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My father's part in top secret wartime project

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 06, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • Joseph Tromans (standing right) and fellow heads of department at Stewarts and Lloyds, but can you name any of the other men?

  • Map of the Operation PLUTO network at the end of the war

  • A conundrum is towed through the sea

  • The rigid steel pipes were wound around the giant "conundrums"

  • A 30ft conundrum loaded with HAMEL pipe at sea

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LAST month's 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings has revived memories of the Second World War for many readers and Bunty Parkes of Wordsley, Stourbridge, has contacted the Bugle with details of her father's involvement in one of the lesser-known triumphs of the war – Operation PLUTO.

Bunty's father was Joseph Howard Tromans, a Blackheath man born and bred, who went to work for Stewarts and Lloyds at their Coombs Wood, Halesowen, works when he left school at 13. His father worked there before him and as a child Joseph had taken his father's lunch to him every day before returning to school for his afternoon lessons.

Joseph was an accountant and rose to be head of the department. "He was a genius with a slide rule," remembers Bunty. "Even after he retired they kept calling him back to cost up jobs for them because nobody else could do it as well as he could."

Our main photograph shows Joseph Tromans with his fellow heads of department at Stewarts and Lloyds. Joseph stands on the far right.

Operation PLUTO was closely linked to the Normandy landings and vital to the success of the Allied liberation of Europe. The acronym stood for Pipe Line Under The Ocean.

Once the Allies had established themselves a foothold on continental Europe and began to advance against the Nazis, they would need thousands of gallons of fuel every day. A pipe laid under the Channel, from England to France, was thought to be the quickest and easiest way; tankers were vulnerable to attack but were also needed in the Pacific.

Planning began in 1942 with Geoffrey Lloyd MP, the government's Secretary for Petroleum, and Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, taking up the suggestion of Arthur Hartley, Chief Engineer of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, to adapt the existing technology behind the transatlantic telephone cables.

For security reasons it was decided to develop two entirely different pipelines. One, code named HAIS, was closely based on telephone cables. In its final specification it had an inner lead pipe of 3in diameter, two layers of paper tape, one layer of bitumen cotton tape, four layers of mild steel tape, jute bedding, steel armour wires and an outermost layer of jute servings. The second system, HAMEL, used welded steel pipes made by Stewarts and Lloyds at their Corby works and Bunty remembers that her father was chauffeur driven to Corby several times as the project progressed, costing this important job for the military.

A number of businesses across the country were involved in the project, making components, and with the secret nature of the job, not all would have been aware of the final outcome of their work. Among the Black Country firms involved were Tangyes, who made the pumps.

The first trials were held in May 1942 and saw a pipe laid under the Medway. This was a success and a larger trial was held in June 1942, across the Clyde.

The pipeline had to be laid in a single, quick operation. The flexible HAIS pipe could be laid in the same way as telephone cables from specially adapted ships but the steel HAMEL pipe proved more of a problem. Through careful calculation it was found that the steel pipes could be coiled onto a large diameter drum, like cotton thread on a reel. The giant drums would be towed behind tug boats as the pipe was played out into the sea; these 30-feet drums were named "conundrums".

Full-scale production of the pipes began in August 1942 and in December a major trial was held when, under the command of Commander Treby-Heal a pipe was laid under the Bristol Channel, from Swansea to Watermouth, near Ilfracombe. For the next year fuel was pumped from Wales to Devon and Cornwall and army personnel were trained in the use of the pumping equipment.

D-Day was launched on June 6, 1944, and Operation PLUTO was to centre on the French port of Cherbourg. This was captured by the Allies on June 29 but it took many weeks to repair the damage to the docks wreaked by the Germans. On August 12, in just 10 hours, a HAIS pipe was laid over the 70 nautical miles from Shanklyn Chine on the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg. This was followed by another HAIS pipe and two HAMEL. The pumping stations of the Isle of Wight had been disguised to look like cottages, garages and, in one instance, an ice cream parlour.

As the Allies advanced westwards towards Belgium further pipelines were needed. 11 HAIS and six HAMEL pipes were laid between Dungeness and Ambleteuse near Boulogne. By January 1945 around 300 tons of fuel a day was pumped to France but by March this had increased to 3,000 and the rate went higher as the war ended. By VE Day around 172,000,000 gallons of fuel had been pumped through the undersea pipes as part of a network that covered southern England and stretched to the Rhine. It was a vital part in the Allies' victory, with General Eisenhower remarking that its was "second in daring only to the artificial Mulberry Harbours."

The PLUTO pipelines remained in use in the immediate aftermath of the war. However, by October 1949 around 90% of the pipeline had been salvaged from the seabed and the valuable metals scrapped and recycled. Parts of the pipeline can still be found on the Isle of Wight today, as can some of the pumping stations, and the technology developed in the war is the basis for the undersea oil pipes in use today.

Bunty remembers that her father sat upon a podium in his accounts department, and she too worked there in the typing pool. Joseph took early retirement but still worked for over 50 years at Stewarts and Lloyds. He passed away in 1968 and as his funeral cortege passed the Coombs Wood works, staff came out of the gates to line the road and stand bareheaded as the hearse passed.

Were any of your relatives involved in Project PLUTO or another wartime secret scheme? Contact dshaw@black countrybugle.co.uk with any stories or pictures, or contact us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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