving the seething Littlejohn with little choice but to comply.

The roughnecks were soon receiving increased rations – including an extra meal at midnight as the day and night shifts crossed over. ‘We could eat great,’ says Lewis, ‘sugar, pork luncheon meat, sliced pineapple, sliced peaches…’ The mood improved immediately – as did the standard of work.

But even with extra rations, oil drilling was a dangerous business. One man’s arm was broken by a spinning rope, another caught his hand in a motor clutch. And in November, Herman Douthit, a 29-year-old Texan, fell from a platform 55 feet above the ground. His boots, it seems, were covered in clay and his gloves were wet. As he climbed down a ladder, he fell, suffering head injuries. An ambulance arrived quickly, but Douthit was pronounced dead on arrival at the United States Military Hospital at Sutton-in-Ashfield. The funeral was held in the small church attached to Kelham Hall. Douthit’s coffin was draped in an American flag which was sent to his widow in Texas, along with the proceeds of a collection taken by locals. Today, Douthit is the only civilian buried in the United States Military Cemetery near Cambridge.

By the end of the Americans’ year in Sherwood Forest, they had drilled 106 wells, from which ‘nodding donkeys’ pumped nearly a million barrels of fine crude oil. In the days that followed, the roughnecks were offered the chance to carry on working at Eakring (albeit at a lower wage) but they all chose to return to America. In fact, four men had already gone back: one had been injured, another was homesick, and two had been fired – the first for drunken fighting and the second for helping a local farmer when he was supposed to be sick in bed. When the time came for the rest to leave they went quietly. ‘We disappeared without any fanfare,’ says Dugger. But before they shipped out, they were taken to London where they were shown around the city by Philip Southwell. It was, believes Dugger, a mark of appreciation for what they had achieved.

They sailed home on Mauretania, having reached Southwell’s goal of a hundred wells. They had helped to ease the national petroleum shortage, and they had passed on their knowledge to local men, many of whom would have long careers as oil drillers around the world. At its peak, the Sherwood Forest oilfield employed 1200 people, and by the end of the war, it had stretched across nine miles of countryside, and produced over 300,000 tons of high grade oil, equivalent to two and a quarter million barrels from 170 nodding donkeys. It had become a genuine commercial proposition, with a life that was to extend into the mid-1960s.

Shortly after the war, Father Gregory, the prior of the monastery, wrote about his American tenants in NAFT, the journal of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. He admitted that initially, the monks had been alarmed by the prospect of the roughnecks’ arrival, but that Eugene Rosser’s assurances had been well founded. He also revealed himself to be a motion picture fan, who could not have been happier had Gary Cooper come to stay. ‘It really is most interesting and at times almost uncanny,’ he wrote, ‘to see how like the films they are.’

A visit to the area reveals that they have never quite gone away. Their names are still carved into the bark of old beech trees. Their image is visible in a bronze statue in Duke’s Wood nature reserve. And perhaps, one day, they will sit beside the Merry Men as figures of Sherwood Forest legend – outlaws and roughnecks together. On a national scale, however, their achievement reflects the ambition of a country reinventing itself. Beliefs and assumptions were changing. Oil was no longer something that simply came from abroad. Just as the people of Britain were making do and mending – so was the island itself.

 

  • POSTSCRIPT 

It wasn’t just oil workers gaining knowledge at Eakring. The director of the British Geological Survey, Sir Edward Bailey, wrote to the chairman of Anglo-Iranian Oil, pointing out that Eakring’s activities were offering unimagined scientific opportunity. Well 146, he wrote, ‘has recently passed through a very thick breccia-conglomerate series’, and he asked for the chance to drill a further 200 feet in search of fossils. ‘Such an opportunity cannot be expected to repeat itself in the next fifty years.’ The chairman agreed to Bailey’s request, and the drilling was done. The war took many forms in many places, but surely nowhere else was it used to achieve greater understanding of prehistoric carboniferous rock formations.

 

 

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