When wild English oilmen were housed alongside English monks, the two groups were quickly referred to as "villains and robes".
Richard Trenholm / CNET
Sherwood Forest, home to England's legendary outlaw Robin Hood, was far from the front lines of World War II. But there I found one of the most extraordinary secrets of the war in the middle of the sun-drenched forests.
On a bright September day, a veteran of this historical conflict led me to a grass clearing, and it took me a moment to spot strange, long-abandoned machines that were still camouflaged against the forest green. Then, near a dirt road that meandered through the trees, I saw a sturdy figure ready to use: a 7-foot statue of an oil worker equipped with a helmet and Stillson wrench, and on a base with 42 Name stood.
The statue, titled Oil Patch Warrior, is a memorial to one of the groups many miles away from home to help the besieged and starving people of Britain in the darkest hour of World War II for Britain. Behind the warrior is a compelling, little-known, and occasionally even funny story that powerfully and promptly recalls the lessons the story can teach about friendship, survival, and steadfast collaboration when things are worst.
Millions of men and women worked and fought and died in the war, in their own countries or many miles from home. They came in black and white from America, Africa and all over the world. You should never be forgotten.
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But today many locals have never heard the story behind the Oil Patch Warrior. And at that time, neither Hitler nor the British public knew that there was precious oil under English soil – or that a group of cowboy roughnecks were drilling for black gold in the heart of England's green and pleasant country.
"Without oil, no plane could fly, no tank could move, no ship could sail, no weapon could fire," wrote historians Guy and Grace Woodward in their book The Secret of Sherwood Forest. The planned Allied invasion of mainland Europe would require huge reserves of black gold – a single tank division devoured 60,000 gallons of gasoline a day – and oil was critical to generating heat, light, and clean water. Oil was also needed for civil and military items such as tires, road surfaces and explosives. It was even used in special runway flares to reduce the number of plane crash deaths when trying to land in the English fog.
Before the discovery of North Sea oil, Britain had to import fuel – and the emergency reserves were limited to just two months, as Nazi submarines and bombers mortally burdened the convoys arriving. Fortunately, the British government was already looking for local supplies before the war started. They found them among the woods and fields of rural Nottinghamshire.
The Anglo-Iranian oil company, a forerunner of BP, started drilling in the Eakring and Duke's Woods area. But their heavy oil rigs, which were designed for the deep oil reserves of the Middle East, were not suitable for these flatter oil fields. And since most of the young men were called to active duty, the wells were occupied by inexperienced locals and drafted miners.
In September 1942, the British oil man Philip Southwell made the arduous journey to Washington, DC to buy more suitable equipment. He was initially rejected, but planes and trains and a rental car took him to the oil baron Lloyd Noble's home in Oklahoma. Noble opened the door in his pajamas and the two World War I veterans made a deal. Noble's only caveat: he wouldn't take a penny in profit.
After the bureaucracy was finally settled, 42 roughnecks, drills and tool shifters from Oklahoma volunteered to sail across the Atlantic and join the war. Southwell had only one problem: where to hide it?
Villains and robes
Kelham Hall, a 19th-century Gothic red brick mansion, is now a picturesque location for weddings and business conferences. In the wood-paneled rooms, just a few kilometers from Eakring, there is also a museum that explores the history of British oil.
American foreman Eugene Rosser with one of the monks at Kelham Hall.
Curator Kevin Topham lived much of this story. Now in his 90s, Topham is brimming with fascinating stories told in his gentle Nottinghamshire accent. When I arrive in Kelham Hall, he shows me a badge on his blazer that represents a fish with wings and symbolizes membership in the Goldfish Club, an informal community for those who escape a water grave. Topham earned it in the icy North Sea on Christmas Day 1965, when the Sea Gem, the first British offshore oil rig, collapsed and killed 13 people.
Before his oil days, Topham worked on bomb disposal for the Royal Air Force and drove around in a vehicle labeled Danger: High Explosives. "I could park anywhere with that," he says with a laugh.
While drinking tea with high windows in Kelham Hall's dining room, Topham tells me about his encounters with uniformed allies during the war. "We used to have big dances in Newark, Retford and Nottingham," he recalls. "They'd dance around and rub their shoulders with the Canadians and the Americans. You could hear them anyway! It was quite an experience. I wouldn't have missed it for anything."
Kelham Hall was a monastery at the time. And when the wild Oklahoman oilmen were placed next to the monks, the two groups were quickly referred to as "villains and robes".
Kevin Topham with the oil pump machine that is still in Duke & # 39; s Wood.
Richard Trenholm / CNET
Cowboys, oilmen and nodding donkeys
The oil workers stormed into the sleepy village of Eakring in March 1943 like wild cowboys riding into the city. Their colorful western shirts, Stetson hats and banjos impressed the locals indelibly in the barren, gray days of the war. "Where do you think he tied his horse?" a Brit joked when he first met one of the oilmen.
The company was headed by two men who couldn't be more different. The capable but sharp-edged foreman Eugene Rosser was dismayed to be with Don Walker, an administrator who knew nothing about oil. But the two became quick friends, riding herds on their rough band. They had a job to do: drill 100 oil wells in just 12 months.
Despite the cool spring rain, the energetic Americans got down to work at a pace that stunned their hosts. They drilled 1,010 feet in their first 12-hour shift, but had to report the footage three times to headquarters – because British officials simply couldn't believe it.
"It was a very dangerous job. It makes you harder."
Kevin Topham, a former derrick man on the Eakring oil fields
In these desperate times, the existence of the oil field had to be kept secret. It was difficult to hide an operation that employed hundreds of people and often clogged the highways with buses and heavy trucks with staff and equipment, and the locals were not fooled by Americans who playfully claimed to make a film. The spot also had to be hidden from the air, so the rocking pump lifters that pull the oil to the surface – also known as the "nodding donkey" – were painted green for camouflage. Kevin Topham brought me to these pump jacks that have been freshly repainted in recent years.
Topham worked as a derrick man on the Eakring oil fields after exiting the Royal Air Force, which meant climbing onto the towering mast of an oil rig. "It was difficult up there when it was raining," he recalls. "You couldn't come down for a cup of tea if you had 5,000 feet of drill pipe in the hole. Some men, tall tough men, would go up 200 feet and they would freeze. There was a little bit of a rest to be had, but no safety ropes or safety lines until you were up there and had a belt around you … It was a very dangerous job. It makes you harder. "
The Oklahoma boys: The oil workers who came to Britain during World War II.
American Oil and Gas Historical Society
Out-of-service Americans inevitably collided with war-weary locals. It didn't take long for the oilmen to drink non-alcoholic pubs and hunt girls at local dances. Two men were sent home to fight. Meanwhile, when Rosser collapsed on the docks over contraband cigars, he saw his opinion ringing in the air about the English monarchy. Another time he raced away with customs officials clinging to the side of his truck and a Bobby on a bike trampling furiously after. On another occasion, Rosser was caught accelerating and was shocked that the policeman was a woman in this wrong war society.
The American volunteer Herman Douthit died.
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming
The biggest problem, however, was the food. The boys worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but rationing was so tight that they lost dangerous amounts of weight. One of the oilmen grew vegetables in the monastery, although he faced the law when he turned his hand to pheasant shooting.
Wounded British soldiers prepared and served meals at Kelham Hall, and food unrest led to further fighting. Walker finally fired the stewards after another punch, but by then Rosser had solved the problem. He stormed into an angry general's office and secured food supplies from the US military.
When the winter of 1943 passed into the spring of 1944, England filled with soldiers from all over the world who were ready to invade Europe. Don Walker and his military contacts maintained a lively black market whiskey trade. And when the boys spotted an Alabama African American soldier in a nearby town, they brought him back to Kelham Hall for dinner.
Now that their diets were up to date, the oilmen were speeding up the pace all summer. Since their arrival, the production of the oil field has increased from 300 to 3,000 barrels a day.
Unfortunately, an American never made it home: In November 1943, the popular 29-year-old Texan Herman Douthit died of a derrick. He was buried in the US military cemetery in Cambridge.
When the boys left snow-covered Nottinghamshire in March 1944, they had drilled 106 wells. Ultimately, the Eakring oil fields produced 3 million barrels of oil during the war and continued to produce until 1965.
Strange little stories like this could easily disappear from memory, like the camouflaged nodding donkeys swallowed up by the green. But it is worth remembering all the men and women of all colors that have crossed the seas to stand together in these dark times. While Oklahomans worked as oilmen in England's forests, more than 900 men from Central America came to Britain to work as lumberjacks, to name just one example. In total, millions of men and women worked, fought and died on battlefields and on the home front around the world.
Today the Oil Patch Warrior statue is a testament to collaboration and camaraderie. Fittingly, the British monument has a friend on the other side of the ocean: an identical statue in Ardmore, Oklahoma.