PLUTO and TOMBOLA – D Day Fuel

PLUTO and TOMBOLA were the codenames given to fuel transfer systems used in the invasion of Europe by allied forces in 1944

The Allied mechanised armies and expeditionary air forces had a voracious appetite for fuel, getting it to them was going to be the job for PLUTO and TOMBOLA

11 million jerry cans were produced in readiness and initial fuel stocks of 14,00 tons would be loaded on the invasion fleet but moving large tankers loaded with petrol into the English Channel whilst still in range of German combat aviation and submarines would not be advisable. It became obvious during D Day planning that the only means of keeping up with demand at an acceptable level of risk would be some form of the pipeline. Undersea pipelines for fuel were not revolutionary but these were carefully constructed and not subject to enemy fire.

Work started on the ‘fuel problem’ in 1942 and a number of schemes were considered but they centred on two concepts, a ship to shore system for the early stages of the operation followed up with a series of high volume undersea pipelines. The pipeline system was known as PLUTO, Pipeline Under the Ocean, or more correctly, Pipeline Underwater Transport of Oil, and the ship to shore system, TOMBOLA.


The industry was co-opted and the design team included staff from the Anglo Iranian Oil Corporation (now BP), Siemens Brothers, Pirelli, Shell, Burmah Oil and the Post Office. The design effort included the shore handling facilities, the pipes themselves and the means to lay them.

Two pipeline designs were to be used, HAIS and HAMEL.

HAIS (Hartley/Anglo-Iranian/Siemens) was based on an underwater power cable with the core copper conductors removed. 3 inches in diameter it weighed approximately 55 tons per nautical mile, although it was flexible the immense quantities of lead required were impractical. An alternative was developed, HAMEL.

Pluto Pipeline

HAMEL (Hammick/Ellis) was a much less flexible 3-inch steel pipeline, it was much cheaper to produce than HAIS but very difficult to coil. The two could be joined however and after testing it was decided to use HAMEL for the majority of the length and jointed to short lengths of HAIS where flexibility was needed.

Converted cable laying ships were used in trials but these proved to be inadequate, a telegraph cable being completely different to handle than a large diameter PLUTO cable. Modifications were made to HMS Holdfast to enable the HAIS pipelines to be laid and a large number of tugs and other vessels were used, including two additional pipeline laying ships.

T 26

T 27

T 28

HMS Holdfast

Pipeline Joining

Tug Brittanic joining pipeline between England and Bolougne

Laying the HAMEL pipeline was a particularly difficult problem but a novel system was found to offer great potential. Wrapping the pipeline around huge drums called Conun-Drums allowed continuous sections to be unspooled whilst afloat.



T 54

PLUTO Conundrum 03

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T 29

ConunDrum alongside at Boulogne

The plan for PLUTO required two routes to be established; 4 lines between the Isle of Wight (Bambi) and Cherbourg and 17 lines between Dungeness (Dumbo) and Boulogne.

The extensive damage at Cherbourg meant the pipelines could not be installed until D+36. By the end of the operation 6 HAMEL and 11 HAIS pipelines were terminated at Cherbourg. This route only delivered 3,300 tons of fuel before it was closed down on the 4th of October, it was perhaps a lot of effort for not a lot of delivered fuel. Meanwhile, the TOMBOLA system and Port en Bessin continued to be used to great effect, greatly exceeding expectations. Cherbourg was also receiving tanker deliveries soon after.

Control Room


Disguised Pumping House

H 41885A

Disguised Centrifugal Pump

T 35


H 41886


PLUTO Terminal at Boulogne

Operations then concentrated on the shorter route between Dungeness and Boulogne which delivered vastly more, by VE day over 170 million gallons had been delivered.


TOMBOLA was a ship to shore fuel transfer system used shortly after D Day, coming ashore near Port en Bessin

Port en Bessin 01

It then went inland to Honorine des Perts

Sainte Honorine Des Pertes 04


Sainte Honorine Des Pertes 02


Where a tank farm was established

MINOR Tank Farm Mont Cauvin 02

And a jerry can fill station

Jerry Can 01


Eisenhower described PLUTO as;

Second in daring only to the artificial harbors project and provided our main supplies of fuel during the Winter and Spring campaigns.

As the security situation improved the Allies were able to bring large tankers into the area and made extensive and increasing use of French, Belgian and Dutch ports. The first tanker to dock at Cherbourg was the SS Empire Traveller, arriving on the 24th of July.

Empire Traveller

SS Empire Traveller Cherbourg 01

SS Empire Traveller Cherbourg 02

SS Empire Traveller Cherbourg 03

SS Empire Traveller Cherbourg 05

SS Empire Traveller Cherbourg 06

SS Empire Traveller Cherbourg 10

Cherbourg would be the most important but Ostend and Antwerp would also play a major role. Antwerp was captured almost intact and had considerable receiving and storage facilities.

After clearance activities were completed the first tanker was received at Antwerp on December 3rd 1944.

For the fuel problem, PLUTO was ingenious and it set in motion many innovations that allowed the Middle East oil fields to be exploited but arguably, was a failure in terms of fuel logistic support to Allied forces in Western Europe

Tankers offloading at ports delivered vastly more, although only when risks of enemy action had been reduced.

TOMBOLA, on the other hand, exceeded all expectations, it was a great success.

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 23/07/2021 initial issue
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