When thinking of England’s fabled Sherwood Forest, the medieval images of Robin Hood and his band of archers and swordsmen hiding in the woods giving the Sheriff of Nottingham a hard time come to mind.
Who would envision a crew of young American oil workers, concealed among the giant oaks, drilling oil wells? However, the crude production from those wells was essential in helping fuel the D-Day invasion launched from English shores in 1944.
Until Guy Woodward and Grace Steele Woodward published “The Secret of Sherwood Forest – Oil production in England during World War II” in 1973, the story was just a glossed over historical footnote.
As America prepares to celebrate Labor Day this year, it is important to remember the dedicated men and women of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds who continue to work long hours to supply our armed forces with the equipment and supplies they need on the battlefield. They make our nation great and just as with the American roughnecks, they are often forgotten.
The Sherwood Forest oil patch story is not a fable. During WWII, it was a closely held secret. Those 42 “roughnecks” secretly traveled by ship across the Atlantic dodging German subs to the village of Eakring where the oil production centered. Only one of four ships carrying drilling equipment was sunk by a U-Boat and the only crew member to die fell from a platform on an oil rig.
They erected camouflaged derricks, known as “nodding donkeys,” and extracted oil. That oil patch became known as the “unsinkable tanker.”
Keeping the project from German snoops was easier in the 1940s. It helped that the Sherwood Forest is 150 miles north of London and German bombers couldn’t detect the oil rigs when flying.
The time period was devoid of modern surveillance satellites, high-tech drones and high-flying spy planes — and there was no internet. Who’d think of an oil field among groves of oak? Thankfully, not the Germans until it was too late.
The British needed American “know how.” Its oil companies and workers were equipped to drill deep wells and needed shallow well expertise from Oklahoma.
England had but one oil field and that was in Sherwood Forest. Its meager output of 300 barrels a day was literally a drop in the bucket of its requirement. By the time the English Project contract was completed in March 1944, over 1.2 million barrels were pumped.
“The Brits’ jaws dropped as the Yanks began punching the wells in a week, compared to five to eight weeks for their British counterparts. They worked 12 hour tours, seven days a week and within a year, the Americans had drilled 106 wells and England oil production shot up from 300 barrels a day to over 300,000,” Gil Knight wrote in the Oklahoma Minerals newsletter.
The British desperately needed oil. Between September 1939 and February 1941, 79 British or British-controlled tankers were sunk with the loss of over 630,000 tons of oil. Not only were the U-Boats picking off tankers, but the German Luftwaffe was destroying hundreds of thousands of barrels on and near salt water docks.
In 1942, German U-boats continued to menace the Atlantic Ocean, sinking Allied ships taking vital supplies to Britain. It’s well known that Winston Churchill was even quoted as saying: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,” KnowledgeNut.com reported.
To commemorate their accomplishment, the British erected a seven-foot bronze statue (The Oil Patch Warrior) of a roughneck holding a four-foot pipe wrench. It stands near Nottingham, England to honor the American oil men’s assistance and sacrifice in the war. A replica was placed in Ardmore, Oklahoma in 2001.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.