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The Yanks Are Coming

As Britain fought for its survival during World War II, a team of American oil drillers found themselves on their way across the Atlantic to help the war effort. They became known as the 'roughnecks of Sherwood Forest'.
This article appeared in Vol. 13, No. 5 - 2016

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During the dark days of WWII, when Britain stood alone against the Nazi regime, there was a dire need to increase oil production from indigenous hydrocarbon resources. By 1942, the strategic importance of discovering more oil in the UK was becoming critical. In fact, by August 1942, Britain’s oil stocks had fallen below safety reserves and the requirement to discover and produce additional oil was of paramount importance to the survival of the United Kingdom and its ability to continue the war. 

In July 1941, Geoffrey Lloyd, Britain’s Secretary of Petroleum, wrote to the oil companies in the UK highlighting the need to discover and produce more oil, saying, “In the present emergency, every tonne of oil produced in this country is a direct contribution to the national war effort.” He also commented: “It is felt that an output of at least 100,000 tonnes per year of British petroleum is a target at which our most vigorous endeavour should be aimed.” 

According to the official history of the US Petroleum Administration for War (PAW), during the first seven months of 1941 a total of 681 vessels, including a large proportion of US and British oil tankers, had been sunk, and by the autumn of 1942, German U-boats were sinking 700,000 tonnes of shipping per month. In 1943, 65% of the total tonnage of overseas shipping consisted of petroleum products; it was becoming increasingly important that some supply was found that the U-boats could not sink. 

  • The 42 American drillers and roughnecks, that traveled to the UK under great secrecy, to drill the wells in the East Midlands. (Guy Woodward Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming). (Source: American Oil & Gas Historical Society)

A Secret Oil Field 

Map showing the location of the East Midlands region within the UK. In August 1942, Geoffrey Lloyd called an emergency meeting in London of the Oil Control Board with members of the oil industry’s advisory committee. The subject was the impending oil supply crisis. The Admiralty had reported fuel stocks were two million barrels below safety reserves and were sufficient to meet only two months requirement. Reserves of approximately five million barrels were normally held in some 40 widely scattered storage facilities. Bombing raids in dockland areas had destroyed almost a million barrels. 

Philip Southwell was at the Oil Control Board meeting. He was a representative of the D’Arcy Oil Company, and he had a secret – and that secret lay underneath Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire in central England: potential oil fields, located inland, in a heavily wooded area safe from inquisitive eyes and which could be easily camouflaged from the attentions of the Luftwaffe. The challenge was to drill and produce from the oil reserves at these fields at Dukes Wood and Eakring as rapidly as possible. 

But how was this to be achieved? Manpower and equipment were in short supply during the early war years. Vital supplies of fuel needed for the war effort had to be shipped through the dangerous U-boat infested waters surrounding the British Isles. What was clearly needed was new equipment and the necessary expertise to use this equipment efficiently. 

The main problem with existing equipment was its age, weight and difficulty in being manoeuvred between locations. The need for lighter, easily transported drilling units, with experienced crews, was paramount if the number of wells to be drilled to meet target production levels was to be achieved. Southwell suggested going to America for equipment. This was agreed, particularly as he thought that an additional 100 wells could quadruple production (Roberts, 2009).

Experienced Drillers and Roughnecks 

Under strictest secrecy, Southwell flew to the US In September 1942 to meet with Don Knowlton, the Deputy Administrator responsible for the US PAW. Lease-lend was considered but would take too long to set up and it was finally agreed that a drilling contractor, based in the US, could be employed by D’Arcy Exploration to operate in the UK and that the contractor could purchase the necessary equipment to bring to the UK. Contact was made with the Noble Drilling Corporation and the Fain-Porter Drilling Company, both of Oklahoma. These companies agreed to the contractual arrangements with D’Arcy and also agreed to the purchase and supply of drilling units and equipment. Both companies agreed to not receive any profit after reimbursement of expenses. 

Kelham Hall, where the American oilmen were stationed, is a stately home built in the mid-1800s, which later became a monastery. (Source: Dave Bevis/Wikipedia) In February 1943, 42 experienced drillers and roughnecks and their equipment and two toolpushers, Eugene Rosser and Don Walker, arrived in the UK from the US in two groups on the RMS Stirling Castle and HMS Queen Elizabeth. They had been told that they would be working under austere wartime conditions and subject to strict censorship and absolute secrecy. They were accommodated at Kelham Hall, a former monastery which was secret, secure and in the vicinity of Dukes Wood. 

In March their four American jack-knife rigs and other drilling equipment started to arrive, the rigs having been shipped in separate vessels. Only three rigs made it – the ship carrying the fourth was attacked and sunk by a German submarine. Later, a replacement was sent over and arrived safely (Woodward and Woodward, 1973). 

One of the wellheads which has been preserved at Dukes Wood. (Source: Trevor Rickard) The more modern American methods led to great improvements in drilling efficiency and resultant costs. The American drilling equipment employed consisted of a ‘state of the art’ drilling unit and jack-knife 87 ft (26m) mast, the whole being designed for maximum mobility, often employing skids to avoid dismantling, and for a drilling depth of 5,000 ft (1,524m). With the old-type heavy exploration equipment, the time to transfer drilling equipment from site to site had been about two weeks, but by using this special mast, in combination with utilised draw-works, this was reduced in good weather to about 12 hours. At Eakring a record move of six and a half hours was made and on one occasion an outfit was transferred to a new site and drilled 650 ft (200m) in a mere 24 hours. 

During their 365 drilling days in Sherwood Forest, the American volunteers managed to drill 106 wells in the Eakring and Dukes Wood fields, of which 94 were new producers (Johns, 1999). 

With their contract up, the crews sailed from Glasgow on HMS Mauretania II on 3 March 1944. D’Arcy continued to produce oil from Eakring and Dukes Wood to a total of 300,000 tonnes of oil (2.25 MMbo) by the end of the war, via 170 ‘nodding donkeys’ spaced every 10,000 m2

  • The deepest well to be drilled at Dukes Wood was No. 146 to a depth of 2,328m (7,473 feet). Pictured are members of the drilling team involved in this achievement. (Source: Dukes Wood Oil Museum via BP)

Small but High Quality 

Eakring must have been one of the best kept wartime secrets, for it was not until April 1944 that the veil was officially lifted by the government, having been prompted to act by an ‘exclusive’ report on the oil discovery in a national newspaper. Geoffrey Lloyd and the then BP Chairman Sir William Fraser, later to become Lord Strathalmond, hosted a visit by Fleet Street journalists to the operations centre at Eakring.

(Source: Dukes Wood Oil Museum) Mr Lloyd commented: “This oilfield, like Britain, is small but of the highest quality; it yields a whole range of refinery petroleum products. This oilfield came into operation just when we needed every barrel of oil to carry this country through the crisis of the war. These were supplies that the U-boats could never sink.” 

These fields established a new oil province in the East Midlands Plateau Basin and the Gainsborough Trough. 

Oil from Eakring and Dukes Wood was indeed of very high quality and superior to Middle Eastern oil. After it was refined it was found to be particularly suited to the Rolls Royce Merlin Engine, the engine extensively used by most of the Royal Air Force’s high performance fighters and bombers. 

Thus it was that Dukes Wood and Eakring, along with a contingent of US drillers, made a significant contribution to Britain’s war effort.

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