On 6th June 1944, Allied troops began to invade France in an operation that would culminate in the end of the
Second World War. The D Day landings were made in two stages. Shortly after midnight British, American and Canadian troops were landed by glider and parachute to seize key objectives such as bridges and road crossings. At 6.30am infantry and armoured divisions were landed by amphibious vehicles along the Normandy coast. By the end of that day 160,000 allied troops had been landed and the offensive against the occupying German forces had begun.
Allied commanders knew that when the German army retreated they would destroy their fuel storage compounds as they went. As the allied troops advanced through Europe during the next few weeks it became increasingly important to ensure a reliable source of fuel for their vehicles. An ingenious plan was put into action.
It was called PLUTO: PipeLine Under The Ocean.
The vehicles of the allied invasion force required an enormous amount of fuel. Shipping it across the English Channel on oil tankers was too risky because of the danger of torpedoes from German submarines. Operation PLUTO was developed to pump petrol from England to France via specially constructed metal pipelines laid along the seabed.
Sixteen of the enormous pumps that supplied the PLUTO pipeline were located in Sandown. Fourteen of these were housed in what was then a derelict fort - now the location of the Isle of Wight Zoo. The remaining 2 pumps were housed in Browns, next door to the fort. One was in the present glassroofed tea room and the remainder were in the large brick built buildings (now administration offices) next to the Grand Hotel. At that time it carried a sign reading 'Browns Ice Cream’.
PLUTO in Sandown
To prevent the Germans from becoming suspicious about the works if they were spotted during reconnaissance flights a story was given out at the time (still believed today by ome people) that the pumps were to water the golf course and various pipes were laid in the ground to prove the point. Some of these however, contained the power cables leading to the pump houses and to the Grand Hotel (the white building next door to what is now the ring-tailed lemur enclosure). The basement of the hotel housed the Control Centre for the whole PLUTO operation on the Isle of Wight.
PipeLine Under The Ocean
All the pumps were numbered and some of these numbers are still clearly marked on the protective walls of the arches. The numbers remaining go up to 11. Three further pumps were installed in purpose built brick buildings inside the old fort . There are several of these wartime constructions and their other use is not known at this time.
Eleven PLUTO pumps (and their engines) were housed in the arches of the fort. These arches were where the guns had been mounted for the Napoleonic wars, and the old steel fabrication is still present in some of the gun ports.
- Each PLUTO pump had a capacity of 36,000 gallons (163,659 litres) per day.
- The PLUTO operation sent 330,000 gallons (1,500,210 litres) per day to the allied troops after the D Day invasion.
- The pumps delivered at a pressure of 1,500 lb/square inch (105.46kg/cm2).
- Each pump weighed more than 5 tons, and they were all installed by hand, without mechanical aids!
After the end of the war, most of the PLUTO pumps were sold for scrap. Until recently only two were known to still exist - one at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford and one at Bembridge Heritage Centre on the Isle of Wight. We now know that a third pump survived. Up until 1997 it was used to wash insulators on England’s tallest electricity pylon by the River Thames. In 2007 the pump was offered by the National Grid for restoration, and thanks to the efforts of Robin Maconchy at Bembridge Heritage Centre, it was brought home to Sandown Fort (now the IOW Zoo). Now, after careful restoration, the pump can be seen again here in its original setting.
If you would like to know more about the wartime history of this area of
the Isle of Wight we recommend that you visit Bembridge Heritage
Centre. The Centre is located at the rear of the library in Church Road,
Bembridge. Open 10am to 4pm Mon, Wed, Fri and 10am to 12 noon Sat, May
to October inc.