The roughneck US cowboys who drilled Britain's secret WWII oil wells

Wars aren't fought only on battlefields. Here's the little-known story of the gang of Americans who searched for black gold in the heart of besieged Britain.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Sherwood Forest, home of England's legendary outlaw Robin Hood, was a long way from the front lines of World War II. But that's where, amid the sun-dappled woods, I encountered one of the war's most extraordinary secrets.

On a bright September day, a veteran of that historic conflict led me into a grassy clearing, and it took me a moment to spot strange long-abandoned machinery still camouflaged against the forest greenery. Then, near a dirt path winding through the trees, I saw a stout figure ready for action: a 7-foot statue of an oil worker equipped with a helmet and Stillson wrench and standing astride a base etched with 42 names.

Titled the Oil Patch Warrior, the statue is a monument to one of the groups that traveled many miles from home to aid the besieged and starving people of Britain during their darkest hour of World War II. The story behind the Warrior is a compelling, little-known, and occasionally even funny tale that's also a powerful and timely reminder of the lessons history can teach about friendship, survival and steadfast cooperation when things are at their worst. 

Millions of men and women worked and fought and died in the war, in their own countries or many miles from home. Black and white, they came from America and Africa and across the world. They should never be forgotten.

Yet today, many locals have never heard the story behind the Oil Patch Warrior. And back then, neither Hitler nor the British public knew there was precious oil beneath English soil -- or that a posse of cowboy-booted roughnecks was drilling for black gold in the heart of England's green and pleasant land. 

Black gold

"Without oil no plane could fly, no tank could move, no ship could sail, no gun could fire," historians Guy and Grace Woodward wrote in their book The Secret of Sherwood Forest. The planned Allied invasion of mainland Europe would require huge supplies of black gold -- a single armored division gobbled up 60,000 gallons of gasoline per day -- and oil was vital for generating heat, light and clean water. Civil and military essentials like tires, road surfaces and explosives also required oil. It was even used in special runway flares to reduce the number of deaths from planes crashing while trying to land amid the English fog.

Before the discovery of North Sea oil, Britain had to import fuel -- and emergency reserves were down to just two months as Nazi submarines and bombers took a deadly toll on incoming convoys. Fortunately, the British government searched for home-grown supplies before the war even started. They found them beneath the forests and fields of rural Nottinghamshire.

Visiting the secret oil wells of World War II

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The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a forerunner to BP, began drilling in the Eakring and Duke's Wood area. But their heavy rigs, designed for the Middle East's deep oil reserves, weren't suited to these shallower oil fields. And with most young men called to active service, the wells were crewed by inexperienced locals and drafted-in miners.

So in September 1942, British oilman Philip Southwell made the arduous journey to Washington, DC, to buy more-appropriate equipment. At first he was refused, but planes and trains and a rented car got him to the Oklahoma home of oil baron Lloyd Noble. Noble answered the door in his pajamas and the two WWI veterans struck a deal. Noble's only caveat: He wouldn't take a cent of profit.

Once the red tape was finally dealt with, 42 Oklahoma roughnecks, drillers and tool pushers volunteered to sail across the Atlantic and join the war. Southwell had only one problem: Where to hide them?

Rogues and robes

Kelham Hall, a delightful red-brick gothic mansion built in the 19th century, has in recent years been a scenic venue for weddings and business conferences. Located a few miles from Eakring, its wood-paneled rooms also housed a museum exploring the history of British oil.

The curator, Kevin Topham, lived much of that history. Now in his 90s, Topham brims with fascinating stories told in his soft Nottinghamshire accent. When I arrived at Kelham Hall, he showed me a badge on his blazer depicting a fish with wings, symbolizing his membership in the Goldfish Club: an informal fellowship for those who escape a watery grave. Topham earned it in the icy North Sea on Boxing Day 1965 when the first British offshore oil rig, the Sea Gem, collapsed and killed 13. 


Kevin Topham with the oil pumping machinery still standing in Duke's Wood.

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Before his oil days, Topham worked on bomb disposal for the Royal Air Force, driving around in a vehicle marked Danger: High Explosives. "I could park anywhere with that," he said with a laugh.

As we sipped tea in Kelham Hall's high-windowed dining room, Topham told me about his encounters with uniformed Allies during the war. "We used to have big dances in Newark and Retford and Nottingham," he remembered. "You'd be dancing round, rubbing shoulders with the Canadians and the Americans. You could hear 'em anyway! It was quite an experience. I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

Back then, Kelham Hall was a monastery. And when the rambunctious Oklahoman oilmen were billeted alongside the monks, the two contrasting groups were quickly nicknamed the "rogues and robes."


Oil men hard at work in Eakring.

Kelham Hall

Cowboys, oilmen and nodding donkeys

The oil workers burst into the sleepy village of Eakring in March 1943 like rowdy cowboys riding into town. Their colorful Western shirts, Stetson hats and banjos made an indelible impression on the locals in the meager, gray days of wartime. "Where do you suppose he tied his horse?" joked a Brit on meeting one of the oilmen for the first time. 

Leading the company were two men who couldn't be more different. Capable but rough-edged foreman Eugene Rosser was dismayed to be paired with smooth-talking Don Walker , an administrator who knew nothing about oil. But the pair became fast friends riding herd on their rough-and-tumble band. They had a job to do: drill 100 oil wells in just 12 months.

Despite chilling springtime rain, the energetic Americans set 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 to the head office three times -- because British officials simply couldn't believe it.

In those desperate times, the existence of the oil field had to be kept secret. It was difficult hiding an operation that employed hundreds of people and often choked the country lanes with buses and heavy trucks carrying staff and equipment, and the locals weren't fooled by Americans playfully claiming to be making a motion picture. The site had to be hidden from the air, too, so the seesawing pump jacks that draw the oil to the surface -- also known as "nodding donkeys" -- were painted green as camouflage. It's those pump jacks, freshly repainted in recent years, that Topham took me to see.

Topham worked as a derrick man at the Eakring oil fields after he got out of the Royal Air Force, which meant climbing up an oil rig's towering mast. "That was tough up there when it was chucking down rain," he recalls. "You couldn't pop down for a cup of tea if you'd got 5,000 feet of drill pipe in the hole. Some men, big tough men, they'd go 200 feet up and they'd freeze. There was a little ledge halfway up you could have a rest on, but no safety ropes or safety lines until you got up there and got a belt around you ... It was a highly dangerous job. It toughens you up."


The boys from Oklahoma: The oil workers who came to Britain during World War II.

American Oil and Gas Historical Society

Off duty, boisterous Americans inevitably clashed with war-weary locals. It didn't take long before the oilmen were drinking pubs dry of booze rations and chasing girls at local dances. Two men were sent home for fighting. There were a couple of bust-ups at the docks too: one argument over contraband cigars saw Rosser high-tailing it from the docks with his opinion of the English monarchy ringing in the air. Another time he gunned his truck out of the gate with customs officers clinging to the side and a bobby on a bicycle peddling furiously after. Rosser was also caught speeding once, and was shocked that in this upside-down wartime society the police officer was a woman.


American volunteer Herman Douthit fell to his death.

American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

But the biggest problem for the oilmen was food. The boys worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, yet wartime rationing was so tight they lost dangerous amounts of weight. One of the oilmen grew vegetables at the monastery, but faced a brush with the law when he turned his hand to shooting pheasant.

Meals at Kelham Hall were prepared and served by wounded British servicemen, and the oil workers' disaffection over the diet flared into more fighting. Walker eventually fired the stewards after yet another punch-up, but by then Rosser had solved the problem. Storming into an enraged general's office, he secured food supplies from the US military.

As the winter of 1943 mellowed into the spring of 1944, England was filling up with soldiers from around the world poised to invade Europe. Don Walker and his military contacts maintained a roaring trade in black market whiskey. And when the boys spotted an African-American soldier from Alabama in a nearby town, they whisked him back to Kelham Hall for dinner. 

Now their diet was up to scratch, the oilmen pushed the pace throughout the summer. Since their arrival, the oil field's production had gone up from 300 to 3,000 barrels a day.

Sadly, one American never made it home: In November 1943 popular 29-year-old Texan Herman Douthit fell from a derrick to his death. He was buried at the US military cemetery in Cambridge.

Oil patch warriors

By the time the boys left snow-covered Nottinghamshire in March 1944 they'd drilled 106 wells. Ultimately, the Eakring oil fields produced 3 million barrels of oil during the war, and continued producing until 1965.

Odd little stories like this could easily fade from memory, like those camouflaged nodding donkeys swallowed by greenery. Sadly, Topham is currently looking for a new home for his fascinating museum after Kelham Hall closed due to the COVID pandemic. 

But it's worth remembering all those men and women of all colors who crossed the seas to stand together in those dark times. While Oklahoman oilmen worked in England's forests, more than 900 men came to the UK from Central America to work as loggers, to cite just one example. In all, millions of men and women worked, fought and died on battlefields and on the home front across the world. 

Today, the Oil Patch Warrior statue stands as testament to cooperation and comradeship. Fittingly, the British monument has a friend on the other side of the ocean: an identical statue in Ardmore, Oklahoma.