D-Day

Operation Pluto As Told By A D-Day Veteran

How an oil pipeline ensured allied victory in World War Two

Operation Pluto formed a crucial part of the biggest military invasion of modern history on D-Day. By today’s standards, laying a pipeline under the sea across the English Channel might not seem so significant, but in 1944, when faced with a fearsome enemy on the other side of the water, the plan posed an enormous challenge for a team of engineers, oil companies and British Armed Forces. John Gillespie, a 24-year-old sapper at the time, recounts his part in the incredible operation.

A Pipeline Under The English Channel

British, US and Canadian troops landed in France in the biggest seaborne invasion in modern history on Tuesday 6 June, 1944.

Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day, saw 156,115 allied troops storm the beaches of Normandy leading to the liberation of France and subsequently the rest of Western Europe. 

An operation of that size required a separate operation to meet its fuel demands – this was Operation Pluto and John Gillespie was ready to play his part.

As a young officer with the Royal Engineers, John was responsible for the construction of army installations for the operation.

John, explaining the plan, said: “Pluto stands for Pipelines Under The Ocean and it relates to the idea of supplying our army on the continent by pumping petrol across the channel in underwater pipes.

“In the end, we were pumping a million gallons of petrol a day all the way from Liverpool across the Rhine at Emmerich. 

“We supplied the British Army, the Canadians, and the Americans. And we also pumped aviation spirit to an airdrome at Carpiquet where the RAF were able to land their fighter jets.” 

What Was Operation Pluto?

Military and government leaders recognised that the major operation that would be involved in the D-Day landings would depend on a reliable and plentiful supply of fuel.

However, how to transport the fuel to the invasion force proved a major problem – normally this would have been done by tankers but in Operation Overlord, tankers ran the risk of attack by the enemy both from the air and by submarines.

Tankers and the normal ship-to-shore pipes could also risk cluttering up the beaches and create obstacles for the soldiers during the invasion, and stand out as prime targets for the Luftwaffe.

Engineers, scientists, oil companies and members of the Armed Forces teamed up to solve the problem – and Operation Pluto was born. This would be laying a pipeline under the English Channel, to pump fuel directly into the war zone.

The feat was no small achievement – an integrated network of pipelines was created that pumped fuel all the way from safer areas of Britain such as Liverpool and Bristol, down to places such as Dungeness and the Isle of Wight. Fuel was then pumped under the Channel to Cherbourg and Calais.

Despite the Normandy landings launching in June, Operation Pluto’s pipeline was not fully operational until more than a week into August, by which time fuel was desperately needed as the Allied forces were making significant gains against German forces.

However, the operation was a huge success and from August 1944 to Spring 1945, Pluto was reported to have pumped more than 172 million gallons of fuel over to France – no small achievement for what is considered the world’s first undersea fuel pipeline.

Operation Pluto ensured that D-Day was a success, that the allies had enough fuel to keep on progressing through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and all the way to victory in Germany.

John Gillespie's Memories Of Operation Pluto

For World War Two veteran John, now aged 101, Operation Pluto was one of the most significant moments in his life and one that still holds firm in his memory.

Despite his advanced years, he still appears to have ceaseless energy, which he simply puts down to "food" when asked how to become a centenarian. 

His recollections of Operation Pluto might also be thought of as a mission to feed one of the most significant moments in British history too - no one will ever get far in life without the right fuel, and fuel to feed the D-Day operation was an essential part of the invasion.

Planes, tanks, and ships require a lot of fuel. 

British soldiers constructing Operation Pluto, the pipeline used to pump fuel oil over the English channel to France to support Operation Overlord (Picture: Alamy)

John’s War Began Much Earlier Than D-Day  

Born in Glasgow in 1920, John Gillespie travelled around the country a lot as a child. His father was a civil engineer. Mr Gillespie said:  

“As youngsters we followed him around and then settled in West Coast of Scotland.” 

The veteran decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a civil engineer. He graduated from Glasgow University in the same year as the Second World War began. According to John, that was the year that his war began too, when he joined the Royal McAlpine engineering firm.  

Then aged 19, John got to work straight away, transforming a factory at Clydebank that during peacetime produced frames for Singer sewing machines, but in 1939, was diverted to make hand grenades.  

Clydebank also hosted a foundry for casting steel links for tanks and facilities to manufacture Sten guns. During the Blitz, it was one of the most dangerous places to be in the UK. Apart from munitions manufacturing, the town of Clydebank was also a shipbuilding hub.  

The Clydebank Blitz is known as one of the most devastating Luftwaffe bombing raids of the Second World War. 

The young engineer's two-year contract stated that one of the requirements was that two members of staff had to stay in the office as air-raid wardens in case of bombing.  

On a Monday night in March 1941, John was on duty with a young Spanish civil engineer and the next night was the first night of the Clydebank Blitz.  

“The whole of Clydebank was flattened. There were only seven houses not damaged.” 

By Tuesday night, John was helping to recover the bodies of his two colleagues from the rubble.  

“I was on duty on the Monday. They were on duty on the Tuesday.” 

As a young engineer working in a munitions factory, John had a ‘reserved occupation’ and was doing ‘protected work’ which meant that he was not going to be drafted into the war. His experience of the Blitz at Clydebank influenced him to volunteer.  

John joined the Royal Engineers, as “an ordinary snapper.”

After doing a year of officer training at Aldershot, he had worked his way up to Acting Major.  

Later, John joined the Engineer Staff Corps which is an advisory board to the Royal Engineers including people who have extensive experience with the military.  

Dumbarton Road in the morning after the Clydebank Blitz 1941 (Picture: Clydebank Central Library)

D-DAY  

Just prior to the D-Day landings, John was transferred from his company to join a reserve group of two officers and 200 men to replace the expected casualties of the landings at Normandy.  

On 18 June, the night of John’s first wedding anniversary, he boarded the steamship Anchor Line SS Empire Miss with 72 Field Co Rein, landing on Gold Beach via Mulberry Harbour.

John said: “The Chief Engineer onboard was a Scotsman and so we got chatting and he said I’ll be on duty all night; you can have my cabin.  

“And so that night, sailing across to France I had a bed and a good sleep, and a shower and I had my breakfast and then reality set in.  

“We clambered down the rope netting down the side of the ship into a landing craft and landed on Gold Beach. 

"We were attached to a Royal Engineers field company for about a week while things were settling.”  

John’s first task was to construct temporary roads from the beachhead. They were using American manufactured steel planks that were linked together to form a roadway for lorries.  

He wanted to be a part of Operation Pluto, so he located the Colonel of the Pluto Group and asked to be transferred to the 663 Company – the sister company that was working on Operation Pluto.  

Sadly, one of the officers in that company was killed when his landing craft was bombed, so John took his place. He knew everyone well in 663 because they had trained together at Aldershot.  

The Royal Navy constructed a small harbour in the junction between British Gold Beach and American Omaha Beach for oil tankers to moor.  

“We ran petrol lines ashore, and we constructed right there large petrol storage tanks. 

“The tanks contained 1,200 tones of petrol. They were 30ft high. 

“We also erected and installed high-pressure pumps which ran to 600 pounds a square inch."

Constructing those facilities had to be done under camouflage.  

To hide the 30ft structure, tubular pylons were erected around the site of the tanks. The site was levelled with an armoured bulldozer and camouflage netting was draped over the top of the pylons.  

John and his ‘lads’ as he calls them were working shirtless 15 hours a day. It would take them five days to complete one camouflaged structure.  

John Gillespie showing the painting he commissioned from Captain Bell

Camouflaging 30ft Oil Tanks

The group had a ‘Camouflage Officer’ called Captain Bell, he handled designing and executing the camouflage that hid the tanks from the Germans.  

In his civilian life, Captain Bell was an artist. John commissioned him to paint the camouflage process. 

The painting shows the men bolting up the steel side sheets with air operated nut guns, the compressor, and the support pylons. The artwork is the only one in existence and is proudly displayed in John Gilespie’s home in Ponteland.  

Captain Bell received £5 for his artwork which at the time was a generous sum of money.  

One of the enormous devices used to lay the pipeline in Operation Pluto, an operation by British engineers to lay oil pipes on the sea bed across the English Channel (Picture: Alamy)

Civilian Life  

In 2020, John celebrated his 100th birthday. The veteran was hoping to have a party but it had to be a muted affair due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The veteran has many achievements to celebrate, having reached great heights in his career. Before retirement, he was the Managing Director of the Port of Tyne, where he was responsible for the installation of the first vehicular Tyne Tunnel.  

In 2015, he was presented with France’s highest honour, the Legion d’honneur.  

He remains active and enjoys several hobbies including beekeeping, jewellery making and learning about history, having taken an online University course on the history of the Roman Wall.  

He attributes his ebullient spirit at his age to an active lifestyle.

His role in Operation Pluto, however, remains one of his most significant achievements - and one that helped ensure Britain secured victory over Nazi Germany, a vital part in the mission that is considered the beginning of the end of the Second World War.