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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sunday Ship History: Operation PLUTO

Out in Nevada, one road across the Great Basin Desert, Highway 50, is referred to as "the Loneliest Road in America." Gas stations on this 287 mile road are few and far between, which means that some planning is required to make sure that you have fuel enough to complete the trip.

What is true in the high desert of Nevada is also true in war-fighting. If you plan an invasion, perhaps of occupied Europe, you need to have a plan to get the fuel needed by trucks, tanks, aircraft and other machines of war. In World War II, the plan for providing the invading Allied armies with fuel was ingenious, far ahead of its time and known by its acronym Operation PLUTO:
The Pipeline Under the Ocean (PLUTO) was designed to supply petrol from storage tanks in southern England to the advancing Allied armies in France in the months following D-Day.
A reliable supply of petrol for the advancing Allied forces following the D-Day landings was of the highest priority. Planners knew that the future invasion of Europe would be the largest amphibious landing in history and without adequate and reliable supplies of petrol any advance would at best slow down and at worst grind to a halt. A loss of momentum could jeopardise the whole operation as German forces would have time to regroup and counter-attack. Conventional tankers and 'ship to shore' pipelines were in danger of cluttering up the beaches, obstructing the movement of men, armaments and materials and, in all circumstances, were subject to the vagaries of the weather and sea conditions and they were easy targets for the Luftwaffe. The idea of a pipeline under the ocean, (the English Channel), was an innovative solution.
The terminals and pumping stations were heavily disguised as bungalows, gravel pits, garages and even an ice cream shop!
... systems had to be capable of laying down their pipes on the sea-bed in a fast single procedure. The HAIS pipe would be coiled on board the cable laying vessel and fed out as the vessel progressed across the Channel and the HAMEL pipe would be coiled around huge drums towed behind a tug-like vessel and fed out as they drum rolled along.
These pipe-lines were vital arteries, which enabled the Allied Air Fleets and Land Forces to maintain the vital momentum needed to secure victory. Moreover Operation PLUTO made it possible to dispense with the fleets of tankers, which otherwise would have been necessary and spared them the ordeal of concentrated enemy attacks in congested waters, thus undoubtedly saving many hundreds of gallant lives.
That the pipelines experienced delays in installation which meant that they were not fully operational until a couple of months after D-Day does not in any way diminish their importance. The volume of petroleum product transported was vital to the war effort and required a pretty hefty group to make it work:
By the time the two HAIS flexible pipelines and two HAMEL steel pipelines were pumping petrol the Allied armies were well on their way to Belgium. The length of the supply lines needed to be shortened so 11 HAIS pipelines and 6 HAMEL pipelines were laid in a swept channel two miles wide between Dungeness and Ambleteuse near Boulogne. In all about 500 miles of pipeline were laid in an average laying time over the 30 mile stretch of about 5 hours. In January 1945 the system delivered a disappointing 300 tons but by March this had increased to 3000 tons and later still to 4000 tons. This amounted to over 1,000,000 gallons per day giving a total of 172,000,000 gallons delivered in total up to the end of hostilities. During the operation to lay the cables an HQ ship, several cable ships, tugs, trawlers and barges were employed on this specialised work - a total of 34 vessels with 600 men and officers under Captain J.F.Hutchings.

The CombinedOps site has much more, including many photos of the PLUTO Operation.

The map and the PLUTO joint image are from that site. See also here:
Along with the Mulberry Harbours that were constructed immediately after D-Day, Operation Pluto is considered one of history's greatest feats of military engineering. The pipelines are also the forerunners of all flexible pipes used in the development of offshore oil fields.

According to this site, the drum used to unreel the pipeline was nicknamed "HMS Conundrum." Photo of the drum from here. The ABS has a nice piece on PLUTO here.

Escorts were provided for the pipeline laying ships, as set out here:
In June of 1944 both the "Campanula" and the "Dianthus", together with the sloop "Magpie" acted as escorts to two ocean going Tugs (escapees) from Holland that were renamed the HMRT Bustler and the "Growler" and one other smaller Tug , but I can't remember her name (possibly the HMRT Marauder or HMRT Danube V), towed huge "spools" of two inch pipe from Ryde to Cherbourg, 72 miles give or take a few.
In the WWII Pacific Theater, the Army Quartermaster Corps was responsible for getting fuel to the equipment on the beaches, as set out here:
Class III products (or POL) consisted of various grades of gasoline, kerosene, aviation fuel, diesel oil, fuel oil, and an assortment of petroleum based lubricants. It is absolutely critical for sustainment of mechanized forces. More vital even than clothing and general supplies. For without it the engines of war – planes, ships, tanks, motorized vehicles, and all the generators for electrical use – would cease to operate. Neither fighting units, nor logistical support units, could accomplish their varied missions without POL. As General Patton once said: "My troops can eat their belts. But my tanks gotta have gas."

Class III generally had fewer problems in the Pacific than did other areas of Quartermaster supply. The high priority accorded POL usually kept shipping delays to a minimum, and helped with efforts to build up needed reserves. U.S. Quartermasters were also able to draw from private oil company reserves in Australia, and made full use of their excellent bulk storage and handling facilities. Also because petroleum is less fragile and does not deteriorate quite so easily as other materials, it suffered fewer storage hazards. Still there were problems.

Lack of Bulk Storage and Distribution. Allied Class III personnel found they could rely on Australian refineries and their excellent bulk storage facilities for support in the Southwest Pacific until the action moved to New Guinea in 1943. Thereafter their assault had to move forward with limited access to bulk storage facilities. Engineers in New Guinea constructed medium-sized tanks for a few grades of gasoline and diesel oil, and created special dumps and laid aviation fuel pipelines in the vicinity of airports. But even these medium- to small-sized temporary storage facilities failed to meet all needs.

The problem became more acute in later 1943 and early 1944 as the island-hopping campaign got into full swing, and a succession of new bases and sub-bases were built. Larger petroleum vessels had difficulty moving into shallow waters. And when they got in, they often found that hastily built storage tanks were too small to permit complete pacific unloading of petroleum. What they needed, but seldom received, were smaller vessels capable of hauling fuel between bases and to forward supply points.

In the South Pacific area, the Quartermaster Corps had a responsibility to provide POL to New Zealand ground forces, and land-based US Navy and Marine units, as well as the Army. They established massive POL storage areas on Guadalcanal when that became available, at Green Island, and Espiritu Santo.

The Packaged Alternative. The virtual absence of permanent type bulk storage facilities and pipelines throughout the Pacific meant that almost all POL was stored and distributed in containers – mostly in 55-gallon drums. This contrasted sharply with experience in Europe. There QM Gasoline Supply Companies received most of their POL from huge fixed storage facilities, barges or railroad tanker cars, and promptly decanted it into 5-gallon jerricans. These were stacked in warehouses, open dumps, and along roads. And moved to user units in 2 ½-ton trucks and ¼-ton trailers. In the Pacific, they found the use of the much smaller jerricans neither practical nor desirable.

The 55-gallon drums were bulkier, heavier, and more difficult to handle. But they got around that by using forklifts and winches to load drums onto cargo trucks. When these were not available, they simply used planks and manually rolled them onto the trucks. Petroleum Supply Companies also attached pipes and nozzles right on to the drums, and used them to fill vehicles directly. They found that nearly twice the amount of fuel could be loaded on a standard 2 ½-ton truck using 55-gallon drums rather than jerricans.

Despite a persistent shortage of drums, and the absence of modern bulk storage and distribution facilities, Quartermaster efforts to furnish Class III supplies to Allied troops in the Pacific can be judged an overall success.
Today planning for petroleum delivery to combat shore areas is on-going. As noted here, the basic system is the Offshore Petroleum Discharge System (OPDS). OPDS is defined as
Provides a semipermanent, all-weather facility for bulk transfer of petroleum, oils, and lubricants (POL) directly from an offshore tanker to a beach termination unit (BTU) located immediately inland from the high watermark. POL then is either transported inland or stored in the beach support area. Major offshore petroleum discharge systems (OPDS) components are: the OPDS tanker with booster pumps and spread mooring winches; a recoverable single anchor leg mooring (SALM) to accommodate tankers of up to 70,000 deadweight tons; ship to SALM hose lines; up to 4 miles of 6-inch (internal diameter) conduit for pumping to the beach; and two BTUs to interface with the shoreside systems. OPDS can support a two line system for multiproduct discharge, but ship standoff distance is reduced from 4 to 2 miles. Amphibious construction battalions install the OPDS with underwater construction team assistance. OPDS are embarked on selected ready reserve force tankers modified to support the system.
All of which means that the Navy runs a pipeline to the beach from a mooring buoy offshore to which product tankers can connect and pump their cargo to storage facilities operated by the Army on the shore. This system is operated by the Military Sealift Command:
The U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command awarded a $26.6 million contract with options to Edison Chouest Offshore, based in Galliano, La., for the time charter of one Offshore Petroleum Discharge System, or OPDS.

The OPDS consists of two ships -- a support ship and a tender -- that work together to pump fuel for U.S. military forces from a commercial oil tanker moored at sea to a temporary fuel storage area ashore.

To begin the process, the 348-foot support ship and 165-foot tender work together to install up to eight miles of eight-inch-diameter flexible pipe. Next, the support ship positions the tanker for safe off-load operations. While the tender holds the tanker in place, the tanker's lines connect to the flexible pipe through the support ship. Booster pumps aboard the support ship increase the pressure of fuel, pushing the fuel to shore.

The OPDS is especially valuable in areas where fuel piers are unavailable, and tankers are unable to tie up ashore to off-load fuel. The OPDS can pump up to 1.7 million gallons of fuel per day.
The system has been recently exercised. And, no, that ship is not sinking, it's just positioning itself to offload the Single Anchor Leg Moor component of OPDS.

All of which just reaffirms the original point - planning ahead matters, whether on the "Loneliest Highway" or getting ready for combat.

UPDATE: Comparison of "old" OPDS with new contract OPDS:

From PowerPoint presentations which can be reached from here and here.
The new system allows for use of other tankers, greater offshore distance and more flexibility.

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