The Secret of Sherwood Forest Oil Production in England during World War II By Bob Renkes, Consultant, Tulsa, Ok
There had been little domestic petroleum exploration in the United Kingdom since foreign supplies resumed after the World War I. But in the summer of 1942, England’s oil supply lines were being devastated by German air raids and U-boat attacks. It was running out of oil. Britain’s secretary of petroleum, Geoffrey Lloyd, called an emergency meeting in London of the Oil Control Board with members of the oil industry’s advisory committee in mid-August of 1942. The purpose was to consider the impending crisis in oil. The Admiralty had reported that fuel stocks were two million barrels below normal safety reserves and were sufficient to meet only two months’ requirements. Reserves of approximately five million barrels were normally held in some forty widely scattered storage facilities. But bombing raids by the Luftwaffe had destroyed almost a million barrels in the dock areas. At the same time increased military demands by the armed services further undercut reserves. “Without oil no plane could fly; no tank could move; no ship could sail; no gun could fire”, said historians Guy and Grace Woodward in their 1973 book The Secret of Sherwood Forest.
It was at this meeting that a petroleum engineer named Philip Southwell proposed that Britain’s own little-known oilfields in Sherwood Forest, near Eakring and Duke’s Wood, be tapped. Southwell had twenty years experience with the D’Arcy Exploration Company, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Ltd., the world’s largest oil company. He explained that England’s own oilfields had double value: first, they were inland in a forested area safely beyond the enemy’s submarine attacks, and second, the large mature trees in the area provided great natural camouflage from the Luftwaffe.
These oilfields, in other words, had the potential to produce an “unsinkable tanker.” Development of these oilfields had been slow since they were discovered in 1939 and 1940 because the drilling equipment used by D’Arcy consisted of 13 large rigs originally designed for deep-drilling operations at Anglo-Iranian operations in Persia. These drilling outfits with heavy 136-foot derricks were not suitable for the rapid drilling required in the relatively shallow production in Sherwood Forest. Southwell proposed that the proper equipment could be procured in the United States. He was dispatched to America on September 3, 1942, to buy what was needed to quickly develop the oilfields.
Southwell found out in Washington that U.S. drilling equipment could not be purchased by foreign corporations or nations. Some other method had to be developed. Southwell eventually wound up in Ardmore, Oklahoma, at the home of oilman Lloyd Noble. Southwell, Noble and representatives of the Fain-Porter Drilling Company of Oklahoma City came up with a plan and negotiated a contract with D’Arcy to send both men and equipment to England. The contract between the oil companies called for 100 new wells to be drilled in one year. During the meeting, Noble surprised Southwell by telling him that he would not expect to take any profit out of the work.
After reimbursement of cost and expenses and overhead, the work, he said, would be a contribution to winning the war by Noble Drilling Corporation and the Fain-Porter Company. Noble tapped an assistant superintendent named Eugene Rosser to head up the project. Rosser secretly recruited 43 other roughnecks—all volunteers–from the oil patch in Oklahoma and Texas, bought supplies and equipment (four rigs, three of which survived the journey across the Atlantic), and headed for England. Only after arriving in March of 1943 did they learn the location of Britain’s secret oilfields. The roughnecks were boarded with monks at the Anglican monastery at Kelham Hall. The monastery was being used as the mother house of the Society of the Sacred Mission and as a theological seminary for the education of candidates for the ministry in the Anglican faith. The monastery provided ample space for the men without crowding.
The location afforded comparable isolation from any city or town of substantial size, yet it had the advantage of Kelham village which consisted of a dozen or so houses, a post office, and a general store. The area included a fourteenth century parish church and a pub. Upon their arrival, the men were given individual identity cards from the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. The sudden influx of Americans was rumored to be for making a movie, probably a western. And all the equipment—the rigs, including the mast, fuel, and water tanks, the trucks, and all other equipment—was painted a shade of green that blended into the spring foliage so that none of the oil field equipment could be distinguished from a plane flying at 3,000 feet. Smith D. Turner of the American Embassy staff observed during a visit to Kelham Hall: “The American roughnecks worked hard—twelve hours a day, seven days a week—84 hours a week—with a day off every two to four weeks. And there wasn’t too much to do or many places to go when they do have a day off.” And Turner went on to ponder this question in an article he later wrote about the unlikely combination of the “rogues and robes”, as they had come to be called:”Will the monks succeed in getting the roughnecks to take the vows, or will the roughnecks bring the monks out and help with the job of setting casing on the oil wells?” The Americans were completing and putting on production wells in the Eakring and Duke’s Wood area at the average rate of one well per week. The British crews’ best time for completing a well for production had been five weeks.
In most cases about eight weeks were required by the British crews for completing and putting the well on production. This fact, demonstrated in the field, was not lost on their British hosts. Southwell, who was in daily contact with operations in the field, invited Rosser to meet in London with officers, directors and key personnel of the Anglo- Iranian Oil Company, Ltd. During the meeting, Rosser outlined the time-savings devices practiced by the American crews to his esteemed audience. As a result, an arrangement was made whereby one British worker was put on the drilling rigs with each of the American crews.
In most cases the British were anxious to learn and the American crews proved to be extremely cooperative. After a year, the contract between the Anglo-Iranian Company and the Noble and Fain-Porter companies had been completed and terminated. The Americans boarded the passenger vessel HMS Mauritania on March 3, 1944 to take the boys home. Their return was without fanfare. It is not known if any returned to England to fight on the side of the Allies.
Sadly, one American never made it home. In November 1943, Texan Herman Douthit fell from a derrick to his death. Burial was arranged with full military honors in Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. After the war, in accordance with Veterans Administration policy, Douthit’s body, with the remains of other servicemen previously interred in cemeteries throughout Britain, was transferred to the American Military Cemetery and Memorial located near Cambridge.
The only American civilian interred in the cemetery is Herman Douthit. The Americans logged 106 completions and 94 producers during the year they were in Britain. Production from the oilfields of the English Midlands had risen during 1943 from 300 barrels per day to a peak production of slightly more than 3,000 U.S. barrels of oil per day. By the end of 1943, Eakring-Duke’s Wood and Formby had sent 2,289,207 U.S. barrels of high grade paraffin base oil to refineries on the west coast and in the south of Scotland.
Although the Americans could not know at the time, 1944-45 would add another 1,236,346 to the total of U.S. barrels shipped to refineries, making a total of 3,520,553 U.S. barrels produced and moved to refineries from Great Britain’s own oilfields by the end of 1945. This was a remarkable record that remains an amazing feat under the circumstances of wartime shortages and hardships prevailing in Great Britain during 1943 and the early part of 1944. British Petroleum continued to produce from Duke’s Wood until the field’s depletion in 1965. The total output from the field from 1939-1965 was 47 million barrels.
The American roughnecks are remembered with a monument, a statue called the Oil Patch Warrior, which stands to this day at Rufford Abbey Country Park, near Nottingham. The seven-foot bronze oilfield worker, erected in 1991, is depicted at parade rest with a roughneck’s best weapon – a Stillson wrench – instead of a rifle. Ten years after the ceremony in England, the citizens of Ardmore, Oklahoma, came upon the molds in the artist’s foundry. The statue was recast from the original molds and the Oil Patch Warrior’s twin was dedicated in 2001, with representatives from Noble Oil and Fain-Porter joining veterans at the ceremony.
Time has taken away almost all on both sides of the Atlantic who struggled to preserve democracy during World War II. But fortunately the book and the two statues survive to remind us about the friendship, survival and cooperation of the people from two proud countries merely separated by an ocean. Bob Renkes is the former Executive Vice President of the Petroleum Equipment Institute and is an Honorary Member of the APEA