Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation

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No 42 Group - Ammunition, Chemical Weapons, Oxygen, Aviation Fuel and Oil

The following is extracted from Chapter 7, AP3397 'Maintenance' (AHB - 1954)

The Planned Expansion of the Group

As the war-progressed a planned expansion of the Group took place, based on the estimated ammunition consumption requirements of the operational and training Commands for the years that lay ahead.  At the beginning of 1942 the stock holdings of the three main parks were increased to 10,000 tons, and in due course the other parks' holdings were also enlarged to that figure.  In February 1943 the holdings of high explosives and incendiaries amounted to 192,486 tons, but this had been increased, in preparation for the liberation of NW Europe, to 275,000 tons by the end of February 1944.

The depot storage capacity was also extended at the end of 1943 and this was accompanied by a change in storage policy.  Whereas previously the Services' main explosives stocks had been held at the rear in underground units and main depots, stocks of all the main items in use were moved forward into the parks.  It became the policy to by-pass the depots in so far as receipts from contractors were concerned and this necessitated still further increases in the parks' storage areas.  No 42 Group now had a number of parks right down the East Coast of England, each with its self-contained storage satellites, together with miles of public roads on the verges of which large stocks were stored.

The turnover of the Group from 3 September 1939 to December 1940 was 350,000 tons, but this had increased to 1,059,696 and 3,068,127 tons for the years 1943 and 1944 respectively.

In the first twelve months of the war the 250 lb general purpose bomb was the principal weapon in use, but these were superseded by heavier bombs, which while reducing the number to be handled in proportion to the 'turnover tonnage' nevertheless presented new handling, transport and storage problems.

Fortunately, chemical weapons were never required for operations, and the main difficulties encountered were those of obtaining adequate dispersal of stocks, leakage during transit and decanting of leaky weapons.

The filling of aircraft oxygen cylinders was carried out either at British Oxygen Company installations or at the special filling plants set up at selected parks or depots.  At one stage of the war during peak operations the demand for oxygen was so heavy that it was only with great difficulty that supplies were maintained and curtailment of operations prevented.

Whilst No 42 Group were responsible for the bulk storage of aviation fuel and oil, the operation of installations and delivery to units were undertaken by the Petroleum Board on an agency basis.

The Provision of Depots and Parks

The planning for storage and distribution was the responsibility of the Air Ministry, under the Deputy Director of Equipment.  The information necessary to carry out this planning was supplied to the-Air Ministry as follows: -

(a) The Ministry of Aircraft Production provided forward estimates of aircraft intake from home and overseas production (including USA) to cover a period from two to three years ahead.

(b) The Air Staff provided estimated 'Orders of Battle' for home and overseas Commands showing the build up of the Royal Air Force by squadrons and role in six-monthly stages for two to three years ahead.

(c) The Air Staff provided details of airfields planned, under construction and completed.  These details included locations, date of completion, Command, etc., etc.

(d) AMSO (Organisation Forecasting) provided information regarding bomb loads, aiming, rates of expenditure, rates of effort, etc., in SD 98.

Estimates were prepared from the above information, showing the probable build up by six-monthly stages of explosives stocks and consumption rates within the various Commands.  From these budgeted figures 'consumption areas' were charted and the necessary supply units planned.

Pre-war planning paid little attention to the vital question of handling capacity and a review of all existing units revealed that in every case considerable improvement was necessary.  Steps were then taken to ensure that the storage and handling capacity of units was directly related to their functional and distributional obligations.

This 'storage-distribution ratio', as it was termed, was arrived at as follows: -

Reserve Ammunition Depots. Assuming that six months' reserves were to be held based on consumption at the calculated sustained rates of effort which was equivalent to three months' consumption at maximum effort.  Taking the capacity of a depot at 20,000 tons HE, 5,000 tons incendiary, 5,000 tons SAA pyrotechnics, etc., making a total of 30,000 tons or three months' intake.  Equivalent output during the same period brought the total turnover for the three months to 60,000 tons.  An average railway wagon held eight tons, therefore 7,500 wagons would have to be dealt with in three months giving an average of 84 wagons per day at a maximum.

Forward Ammunition Depots and Air Ammunition Parks. Assuming a total capacity at 20,000 tons represented one mouth's supplies at maximum effort for the squadrons served plus 25 per cent to cover outgoing traffic, making a total monthly rail turnover of 25,000 tons or an average of 104 wagons per day at a maximum.  Unlike the reserve ammunition depots the rail handling capacity was mainly affected by receipts, issues to local airfields being made mostly by road transport.  However, some issues were made and the bulk of the 25 per cent consisted of unwanted obsolete or obsolescent weapons, return of empty containers, transit bases, etc., much of which had the same volume empty as full.

The Siting of Supply Units. Having charted the consumption areas and planned the capacity and number of units within the areas, the next problem was to find suitable sites for these units. The main difficulty here was that the rail handling capacity in some districts was already so overloaded that even if new sidings had been constructed the railway companies could not have accepted further traffic on the line.  Some form of priority for explosives was therefore necessary if new units were to be constructed and operated, and this priority was eventually obtained.  The siting of new units and the expansion of existing ones to conform to storage regulations soon proved impossible and the regulations were considerably relaxed.  Second class roads with wide verges were used to form the high explosive and incendiary areas and thus suitable sites were usually found within the areas selected and used to their optimum capacity.

Construction of Units. Owing to the heavy works programme on airfields in the forward area great difficulty was experienced in getting work done and the construction of forward ammunition depots at one period was about twelve months behind schedule.  Fortunately, however, this was not serious, as the build up of the air forces, construction of airfields and the formation and conversion of squadrons was equally delayed.  The forward ammunition depots were usually formed and operated before completion, unit labour being used to supplement the works personnel wherever possible, particularly in the preparation of hard standings.

The Forward Ammunition Depot Scheme

The method of distribution used prior to 1942 necessitated nine stages of handling within the Group, so that despite the negligible consumption the turnover was high.  It became obvious that if the demand of Bomber Command's projected heavy expenditure of bombs for the years 1943, 1944 and 1945 was to be met, some modification in the distributional methods was necessary.  Preliminary discussions early in 1941 with Air Ministry, Works movements, Finance and Manning Directorates indicated the urgent need for a more flexible rapid system, of supply, involving less constructional work, less railway transport and, above all, less stages of handling to save man-power, motor transport, etc.

A new system was therefore worked out, known as the 'Forward Ammunition Depot Scheme', but although some progress was made in 1941 to provide the necessary facilities, its final adoption was delayed until later that year by a proposal to expand and slightly modify the existing scheme.  Eventually it was realised that this would not meet the case and the full development of the new scheme commenced.

The Control of Distribution by the Master Provision Officer

The distribution of explosives was the responsibility of the Master Provision Officer, Fauld.  The No 42 Group MPOs differed from those of No 40 Group in that, beyond keeping provision control record cards and the rendition of periodical returns of stocks, receipts and issues to the Air Ministry, no provisioning action was undertaken, their main task being the detailed distribution of stocks and traffic control.

To carry out this task efficiently the MPO needed to know where stocks were held, where they were wanted and where they were coming from, plus an accurate and up-to-date assessment of the ability of units to handle the traffic.  It was therefore necessary for the MPO to maintain records and statistics upon which he could draw for this vital information.  The methods of obtaining these statistics were as follows: -

(i) Provision control record cards (PCR cards) were raised for every item for which the MPO was responsible, each reference number being given a separate card for serviceable, unserviceable, repairable, red carded and unclassified stocks.  For example, nearly 250 separate cards were held relating to various Marks of 500 lb bombs alone, as the type of body, filling, Marks or type of pistol fitted, necessitated a separate reference number.  The PCR cards were kept up to date from maintenance units' posting slips, forwarded daily by despatch rider, giving the movement of stocks and final stock balance for the previous 24 hours.  This gave an up-to-date detailed record of the disposition of stocks within the Group.

(ii) Pattern cards were raised for all active items where stocks were held under several reference numbers. They consisted of a consolidation on one card of the stocks and distribution of, say, various Marks of 500 lb bombs, together with the components necessary to make those stocks ready-to-drop.  They were made up daily from the corrected PCR cards and presented a picture of the latest stock figures in a form in which they could be readily assimilated and used.

(iii) Bomber Command stock returns took the form of a daily signal giving stocks of bombs and components on airfields as at 1100 hours.  It consisted of a list of items in short supply and/or under heavy consumption, varying according to the type of operations being carried out.

(iv) Forecasts of bomb filling at Royal Ordnance factories, with production estimates, were received periodically from the Air Ministry, Ministry of Supply and the Ministry of Aircraft Production, giving detailed programmes of output from various sources.

(v) Shipping advice notes (Form 1681) were received 7 days before convoys docked and gave the details of intake into British ports from the USA together with a request for consignment instructions.  It stated the number and type of bombs, the vessel number and approximate place and date of arrival.  The MPO would then allocate the particular consignment to where it was most needed.

(vi) The daily traffic signals were received from maintenance units showing, under code, the number of wagons held filled, number loaded and unloaded during the day, standing overnight, filled and empty, etc.

(vii) A traffic control board was maintained in the MPO's office giving details of daily traffic signals under various units and a summary of traffic allocated from ports and factories to the units.

(viii) Constant telephonic liaison was maintained with various Commands who provided advance information of pending operations.

This information enabled the MPO and his organisation to place the right stocks in the right place at the right time, and the manner of distribution to, and the operation of, the three types of units used in the forward ammunition depot scheme was as follows: -

(a) Reserve Ammunition Depots. These depots were provided with a capacity of 20,000 to 40,000 tons HE.  Their function was to store, receive, issue, modify and maintain reserve stocks of explosives to provide against breakdown in the forward supply programme.  They also covered shipping requirements and the detailed distribution to forward ammunition depots of small items such as pyrotechnics which could not economically be distributed direct from factories and ports.

(b) Forward Ammunition Depots. These depots were tactically sited in the forward area and had a capacity of 10,000 to 20,000 tons HE, enabling them to handle the requirements of 15 to 25 heavy bomber squadrons, operating from 10 to 15 airfields situated within a radius of 25 miles.

They held a stock of' active 'explosives of sufficient size to provide a cushion' to cover any breakdown in the supply.  As a Command withdrew stocks from this cushion to replace their expenditure the type of weapons in the pipeline was adjusted accordingly.  So when a sudden switch was made, say, from strategical to tactical weapons, the expenditure was replaced from the tactical cushion stocks, whilst the flow of strategic weapons was maintained in the pipeline until the strategical cushion had been replaced.  The flow was then adjusted to whatever tactical bomb load was being expended.  This permitted the direct routeing of bulk consignments from ports and factories, mainly by complete trainloads, thus obviating all but the last four of the nine handling stages previously necessary.  About 25 per cent of these bombs were off-loaded onto squadron motor transport, thereby reducing the handling to only one stage within No 42 Group.  The smooth flow of supplies was greatly assisted by the ability of these units to store any production which was temporarily surplus to operational requirements.

(c) Air Ammunition Parks. The third type of unit had a capacity of 500 to 1,000 tons HE, and were known as air ammunition parks.  These were sited in outlying areas to cover the comparatively small and infrequent demands of Coastal and Fighter Commands.  Their airfields, scattered as they were all around the coast of the British Isles, were difficult to supply.  However, this was largely overcome by building up station stocks in advance of any pending operations.

The nomenclature of maintenance units was later altered and reserve ammunition depots (RADs) became ammunition depots (ADs), forward ammunition depots (FADs) and air ammunition parks (AAPs) both became air ammunition parks, but the functions of the individual units remained essentially unchanged.

The Development of Satellite Storage

Early in 1940 satellite storage units of from 1,500 to 4,000 tons capacity were constructed adjacent to all the AAPs and held duplicate stocks to the parent park, so that in the event of enemy attack making the parent park unusable the satellites could be occupied and operated.  As the danger from enemy attack lessened these satellites were absorbed into the general storage plan of the parent park, thereby providing much-needed extra capacity to meet increasing storage commitments.  In practically every case these satellites were constructed by unit labour.  A large number of sawdust roads were constructed and these proved to be so satisfactory that they were still in use in 1945.

The Difficulties in Maintaining Supplies

The maintenance of the whole supply organisation involved considerable work and the prevention of any breakdown was only possible by the use of considerable pre-planning and close co-operation on the part of all concerned.  The issue was further complicated by the fact that each type of aircraft had its own particular aiming and bombing pattern and that whilst bombs were allocated from ports and factories most of the remaining components came from diverse sources of supply.

During the heavy operational period 1944-45, practically every item required was in short supply and components came from production at a rate only just sufficient to match up with bombs.  These were being expended at the same rate as they were being replaced, so that every allocation made had to be considered in relation to the overall supply situation.  The Master Provision Officer had in many cases to decide the highest priority requirement between United Kingdom, the continent of Europe and overseas theatres.  The flow in the pipeline to Bomber Command was interfered with as little as possible, allocations elsewhere being made against stocks which did not exist, the items being diverted from production at the last moment to phase in with the estimated time of call forward.

Supplies to the 2nd Tactical Air Force

The supplies to the 2nd Tactical Air Force operating from the United Kingdom were effected from the southern maintenance units.  For some time before operations commenced for the liberation of NW Europe, stocks of explosives and packed aviation fuel were built up at Longparish, Chilmark and Charlwood.  Detailed estimates of consumption through the various stages were, however, provided later to the Master Provision Officer by HQ, 2nd TAF, and stocks at the units were adjusted, as far as possible, to cover this expenditure.

Several of the most important items were in very short supply and road transport from the factories was used to ensure that every item was available to the airfields immediately manufacture was completed.

When operations commenced, 2nd TAF aviation fuel and ammunition parks were formed and operated in order to gain experience before proceeding to the Continent.  Demands for day-to-day requirements were telephoned to the Master Provision Officer and he allocated the demands to the unit most suited by virtue of location and stock, 2nd TAF transport then collected by road.  The issues of packed aviation fuel to the Continent, the Channel Islands, Norway and Denmark were normally by means of air transport, and up to the end of May 1945 amounted to 397,598 Jerricans (each containing 4.58 gallons) and 14,908 barrels.'

Major Incidents Involving the Loss of Explosives and Aviation Fuels

On Sunday, 25 January 1942, the roof of the underground storage tunnel at No 31 MU, Llanberis, collapsed.  This blocked the main entrance and both the railway siding and Decauville track, and either buried or rendered inaccessible the total contents of the tunnel comprising some 14,277 tons of explosives, bombs, depth charges and TNT, representing about one-seventh of the total stocks of these items held at ammunition depots in the United Kingdom.  There was no loss of life or serious casualties, although 22 airmen and one civilian were working in the tunnel at the time.  The commitments of this unit were dispersed among other depots in the Group and storage of stocks of high explosives transferred to a No 31 MU satellite at Rhiwlas.  As a result of this accident and matters arising out of the inquiry, a thorough inspection was made of similar depots.  A number of cracks were found to be appearing in the tunnel at Harpur Hill and arrangements were made to have all overseas issues made from this unit to enable permanent preventive work to be carried out.  The inquiry at Llanberis exposed a number of technical deficiencies in this type of storage depot and steps were taken to rectify them.

An even more serious incident occurred at No 21 Maintenance Unit, Fauld, on 27 November 1944, when an explosion occurred in the new area of the high explosives mine.  Twenty-six RAF, civilian and Italian personnel were killed and ten injured.  The loss of high explosives destroyed in the actual explosion was estimated at 3,500 tons, to which must be added the stocks damaged in the old area.  There were five hundred and eighty-four 4,000 lb. bombs in the new area and these formed six-sevenths by weight of the stores lost.  All underground storage had to be closed; but issues and receipts on a reduced scale were continued from the three outside storage sections.

In June 1942 an aviation fuel tank was hit by a stick of 500 kilo bombs during a general attack on Poole Harbour, but the fuel did not catch fire.  The tank contained 1,300,000 gallons of fuel and much of this found its way into an adjacent lake from which it was possible to salvage 260,000 gallons.

The Preliminary Education of the USA Ordnance Corps and the Handing over of Depots to the Americans'

The Group were responsible for what may be termed the preliminary education of the USA Ordnance Corps in the storage and handling of explosives under field storage conditions.  On 22 May 1942, representatives from this corps visited HQ, No 42 Group to discuss the disposition of United States explosives reaching the United Kingdom and the training of the first draft of American personnel.  Further discussions on 19 June 1942 covered the possibility of having to store 100,000 tons of American ammunition during the next 3 months.  On 4 September 1942 storage at Braybrooke was loaned to the USA Services of Supply and stacking of bombs commenced.  It was decided to move RAF stocks from Grovelly Wood and make immediate arrangements for the opening of an additional site at Melton Mowbray, which, together with road extensions to No 220 Maintenance Unit, Wortley, could then also be used for American stocks.  All units serving USAAF airfields were eventually taken over by them.

Chemical Weapons

At the end of 1940 it was decided to increase considerably the stocks of chemical weapons which were held forward at the parks, and separate storage areas were sited for this purpose.  The first of these was at No 94 Maintenance Unit, Barnham, where a large wood was utilised; and so that the unit could accept weapons coming off production, storage had to be improvised and sawdust roads constructed to give access for road vehicles.  These improvisations were so successful that they were still in use four years later.

In 1943 underground storage for bulk stocks of war gases was introduced, and this type of storage, in conjunction with forward fining plants, was constructed.  The method of storage and filling was also adopted by the USA Chemical Warfare Section at the same time.

Chemical weapons presented special handling, transport and storage problems on account of their proneness to leakage.  There was a small percentage of leaky weapons even under ideal storage conditions and great care therefore had to be taken to isolate stocks.  Leaky weapons had to be rendered harmless by means of special decanting equipment and courses of instruction were therefore given to personnel handling these weapons.  Leakage during transit was finally reduced to a minimum by improved manufacturing methods and rigorous inspection at the factory.

Supply of Aircraft Oxygen

In March 1941 the estimated total requirements of Bomber and Fighter Commands for breathing oxygen were 23,500,000 litres per week, rising to 32,250,000 litres per week by December of the same year and 40,650,000 litres per week for July 1942.  These figures were calculated on the basis of intensive operational effort by day and did not include reconnaissance or Army Co-operation squadrons.

The combined filling capacity of all the plants within the oxygen organisation in March 1941 was: -

Working one shift 11,105,000 litres per week
Working two shifts 22,210,000 litres per week
Working three shifts 33,315,000 litres per week

It was therefore recommended that the capacity of existing plants be increased to meet the budgeted consumption figures for July 1942, and that 4 spare compressors and driers be held in reserve to cover damage by enemy action or for expansion purposes.

On 13 May 1942 the scale of issue of oxygen transport cylinders was altered making it necessary to allot additional quantities of cylinders to FADs, AAPs and to the BOC filling factories.

The rapid expansion of Bomber Command and the increasing number of sorties being made, together with the large number of USAAF squadrons being based in the United Kingdom, necessitated the construction of new (Kentford) type oxygen plants at No 42 Group units, the first of which was scheduled to be installed at No 202 MU, Longparish, by March 1943.  With the installation of these plants the major production of breathing oxygen was taken over and became the responsibility of No 42 Group.

Diagram 15

No 42 Group Aviation Fuel and Oil Branch

The development of the arrangements for the supply of aviation fuel and oil up to April 1940 will be found here.

The supervision of the functional work of the aviation fuel reserve and distributing depots was delegated to No 42 Group.  They were responsible that proper records were maintained, that adequate stocks were available when and where required, and that the quantities of fuel discharged from ocean tankers into port installations were fully checked.

The operation of the fuel installations, and also of the road tankers for delivery to units, was undertaken on behalf of the Air Ministry by the Petroleum Board.

Distribution by the Petroleum Board of Aviation Fuels and Oils in the United Kingdom4

The development of the arrangements for the supply of petrol and oil to the Royal Air Force during the war may be divided into six phases.

The first stage in the story is the pre-war planning.  Then comes the stocktaking of the static war period from September 1939 to April/May 1940.  Then follows the Battle of Britain (July and August 1940) and the period of counter-invasion arrangements. 1941 saw the expansion of the bombing programme; 1942 the entry of the USA into the war and the beginning of the problem peak deliveries; 1943 the peak planning and the growing air offensive; 1944 the year of fulfilment and 'D 'Day; 1945 the final heave and the knock-out - the period of acute stock shortages.

Pre-war Planning

Planning for war between the major oil companies and the Air Ministry began in 1935-36.  Under peace-time conditions the Air Ministry's requirements of petrol and oil were supplied on contract by the various oil companies, each through the medium of its supply depots.  The increased requirements of the Royal Air Force during war-time, together with the necessity for strategic reasons to hold larger reserves of stocks, particularly at main installations at the ports, made it essential that a special war-time aviation petrol and lubricating oil system should be planned and built to supplement the oil companies' own facilities.  Decisions as to the size, number and locality of aviation main storages and local distributing depots were taken by early 1937 and the selection of sites and actual building began.  The contracts for building were placed with the major oil companies.

Although discussions took place as to whether the Air Ministry would operate their own distributing system under war conditions or whether the oil companies would do so, no final decision was, in fact, taken until the day war broke out

The question of who was to undertake the distributing ultimately made no difference whatever to the closeness of the co-operation between the Air Ministry and oil companies.  The most detailed plans were prepared of how the approximately 100 stations operating at the beginning of the war were to be supplied and the alternative methods to be adopted to meet the emergencies of war.  The first scheme assumed stocks available on the east coast, the second scheme assumed the closing of the east coast to shipping and the supply of the east coast areas (the real operational areas) by rail from the west.  A large number (about 60) oil company depots were earmarked for use as Aviation Depots, either to supplement the Air Ministry's own depots or to operate should war come before all the Air Ministry's depots were ready.  The beginning of the organisation for emergency railhead operations in the event of enemy damage was also laid down.

A meeting had been arranged with the Air Ministry at 1030 hours on 3 September 1939 to decide who would do the job of distributing aviation petrol.  In the light of the previous planning, and in order that the full facilities of the oil companies could be immediately at the disposal of aviation fuel distribution to meet any emergency, the Air Ministry asked the oil companies to undertake the task.  The fact that the oil companies had completed the most detailed plans to join together and become the Petroleum Board, which had similar responsibilities for the Army and the Navy, weighed considerably in making the decision.  The question of the terms and charges under which the scheme would work was left until later - getting on with the job was the first consideration.

The Petroleum Board had undertaken to provide 700 railcars of the 1,000 likely to be required within the first year of war, the Air Ministry having ordered the remaining 300 before war began.  About 100 road vehicles were also required which the Board undertook to provide together with the necessary driving personnel - also storages at ten main installations as well as 56 inland distributing depots.  Most of these inland depots (not required for the peacetime supply of aviation petrol) were cleared and filled with aviation petrol prior to the outbreak of war and were ready to meet aviation requirements from zero.

Peace-time aviation requirements were about 6,000 tons per month, little more than the consumption of one of the largest stations in the later years of the war.  The estimated war consumption was expected to begin at about 43,000 tons per month, to rise eventually to 70,000 tons and perhaps ultimately to 100,000 tons per month.  There were 100 stations to be supplied, only eight of which were expected to require 1,000 tons per month or more. There were at the end of the war about 600 stations, about 40 of which consumed 3,000 tons per month or more.

There were only two grades of petrol required initially, 87 and 77 octane.  Ultimately there were six grades with many additional experimental grades.  There was only one grade of lubricating oil initially - eventually there were eight grades, apart from additional experimental grades.

At the beginning of the war the number of depots handling and distributing aviation fuel were: -

Air Ministry (14 Aviation Fuel Reserve Depots and 15 Aviation Fuel Distribution Depots) 29
Petroleum Board (10 installations and 56 inland depots) 


At the end of 1944 there were :-

Air Ministry and Government storages. (35 A.F.R.D.s, 35 AFDDs and 8 Government storages)

Petroleum Board (13 installations and 59 depots) 72

Stocktaking of the Static War Period

During the static war period up to April/May 1940 there was a period of stocktaking and perfecting the original plan.  The consumption in the early months was only about one-third of the estimates.  The chief incidents of the period, apart from the completing of more AFDDs, were the completion of an inspection plan in November 1939, the taking over of lubricating oil distribution in February 1940 and the successful organisation at speed of the first of many complicated grade changes from 87 octane to 100 octane at operational Fighter and Bomber Stations.

Apart from United Kingdom distribution of aviation fuel, the Board organised during this period, in conjunction with the Air Ministry, large shipments of its own barrels filled with petrol to France.

The Battle of Britain and Counter-Invasion Arrangements

The Battle of Britain in July/August 1940 was the Board's first battle test - not only of their civilian drivers making deliveries to stations under enemy fire but also of their flexibility in meeting a sudden concentration of demand, of providing further 30 ft x 9 ft tanks to improve station storage and of the organisation of barrel and tin supplies to keep stations going even when their storage (e.g. Eastchurch) had been destroyed.

The latter half of 1940 and the early months of 1941 also saw the introduction of the emergency arrangements to deal with the possibility of invasion - the withdrawal of road vehicles, drivers and depot personnel to back areas should the necessity arise, the daytime running of trains (the loss or damage to a large number of railcars would have seriously affected the Board's ability to keep the Royal Air Force supplied so as to counter the invasion), the detailed planning with the Military Movement Control Officers and the Ministry of War Transport Road Engineers to enable vehicles to get through to stations irrespective of road damage, the organising in conjunction with the Air Ministry Signals Branch of a detailed communication system which would ensure unbroken contact with stations, the preparation of railheads with necessary personnel and pumps to take over supplies in the event of any key AFDDs being put out of action; also the building up of package dumps.  The consumption in 1940 of aviation petrol was 306,000 tons.  The consumption in 1941 was 676,000 tons.  By the end of 1940 five grades of lubricating oil were already being handled.

With Britain the garrison and the strategic base for continuing the fight against Germany, it was clear that eventually the maximum figure of 100,000 tons a month of aviation fuel previously contemplated would be largely exceeded but by how much it was impossible to foretell.  It did not seem that the distributing organisation would require to be radically improved even if that were feasible.

The Expansion of the Bombing Programme

In 1941 the RAF bombing programme began to expand and the problem of organising for the fluctuating RAF requirements began to require very special attention.  The new estimates indicated 100,000 tons per month by the end of 1941 and 135,000 tons per month by the summer of 1942.  Six additional distributing depots were suggested as well as additional petrol and lubricating oil railcars.  The beginning of the problem of peak deliveries prompted the Board to suggest the introduction of the special ullage system for controlling supplies to stations and for emphasising the necessity for the closest co-operation between distributing depots and stations if the highly fluctuating requirements at stations were to be met, especially in view of the small station storage - but the time for its introduction was not yet.  The Air Ministry were also at this time proceeding with their plans to increase station storages. Complicated 'Contact Sheets' for stations were introduced to give all concerned the alternative routes of communication whereby contact between stations and the Board could be ensured under any emergency.

The Entry of USA into the War

1942 saw the arrival of the Americans - they took over four stations.  It was clear by now that the consumption figures were going to exceed any previously known calculation.  The actual consumption peaks during 1942 approximated closely to the estimated peak of 135,000 tons per month.  With the arrival of the Americans the 'hotting up ' of the pace of the war and the possibility of a Second Front, not only was it certain that much larger peaks would have to be dealt with but the hotter the pace the more difficult it was going to be to ensure accurate forward estimates.

An additional 400 railcars was agreed at the beginning of 1942 and one or two more depots.  But new consumption figures over the 200,000 tons per month mark were beginning to be mentioned.  In order to avoid increasing the burden on rail transport which the increased consumption would otherwise involve, a new pipeline was built in 1943 to enable a new peak of 220,000 tons per month to be met.

At the end of 1942 a proposal was agreed to provide an additional 300,000 tons of aviation petrol tankage.  Of this some 40,000 tons were set aside to provide additional tankage at distributing depots; but the scheme was mainly intended to provide as near as possible the 6 months' overall aviation stock the Air Council required in view of the risks of the U-boat campaign and the anticipated but somewhat unpredictable increases in consumption.

1942 and early 1943 produced the first crises in meeting the special difficulties of peak demands at stations provided with inadequate storage.  Bombing could only be done in suitable weather by Bomber Command (at this stage) on moonless nights, and by the Americans on suitable days.  Even if a station had its planned storage of a week's consumption, during a peak period the average storage of a week became no more than the requirements for 2 or 3 days; and, as many stations had not got their planned storage, there were many where the storage represented a day or two days' storage at peak expenditure and in certain cases even less.  The station equipment officer was continually on tenterhooks depending on the Board's vehicles to maintain an unfailing flow, and never at any time did he have any real reserve in his storage.  The Board, for their part, were in considerable doubt as to what was the exact position at the stations, and the task of ensuring an unfailing flow, on the arrival of which the continuance of flying depended, was a terrible strain.  Various methods of intensifying the deliveries to meet the peak requirements were explored and eventually a daily ullage return, to be rendered by aerodromes to their supplying depots, was introduced to replace the previous block-order system; the transport arrangements were reorganised and enlarged; a system of traffic control was brought into being and the facilities at the depots for discharging railcars and loading road vehicles were increased.

1943—The Year of Planning

The original estimates for 1944 called for peak monthly deliveries of 300,000 tons and provided for an expenditure of £25,000 on improving the rail issuing facilities at Air Ministry depots and £60,000 for improving the pumping capacities and loading bays at the distributing depots.  These improvements were necessary to avoid delays in the loading of vehicles scheduled to do 6-8 loads and 250 miles per day and in handling railcars which were to deal with 85-100 tons per month against a former figure of 50 tons per month.

In October 1943 the Petroleum Board were advised that the Quebec Conference had estimated that the intensification of the war on Germany decided upon would result in the peak consumption of aviation fuel in the United Kingdom being increased from 300,000 to 420,000 tons per month.  Following a number of urgent meetings it was decided to lay an additional pipeline to carry the extra 120,000 tons. (This new line was eventually called upon to deal with 300,000 tons per month by itself.)

Further extensions to depot facilities costing £200,000 were agreed in November and the paper work was completed by the end of December.  The Board had 3-4 months, at a time of desperate labour, material and transport shortages, to produce these vital improvements, including two new 'stop-gap' depots at Ellingham and Chappel.

Reference has been made earlier on to the meagre station storage for aviation fuel, and in view of still-increasing consumption in the heavily loaded East Anglia and Lincolnshire areas the Board proposed towards the end of 1943 that selected stations, i.e. key stations some distance from their supplying depot, should have their storage increased to the level of 216,000 gallons (no more than two days' stock at peak rate) at the expense of a number of operational training units in the middle and west of the country where at many points 72,000 gallons of extra storage was about to be installed to bring them up to the standard 144,000 gallons level.  The Board's proposals in this respect were eventually agreed and the majority of the additional storages in the vital areas were built and commissioned in time to be of substantial use during the latter part of 1944 and early part of 1945.  The new peaks of the early months of 1944, however, had to be met without these improvements being available - another crisis in deliveries.

The Year of Fulfilment and' D ' Day

In March 1944the Petroleum Board were faced with one of their most difficult tasks of the war.  It had been decided previously that the advanced landing grounds (ALGs) on the south coast, which had been prepared for the liberation of Europe, were to be provisioned with packed aviation fuels and oils, but at the eleventh hour the Board were requested by the Air Ministry to furnish supplies in bulk of both fuel and oil.  The ALGs were equipped with only two 30 ft x 9 ft tanks at the outset and with only one concrete apron for the discharge of vehicles into storage and the issuing of supplies to aerodrome refuellers.  It was visualised that these ALGs would have a peak daily consumption according to areas of 10-45,000 gallons.  Once the decision had been taken that they were to be supplied in bulk, it meant that with the short time available an intensive programme was necessary to provide extra facilities in the way of additional storage at the heaviest points coupled with additional discharge arrangements, provision of auxiliary pumping units and separate bulk storage for lubricating oil.  Only by the Board's engineering staff coming to the rescue was the additional work completed in time, and it is true to say that without the extra facilities the ALGs could not have handled in bulk the heavy daily quantities.

During discussions with the Air Ministry, the RAF Movement Control had serious doubts as to whether the Board's transport would be adequate to cater for the deliveries in view of the likelihood of enemy bombing and restricted freedom on the roads. Detailed planning, however, with the War Office Movement Control had the desired results.

'D' Day went off as planned with the highest daily peak of deliveries - 25,000 tons - so far reached.

It was thought that the peak had been reached and that thereafter deliveries would diminish, but it was not so.  The peak for June (the 'D' Day period) was 550,000 tons and 557,000 tons in August; the figures for March and April 1945 were 640,000 tons and 631,000 tons respectively.

Conditions were not improved by an acute shortage of vehicles, drivers and railcars to meet aviation consumption in 1944, but with the help of the Air Ministry and War Office 200 additional Bedford 'Scammells' were secured.  Also, through the good offices of the US Area Petroleum Office, the USAAF loaned the Board 50 of their refuellers for which British drivers had to be specially prepared.  As to railcars, the Board were fortunate to be able to borrow 500 American railcars earmarked to go to France after 'D' Day.  The number of vehicles employed in carrying this very considerable load was 700, with 1,800 drivers.

The feature of the last two climax troubles of the war was the highest peaks ever in consumption, coupled with the lowest ever stock.  Against the target of six months originally suggested by the Air Council the Board had on 19 April 1945 only 141 days of usable stock of 100 octane.

This page was last updated on 08/07/19

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