Operation PLUTO: the Island’s key wartime role

The Island’s role in one of the Second World War’s most extraordinary secret projects has been underlined after the recent award of Grade II listed status to a Browns Golf Course pavilion which played a crucial role in the enterprise and is now a building of special historical interest.

Described by Europe’s Supreme Allied Commander, Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, as one of the most daring war missions, Operation PLUTO (Pipe-Line-Under-The Ocean) was hatched in 1944 to fuel the Allied advance from Normandy when the tanker transportation of oil across the English Channel was too risky.


Laid above the seabed of the Channel, PLUTO eventually formed part of a continuous fuel supply pipe-line network stretching from the tanker ports on the River Mersey and Bristol Channel into France and, later, as the Allied armies advanced east, all the way to Germany.


The Isle of Wight was a key part of the original cross-Channel route to northern France. Having reached the Hampshire coast, at Lepe, petrol was pumped across The Solent through the SOLO system of pipes to a terminal near Whippance Farm at Thorness. Camouflage, deception and deliberate misinformation ensured Islanders were kept in the dark as the feeder pipe-line snaked across the Island to reach a reservoir tank, named TOTO, in Hungerberry Copse, Shanklin. The fuel was then fed down Shanklin Chine to the PLUTO terminal, which extended the full length of Sandown Bay.


An endearing feature of the operation was the many Disney-esque acronyms and code words used. The Island terminal was given the code name BAMBI. From there the pipe-line was strung out from Shanklin Pier and laid on nearly 70 miles of seabed to its corresponding terminal in France, close to Cherbourg. That Disney theme, which had begun with PLUTO and BAMBI, was dropped for the French terminal on the Cotentin peninsular, which acquired the name WATSON.


Camouflaging the pipes, pumps and power-generating sources from the airborne enemy was especially important in the BAMBI terminal area. This involved hiding pumps in Browns’ ice cream factory and the Granite Fort (now the zoo) and concealing equipment on Shanklin Esplanade within the ruins of hotels targeted during Luftwaffe bombing raids. RAF fly-overs confirmed none of PLUTO’s land-based paraphernalia could be seen from the air but how the Germans failed to spot the laying of PLUTO pipes over such an exposed area of sea remains a mystery to this day. There were two types of pipe, devised simultaneously so, if one system failed, the other provided a ready-made option. Both involved a highly visible type of lay.


The HAIS cable was developed from a hollowed three-inch telegraph cable, heavily armoured with layers of protective covering to withstand the pressures of intensive pumping and the sea bearing down on it. Components were ingeniously jointed together to form a continuous length of pipe which had to be positioned at sea by a slow-moving, cable-laying vessel.


It was the second option, the HAMEL flexible steel pipe, which provided the most defining image of Operation PLUTO. With its sections continuously welded to stretch the full distance of the cross-Channel lay, the HAMEL pipe was wound around massive steel drums resembling gigantic cotton reels, named Conundrums, they were slowly towed by tugs as the pipe was progressively unwound onto the seabed.


Implementation of the BAMBI operation fell way behind schedule. The first pipe-line lay was
due to take place on D-Day+18 (June 24, 1944) and the whole enterprise was supposed to supply fuel to the Allied armies by D-Day+75 (August 20). To achieve this, the port of Cherbourg had first to be captured from the Germans and made safe by US forces.


However, the troops defending the town put up stiff resistance before succumbing to the Americans at the end of June and the final battles left the port in a shambles, meaning it could not be safely used by Operation PLUTO.


Despite successful trials on the River Clyde and elsewhere, problems also dogged the initial attempts at pipe-line implementation, mainly because of line breakages and repeated difficulties with shore-end connections. It was not until August 12 the cable-laying ship, HMS Latimer, was able to secure the first of the HAIS lines and it was September 22 before BAMBI became operational, when petrol began pumping at a daily rate of 56,000 gallons. This was followed by the first successful lay of the HAMEL steel pipe a week later. Two further lays were achieved, one HAIS, the other HAMEL, though it is probable only one of each type was successfully used for the transportation of fuel.


Defective pipes were not repaired. There was little point. In France, the Allied forces were advancing rapidly, allowing conventional tanker use at both Cherbourg and Le Havre, quickly reducing the need for the PLUTO fuel supply from Sandown Bay. After just 12 days of operational use, BAMBI was shut down. The whole PLUTO enterprise was then transferred, with eleven HAIS and six HAMEL lines, to the much shorter sea route between the operation’s Dungeness terminal in Kent, code-named DUMBO, and Boulogne, This operated successfully until January 1945, delivering the bulk of the 62,000 tons of petrol across The Channel via PLUTO.


Some have claimed BAMBI was a failure because it was too late coming on stream but the Sandown Bay operation provided proof that PLUTO, effectively invented as it was delivered, could work successfully. The Island’s key role in this extraordinary enterprise is now recalled by the return of two reciprocating pumps, on display at Bembridge Heritage Centre and the Isle of Wight Zoo, the preservation of a large section of feeder pipe-line still intact at Shanklin Chine and the newly listed pavilion, a disguised power-generating source, at Sandown.

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