Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest

Top Secret WWII project sent Oklahoma drillers into British oilfield. They added more than one million barrels of oil production by 1944.


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.

Photograph of the 42 volunteers from Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling companies who drilled in Sherwood Forest during WWII.

A photograph of the 42 volunteers from Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling companies taken before they secretly embarked for the United Kingdom on March 12, 1943, aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted into a troop transport ship. Photo courtesy of the Guy Woodward Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

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. At 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.” (more…)

Big Inch Pipelines of WW II

“Without the prodigious delivery of oil from the U. S. this global war, quite frankly, could never have been won.”


A government-industry partnership built two petroleum pipelines from Texas to the East Coast that proved vital during World War II. “Big Inch” carried oil from East Texas oilfields. “Little Big Inch” carried gasoline, heating oil, diesel oil, and kerosene. The final weld on the “Big Inch” was made in July 1943, just 350 days after construction began.

“Without the prodigious delivery of oil from the U.S. this global war, quite frankly, could never have been won,” explained historian Keith Miller in 2002. (more…)

Petroleum Survey discovers U-boat

Routine scan of Gulf of Mexico seabed for new petroleum pipelines reveals shipwrecks.


During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

Today’s petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf routinely provide government scientists with sonar data for areas with potential archaeological value. Several federal agencies review oil and natural gas-related surveys every year, and over the years the data have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

oil industry sonar and photo images of U-boat in Gulf of Mexico

A 2001 archaeological survey by BP and Shell prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline confirmed discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast.

In 2001, the Minerals Management Service (superseded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management a decade later) noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”


PLUTO, Secret Pipelines of WW II

Towed “Conundrums” spooled off steel pipe across the English Channel soon after D-Day.


To provide vital oil across the English Channel after the June  6, 1944, D-Day landings, within months secret pipelines were unwound from massive spools to reach French ports.  

Wartime planners knew that following the D-Day invasion Allied forces would need vast quantities of petroleum to continue the advance into Europe.

Rare logo of Pluto secret pipelines.

The secret pipeline mission used a popular Walt Disney character for its logo.

Allied leadership also knew that petroleum tankers trying to reach French ports would be vulnerable to Luftwaffe attacks. A secret plan looked to using new undersea pipeline technologies.

To prevent fuel shortages from stalling the Normandy invasion, a top-secret “Operation PLUTO” – Pipe Line Under The Ocean – became the Allied strategy. It would fuel victory with oil production from the U.S. petroleum industry.

Although by 1942 the industry had laid thousands of pipe miles of across all manner of terrain, to span the English Channel would require an unprecedented leap in technology. The channel was deep, the French ports distant, and the hazards unpredictable. In great secrecy, two approaches were developed.

The first PLUTO system required a new kind of pipe that looked more like an undersea communications cable than an oil pipeline. It exploited existing subsea cable technology, but instead of a bundle of wiring at its core, a three-inch flexible lead pipe would carry fuel.

Operation Pluto pipeline map of English Channel.

Following D-Day on June 6, 1944, Operation Pluto pipelines fueled the advance into Nazi Germany. Image from “World War 2 From Space,” a History Channel documentary.


Confederates attack Oilfield

In perhaps the first attack on an oilfield in warfare, Confederate raiders destroyed Burning Springs in the spring of 1863.


Referring to his cavalry brigade’s destruction of petroleum facilities in northwestern Virginia (soon to be West Virginia), the rebel general noted in his report to Gen. Robert E. Lee: “Men of experience estimated the oil destroyed at 150,000 barrels. It will be many months before a large supply can be had from this source…” 

On May 9, 1863, the booming oilfield community of Burning Springs fell to Confederate raiders led by Gen. William “Grumble” Jones. His Confederate cavalry burned cable-tool drilling tools, production equipment, and thousands of barrels of oil.

confederate cavalry in Harpers illustration

“The First Virginia (Rebel) cavalry at halt. Sketched from nature by Mr. A. R. Waud.” From Harper’s Weekly, September 27, 1862. Gen. Jones’ Brigade consisted of the 6th, 7th, 11th, 12th Virginia Cavalry Regiments and 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The surprise attack along the Kanawha River by Gen. Jones marked the first time an oilfield was targeted in war, “making it the first of many oilfields destroyed in war,” proclaimed oil historian and author David L. McKain in a 1992 book. 

map of Civil War sites in West Virginia oilfields

The Burning Springs oilfield (at bottom) was destroyed by Confederate raiders in May 1863 when Gen. William “Grumble” Jones and 1,300 troopers attacked in what some call the first oilfield destroyed in a war. Map courtesy Oil & Gas Museum, Parkersburg, West Virginia.

According to McKain, Gen. Jones later reported his rebel troops left burning oil tanks, a “scene of magnificence that might well carry joy to every patriotic hear.” 

West Virginia Oil History

“After the Civil War, the industry was revived and over the next fifty years the booms spread over almost all the counties of the state,” explained McKain, who founded an oil museum in downtown Parkersburg. He collected many of the artifacts on display in the former warehouse – and often was seen driving his black truck loaded with rare oilfield equipment.

confederates attack oilfield

In May 1861, the Rathbone brothers used a spring-pole to dig a well at Burning Springs that producied 100 barrels of oil a day.

Almost a century before the Civil War, George Washington had acquired 250 acres in the region because it contained oil and natural gas seeps.

“This was in 1771, making the father of our country the first petroleum industry speculator,” noted McKain, author of a comprehensive history of the West Virginia petroleum industry. As early as 1831, natural gas was moved in wooden pipes from wells to be used as a manufacturing heat source by the Kanawha salt manufacturers.

A thriving commercial oil industry grew in Petroleum and California – towns near Parkersburg.

Then in 1861 at Burning Springs, the Rathbone brothers’ spring-pole oil well reached 303 feet – and began producing 100 barrels of oil a day. “These events truly mark the beginnings of the oil and gas industry in the United States,” said McKain, who died in 2014.

Oil Museum exterior in Parkersburg, West Virginia

Founded by David L. McKain, the Oil and Gas Museum is near the Ohio River at 119 Third Street in downtown Parkersburg, West Virginia. As early as 1831, natural gas was moved in wooden pipes from wells to be used as a manufacturing heat source by salt manufacturers. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“Drilling and producing of both oil and natural gas continues throughout the state to this day,” added McKain, founder of the Oil and Gas Museum in Parkersburg.

The incredible wealth created by petroleum was key to bringing statehood for West Virginia during the Civil War, he claimed. “Many of the founders and early politicians were oil men – governor, senator and congressman – who had made their fortunes at Burning Springs in 1860-1861,” McKain explained. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation admitting the state on June 20.

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Burning an Oilfield

When Confederate Gen. William “Grumble” Jones and 1,300 troopers attacked Burning Springs in the spring of 1863, they destroyed equipment and thousands of barrels of oil.

confederates attack oilfield

Confederate cavalry Gen. William “Grumble” Jones

“The wells are owned mainly by Southern men, now driven from their homes, and their property appropriated either by the Federal Government or Northern men,” said Gen. Jones of his raid on this early oil boom town.

Gen. Jones officially reported to Gen. Robert E. Lee: All the oil, the tanks, barrels, engines for pumping, engine-houses, and wagons – in a word, everything used for raising, holding, or sending it off was burned.  Men of experience estimated the oil destroyed at 150,000 barrels. It will be many months before a large supply can be had from this source, as it can only be boated down the Little Kanawha when the waters are high.

The West Virginia Oil and Gas Museum was established thanks to David McKain, who added a small museum at the site of Burning Springs and an oil history park at California (27 miles east of Parkersburg on West Virginia 47). In addition to his Where It All Began, McKain in 2004 published The Civil War and Northwestern Virginia.

Learn more about petroleum’s strategic roles in articles linked at Oil in War.


Recommended Reading: The Civil War and Northwestern Virginia – The Fascinating Story Of The Economic, Military and Political Events In Northwestern Virginia During the Tumultuous Times Of The Civil War (2004).  Where it All Began: The story of the people and places where the oil & gas industry began: West Virginia and southeastern Ohio (1994); . Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Confederates attack Oilfield.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: May 3, 2021. Original Published Date: May 5, 2013.


Petroleum and Sea Power

Reluctant Admirals recognized oil produced more energy than coal — and simplified resupply.


Commissioned in 1914, the USS Texas was the last American battleship built with engines to be powered with coal-fired boilers. Converted to burn fuel oil in 1925, the “Mighty T” experienced great improvements in efficiency as the worldwide change from coal boilers at sea would become another key chapter of U.S. petroleum history.

When the industrial revolution ended the “Age of Sail,” coal that fired the boilers of steam-powered ships became a strategic resource. Worldwide “coaling stations” were essential at a time when oil was little more than a crude lubricant or patent medicine.

USS Texas at museum site in Texas,

Commissioned in 1914, with coal-powered boilers that were converted to use fuel oil in 1925, the USS Texas “was the most powerful weapon in the world, the most complex product of an industrial nation just beginning to become a force in global events,” noted one historian. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department,

As early Pennsylvania oilfield discoveries continued, Congress in 1866 appropriated $5,000 to evaluate petroleum as a potential replacement for coal to fire the Navy’s boilers. The “experts” decided to stay with coal.

“The conclusion arrived at was that convenience, health, comfort and safety were against the use of petroleum in steam-vessels,” reported Admiral George Henry Preble. “The only advantage shown was a not very important reduction in the bulk and weight of fuel carried.” (more…)

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