Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest
As the United Kingdom fought for its survival during World War II, a team of American oil drillers, derrickhands, roustabouts, and motormen secretly boarded the converted troopship HMS Queen Elizabeth in March 1943. Once their story was revealed years later, they would become known as the Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest.
By the summer of 1942, the situation was desperate. The future of Great Britain – and the outcome of World War II – depended on petroleum supplies.
By the end of that year, demand for 100-octane fuel would grow to more than 150,000 barrels of oil every day – and German U-boats ruled the Atlantic.
In August 1942, British Secretary of Petroleum, Geoffrey Lloyd called an emergency meeting of the Oil Control Board to assess the “impending crisis in oil.”
This is the story of the “little-known, or at least seldom recognized, all-important role oil and oilmen played in the prosecution of the war,” noted two historians who extensively researched archives in Great Britain and the United States.
Guy Woodward and Grace Steele Woodward published The Secret of Sherwood Forest – Oil Production in England During World War II in 1973.
“The amazing and hitherto untold story, born in secrecy, has remained buried in the private diaries, corporate files and official records of government agencies,” explain the Woodwards in their book.
“In the final analysis, oil was indeed the key to victory of the Allies over the Axis powers,” the authors conclude.
Today, two identical bronze statues separated by the Atlantic Ocean commemorate the achievements of World War II American roughnecks.
The first seven-foot statue, first erected near the village of Eakring in Dukes Wood, today stands in Nottinghamshire, England. Its twin greets visitors at Memorial Square in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
These oil patch warriors, separated by more than 2,400 miles, commemorate Americans who produced oil during a critical time of the war. They drilled in Sherwood Forest.
The United Kingdom: An Unsinkable Tanker
The once top-secret story begins in August 1942, when Britain’s wartime secretary of petroleum, Geoffrey Lloyd, called an emergency meeting of the country’s Oil Control Board.
U-boat attacks and the bombing of dockside storage facilities had brought the British Admiralty 2 million barrels below its minimum safety reserves.
The oil supply outlook was bleak.
Meanwhile, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s rampaging North African campaign threatened England’s access to Middle East oilfield sources. England’s principal fuel supplies came by convoy from Trinidad and America and were subjected to relentless Nazi submarine attacks.
Many at the Oil Control Board meeting were surprised to learn England had a productive oilfield of its own, first discovered in 1939 by D’Arcy Exploration.
The D’Arcy company was a subsidiary of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, founded in 1908, a predecessor to British Petroleum, BP.
This obscure oilfield was in Sherwood Forest, near Eakring and Dukes Wood. It produced modestly from 50 shallow wells.
Extreme shortages of drilling equipment and personnel kept Britain from further exploiting the field. Perhaps America might help.
Following the meeting – and under great secrecy – CAP (later Sir Philip) Southwell, a D’Arcy representative, was sent to the Petroleum Administration for War (PAW) in Washington, D.C.
Southwell’s secret mission was to secure American assistance in expanding production from the Eakring field, regarded as an “unsinkable tanker.”
Pressing his case in America, Southwell pursued the widely respected independent oilman Lloyd Noble, president of Tulsa-based Noble Drilling Corporation. They met in Noble’s hometown of Ardmore, to negotiate a deal.
American oil companies were already heavily committed to wartime production. Noble nonetheless joined with Fain-Porter Drilling Company of Oklahoma City on a one-year contract to drill 100 new wells in the Eakring field. Noble and Fain-Porter volunteered to execute the contract for cost and expenses only. PAW approved their deal and the contract was signed in early February 1943.
On March 12, a team of 42 newly recruited drillers, derrickhands, motormen, and other roughnecks embarked on the troopship HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Four drilling rigs for “The English Project” would be transported to England on four different ships. Although one ship was lost to a German submarine, another rig was subsequently shipped safely.
Top Secret Drilling
The American oilmen joined project managers Eugene Rosser and Don Walker at billets prepared in an Anglican monastery at historic Kelham Hall, near Eakring.
The sudden influx of Americans from Oklahoma was rumored to be for making a movie, probably a western. It was said that John Wayne would soon arrive.
Within a month, sufficient equipment had arrived to enable spudding the first well. Two others quickly followed.
Four crews worked 12-hour tours with “National 50” rigs equipped with 87-foot jackknife masts. The roughnecks amazed their British counterparts with their drilling speed.
Using innovative methods, the Americans drilled an average of one well per week in Dukes Wood, while the British took at least five weeks per well.
The British crews made it a practice to change bits at 30-foot intervals. The Americans kept using the same bit as long as it was “making hole.” By August, the Yanks of Sherwood Forest had completed 36 new wells, despite the challenges of wartime rationing of fuel, food, and other shortages.
By January of 1944, the American oilmen were credited with 94 completions and 76 producing oil wells. But not without cost. While working Rig No. 148, derrickhand Herman Douthit was killed when he fell from a drilling mast. Douthit was buried with full military honors at the Cambridge American Cemetery.
The English Project contract was completed in March 1944 with the Americans logging 106 completions and 94 producers. England’s oil production had shot from 300 barrels of oil a day to more than 3,000 barrels of oil a day.
Without fanfare, the roughnecks returned to the United States and the families they had left a year before. Their mission and success remained secret until November 1944, when the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story, “England’s Oil Boom,” on a back page. Few took notice at the time.
Honoring Oklahoma Roughnecks
By the end of the war, more than 3.5 million barrels of crude had been pumped from England’s “unsinkable tanker” oilfields. Petroleum industry expertise would again come into action – solving the challenge of oil pipelines across the English Channel – read about the operation in PLUTO, Secret Pipelines of WW II. British Petroleum continued to produce oil from Dukes Wood until the field’s depletion in 1965.
The story remained largely unknown until the 1973 University of Oklahoma Press publication of The Secret of Sherwood Forest – Oil production in England during World War II by Guy and Grace Woodward.
Then, Tony Speller, a member of Parliament, in 1989 visited Tulsa for a speaking engagement. He was given a copy of the book.
Surprised and intrigued by the story it told, Speller joined with members of the International Society of Energy Advocates, Noble Drilling Company employees, and others who believed that the singular accomplishment of this handful of Americans should be remembered. Artist Jay O’Meilia was chosen to create a bronze tribute to these men.
O’Meilia, born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he resides today, was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1999. Interviewed for this article, he recalled that the statue’s designed quickly evolved. “The notion of an ‘oil patch warrior’ soon developed…at parade rest with a roughneck’s best weapon – a Stillson wrench – instead of a rifle,” he said.
O’Meilia also remembered how authenticity was critical, down to period gloves and hard hat. “They even sent me a pair of original overalls so I would get it exactly right,” he explained in an interview with AOGHS.
Those who look very closely will see the telltale impression of a pack of cigarettes in the oil patch warrior’s pocket. “Lucky Strike,” O’Meilia explained with a laugh, because” Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War!” was a advertising campaign at the time.
Statues dedicated in 1991 and 2001
In May 1991, Noble Drilling Corporation funded the return of 14 surviving oilmen to the dedication of O’Meilia’s seven-foot bronze Oil Patch Warrior in Sherwood Forest.
Ten years after the ceremony in England, the citizens of Ardmore determined to honor veterans. They discovered that the original molds remained in O’Meilia’s Colorado foundry.
“Our mission was to create a memorial park that would honor those who sacrificed their lives, those who served in the military during times of war and peace, and the oil drillers and energy industry that came to England’s rescue in World War II,” explained Jack Riley, chairman of the Memorial Square committee.
O’Meilia recast the Sherwood Forest Oil Patch Warrior for Ardmore from the original molds. The statue was dedicated on November 10, 2001, with representatives from Noble Oil and Fain-Porter joining veterans at the ceremony.
A brick walkway through Memorial Square displays the names of Ardmore area veterans.
“Memorial Square honors veterans who are responsible for the freedom we enjoy today – and the energy industry, which is responsible for the economic strength of our community,” declared Wes Stucky, president of the Ardmore Development Authority.
Time has taken away many of those on both sides of the Atlantic who struggled to preserve democracy.
Fortunately, in these two imposing bronze Oil Patch Warriors, separated by an ocean of history, the story of the roughnecks of Sherwood Forest can always be remembered.
Adam Sieminski of Washington, D.C., who visited the Sherwood Forest statue in 2005, provided AOGHS with photos – and donated a copy of The Secret of Sherwood Forest – Oil Production in England During World War II. He also encouraged sponsorship of the society’s participation in a two-day “rock oil tour” to Titusville, Pennsylvania. See the “Energy Economists Rock Oil Tour” of August 2009.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.