The roughneck US cowboys who drilled Britain’s secret WWII oil wells


When rambunctious Oklahoman oilmen had been billeted alongside English monks, the 2 teams had been rapidly nicknamed the “rogues and robes.”

Richard Trenholm/CNET

Sherwood Forest, dwelling of England’s legendary outlaw Robin Hood, was a great distance from the entrance traces of World Warfare II. However that is the place, amid the sun-dappled woods, I encountered one of many conflict’s most extraordinary secrets and techniques.

On a shiny September day, a veteran of that historic battle led me right into a grassy clearing, and it took me a second to identify unusual, long-abandoned equipment nonetheless camouflaged in opposition to the forest greenery. Then, close to a dust path winding via the bushes, I noticed a stout determine prepared for motion: a 7-foot statue of an oil employee geared up with a helmet and Stillson wrench and standing astride a base etched with 42 names.

Titled the Oil Patch Warrior, the statue is a monument to one of many teams that traveled many miles from dwelling to assist the besieged and ravenous folks of Britain in what, for the UK, was World Warfare II’s darkest hour. Behind the Warrior is a compelling, little-known, and sometimes even comic story that is a robust and well timed reminder of the teachings historical past can educate about friendship, survival and steadfast cooperation when issues are at their worst. 

Tens of millions of women and men labored and fought and died within the conflict, in their very own nations or many miles from dwelling. Black and white, they got here from America and Africa and internationally. They need to by no means be forgotten.

But at this time, many locals have by no means heard the story behind the Oil Patch Warrior. And again then, neither Hitler nor the British public knew there was valuable oil beneath English soil — or {that a} posse of cowboy-booted roughnecks was drilling for black gold within the coronary heart of England’s inexperienced and nice land. 

Black gold

“With out oil no aircraft might fly, no tank might transfer, no ship might sail, no gun might fireplace,” historians Man and Grace Woodward wrote of their guide The Secret of Sherwood Forest. The deliberate Allied invasion of mainland Europe would require enormous provides of black gold — a single armored division wolfed up 60,000 gallons of gasoline per day — and oil was important for producing warmth, gentle and clear water. Civil and army necessities like tires, street surfaces and explosives additionally required oil. It was even utilized in particular runway flares to cut back the variety of deaths from planes crashing whereas attempting to land amid the English fog.

Earlier than the invention of North Sea oil, Britain needed to import gas — and emergency reserves had been down to simply two months as Nazi submarines and bombers took a lethal toll on incoming convoys. Luckily, the British authorities looked for home-grown provides earlier than the conflict even began. They discovered them beneath the forests and fields of rural Nottinghamshire.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Firm, a forerunner to BP, started drilling within the Eakring and Duke’s Wooden space. However their heavy rigs, designed for the Center East’s deep oil reserves, weren’t suited to those shallower oil fields. And with most younger males referred to as to lively service, the wells had been crewed by inexperienced locals and drafted-in miners.

So in September 1942, British oilman Philip Southwell made the arduous journey to Washington, DC, to purchase more-appropriate gear. At first he was refused, however planes and trains and a rented automobile received him to the Oklahoma dwelling of oil baron Lloyd Noble. Noble answered the door in his pajamas and the 2 WWI veterans struck a deal. Noble’s solely caveat: He would not take a cent of revenue.

As soon as the purple tape was lastly handled, 42 Oklahoma roughnecks, drillers and gear pushers volunteered to sail throughout the Atlantic and be a part of the conflict. Southwell had just one drawback: The place to cover them?

Rogues and robes

Kelham Corridor, a gothic red-brick mansion constructed within the 19th century, is now a scenic venue for weddings and enterprise conferences. Situated a couple of miles from Eakring, its wood-paneled rooms are additionally dwelling to a museum exploring the historical past of British oil.


American foreman Eugene Rosser with one of many monks at Kelham Corridor.

Kelham Corridor

The curator, Kevin Topham, lived a lot of that historical past. Now in his 90s, Topham brims with fascinating tales advised in his comfortable Nottinghamshire accent. Once I arrive at Kelham Corridor, he reveals me a badge on his blazer depicting a fish with wings, symbolizing membership within the Goldfish Membership, a casual fellowship for individuals who escape a watery grave. Topham earned it within the icy North Sea on Boxing Day 1965 when the Sea Gem, the primary British offshore oil rig, collapsed and killed 13. 

Earlier than his oil days, Topham labored on bomb disposal for the Royal Air Drive, driving round in a car marked Hazard: Excessive Explosives. “I might park wherever with that,” he says with amusing.

As we sip tea in Kelham Corridor’s high-windowed eating room, Topham tells me about his encounters with uniformed Allies in the course of the conflict. “We used to have huge dances in Newark and Retford and Nottingham,” he remembers. “You would be dancing spherical, rubbing shoulders with the Canadians and the People. You may hear ’em anyway! It was fairly an expertise. I would not have missed it for something.”

Again then, Kelham Corridor was a monastery. And when the rambunctious Oklahoman oilmen had been billeted alongside the monks, the 2 teams had been rapidly nicknamed the “rogues and robes.”


Kevin Topham with the oil pumping equipment nonetheless standing in Duke’s Wooden.

Richard Trenholm/CNET

Cowboys, oilmen and nodding donkeys

The oil employees burst into the sleepy village of Eakring in March 1943 like rowdy cowboys driving into city. Their colourful Western shirts, Stetson hats and banjos made an indelible impression on the locals within the meager, grey days of wartime. “The place do you suppose he tied his horse?” joked a Brit on assembly one of many oilmen for the primary time. 

Main the corporate had been two males who could not be extra completely different. Succesful however rough-edged foreman Eugene Rosser was dismayed to be paired with smooth-talking Don Walker, an administrator who knew nothing about oil. However the pair turned quick pals driving herd on their rough-and-tumble band. They’d a job to do: drill 100 oil wells in simply 12 months.

Regardless of chilling springtime rain, the energetic People set to work at a tempo that surprised their hosts. They drilled 1,010 ft of their first 12-hour shift, however needed to report the footage to the top workplace thrice — as a result of British officers merely could not consider it.

In these determined occasions, the existence of the oil subject needed to be saved secret. It was tough hiding an operation that employed a whole bunch of individuals and sometimes choked the nation lanes with buses and heavy vehicles carrying workers and gear, and the locals weren’t fooled by People playfully claiming to be making a movement image. The positioning needed to be hidden from the air, too, so the seesawing pump jacks that draw the oil to the floor — also referred to as “nodding donkeys” — had been painted inexperienced for camouflage. It is these pump jacks, freshly repainted in recent times, that Kevin Topham took me to see.

Topham labored as a derrick man on the Eakring oil fields after he received out of the Royal Air Drive, which meant climbing up an oil rig’s towering mast. “That was powerful up there when it was chucking down rain,” he remembers. “You could not pop down for a cup of tea in the event you’d received 5,000 ft of drill pipe within the gap. Some males, huge powerful males, they’d go 200 ft up they usually’d freeze. There was a little bit ledge midway up you may have a relaxation on, however no security ropes or security traces till you bought up there and received a belt round you … It was a extremely harmful job. It toughens you up.”


The boys from Oklahoma: The oil employees who got here to Britain throughout World Warfare II.

American Oil and Fuel Historic Society

Off obligation, boisterous People inevitably clashed with war-weary locals. It did not take lengthy earlier than the oilmen had been ingesting pubs dry of booze rations and chasing ladies at native dances. Two males had been despatched dwelling for preventing. In the meantime a bust-up on the docks over contraband cigars noticed Rosser high-tailing it together with his opinion of the English monarchy ringing within the air. One other time he sped off with customs officers clinging to the facet of his truck and a bobby on a bicycle peddling furiously after. On yet one more event Rosser was caught rushing, and was shocked that on this upside-down wartime society the police officer was a lady.


American volunteer Herman Douthit fell to his demise.

American Heritage Heart, College of Wyoming

However the largest drawback was meals. The boys labored 12 hours a day, seven days every week, but rationing was so tight they misplaced harmful quantities of weight. One of many oilmen grew greens on the monastery, though he confronted a brush with the legislation when he turned his hand to taking pictures pheasant.

Wounded British troopers ready and served meals at Kelham Corridor, and disaffection over the food plan flared into extra preventing. Walker finally fired the stewards after yet one more punch-up, however by then Rosser had solved the issue. Storming into an enraged normal’s workplace, he secured meals provides from the US army.

Because the winter of 1943 mellowed into the spring of 1944, England was filling up with troopers from around the globe poised to invade Europe. Don Walker and his army contacts maintained a roaring commerce in black market whiskey. And when the boys noticed an African-American soldier from Alabama in a close-by city, they whisked him again to Kelham Corridor for dinner. 

Now that their food plan was as much as scratch, the oilmen pushed the tempo all through the summer time. Since their arrival, the oil subject’s manufacturing had gone up from 300 to three,000 barrels a day.

Sadly, one American by no means made it dwelling: In November 1943 fashionable 29-year-old Texan Herman Douthit fell from a derrick to his demise. He was buried on the US army cemetery in Cambridge.

Oil patch warriors

By the point the boys left snow-covered Nottinghamshire in March 1944 they’d drilled 106 wells. Finally, the Eakring oil fields produced three million barrels of oil in the course of the conflict, and continued producing till 1965.

Odd little tales like this might simply fade from reminiscence, just like the camouflaged nodding donkeys swallowed by the greenery. But it surely’s price remembering all these women and men of all colours who crossed the seas to face collectively in these darkish occasions. Whereas Oklahoman oilmen labored in England’s forests, greater than 900 males got here to the UK from Central America to work as loggers, to quote only one instance. In all, thousands and thousands of women and men labored, fought and died on battlefields and on the house entrance internationally. 

At present, the Oil Patch Warrior statue stands as testomony to cooperation and comradeship. Fittingly, the British monument has a good friend on the opposite facet of the ocean: an equivalent statue in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

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