Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest
As the United Kingdom fought for its survival during World Way II, a team of American oil drillers, derrickmen, 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 every day – and 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,” note two historians who have searched 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 stands in Dukes Wood near the village of Eakring 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 American volunteers who – during a critical time of the war – produced oil. They drilled in Sherwood Forest.
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 two million barrels below their minimum safety reserves.
The oil supply outlook was bleak.
Meanwhile, Field Marshall 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 that 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 – predecessor to BP.
This obscure oilfield was in Sherwood Forest, near Eakring and Dukes Wood. It produced modestly – about 700 barrels per day in 1942 – 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 – under great secrecy – C.A.P. 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, Oklahoma, 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 42-man team of newly recruited drillers, derrickmen, motormen and roustabouts embarked on the troopship H.M.S. 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 Project
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 arrive soon.
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 Duke’s 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, derrickman Herman Douthit was killed when he fell from a drilling mast. Douthit was buried with full military honors. Douthit remains the only civilian ever buried at the American Military Cemetery in Cambridge.
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 a day to more than 3,000 barrels per day.
Without fanfare, the roughnecksreturned 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 “Operation PLUTO” in Secret Pipeline of World War 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 in 1989, British member of Parliament Tony Speller visited Tulsa for a speaking engagement – and was given a copy of the book.
Surprised and intrigued by the story it told, Speller joined with the International Society of Energy Advocates, Noble Drilling Company and others who believed that the singular accomplishment of this handful of Americans should be remembered. Well-known 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 recalls, 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 says.
O’Meilia also remembers 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 explains.
Those who look very closely will see the tell-tale impression of a pack of cigarettes in the oil patch warrior’s pocket. “Lucky Strike,” O’Meilia laughs – “because Lucky Strike Green Goes to War” was a contemporary advertising campaign.
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. The statue was placed on the grounds of England’s Dukes Wood Oil Museum on land donated by British Petroleum.
In 2001, ten years after the ceremony in England, the citizens of Ardmore, Oklahoma, determined to honor veterans with a downtown Memorial Square. 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,” explains 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. As many as 1,100 die every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
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.
Editor’s Note – Visit the Dukes Wood Oil Museum in Nottinghamshire, England. Adam Sieminski of Washington, D.C., visited the Sherwood Forest statue in 2005. He provided the historical society with photos – and donated a copy of The Secret of Sherwood Forest – Oil production in England during World War II.
Sieminski also encouraged sponsorship of this society’s participation in a two-day “rock oil tour” to Titusville, Pennsylvania. Read 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 donation today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.