ONE of the greatest feats of British engineering came into play 77 years ago today when PLUTO – pipeline under the ocean - began transporting oil from the south coast of England over the Channel and into Normandy, France. It was a vital masterstroke in thwarting the efforts of Hitler and the German Wehrmacht

The triumph of the D-Day landings was due not only to the courage of the thousands who risked their lives on that fateful day but also to technological wizardry on a grand scale.

The ingenuity that created Hobart’s Funnies, the Mulberry Harbours and the PLUTO pipeline was vital to the successful push into Normandy and to victory in the

Second World War. The enormity of the problem was almost beyond belief but it had to be done.

Winston Churchill was determined: “Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves,’’ he ordered.

Planners were given firm guidelines. Harbours the size of Dover must be built and transported in sections across the Channel, and by D-Day plus 21 they must be capable of dealing with anything up to 12,000 tons of stores and 2,500 vehicles a day.

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The dock should be big enough to handle the 26-foot draught of the Liberty ships and provide sheltered water for smaller

craft. They must have a minimum life of three months and be ready in a matter of months.

There would be pierheads and roadways that would float and form a link with the shore.

And all this had to be done in the utmost secrecy.

The Mulberry Harbours were one of the most ambitious plans connected with the Normandy landings and one, to this day, that is still a monument to the effort and commitment of engineers and construction workers almost 80 years ago.

Parts of the Mulberries were built all over Great Britain and then stored in creeks and inlets to confuse enemy spotter aircraft.

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Building was so secret that many who worked on the project were not sure what it actually was. Some even said it was a new and terrible weapon of war.

Much of the Mulberries were constructed in Southampton Docks and Portsmouth with other parts of the Harbours built at Stokes Bay, Gosport and Beaulieu, where anything up to 1,000 men worked in shifts of 12 hours each.

Just a few weeks before the landings themselves planners decided to concentrate certain parts of the work in Southampton. More workers were drafted in from all over the country, specialised equipment was quickly installed and building continued day and night.

Two days before D-Day, Mulberry A, for the American sector, and Mulberry B, which was destined to lay off Arromanches on Gold beach, were ready.

Just hours after the first soldier fought his way ashore components of the harbour began arriving off the French coast and assembly began.

On the night of June 19 disaster struck, and the biggest fear of the Mulberry planners became a reality — a Channel storm.

For three days it blew, causing havoc on the invasion beaches while off the coast 500 landing craft rode out the storm inside the Arromanches Mulberry. There was damage to part of the structure but this was nothing compared to that further down the coast off Omaha beach.

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The gale simply wrecked the American Mulberry laying off the village of St Laurent. The storm overwhelmed the structure, of which parts were either sunk completely or so badly damaged they became useless.

Gradually the Mulberry at Arromanches was brought back into commission and stores, vehicles and, men once again began arriving.

Parts of the Mulberry Harbour can still be seen off Arromanches and at low tide, the remaining hulks are popular visiting points on the gently shelving sands of Normandy.

Hobart’s Funnies, tanks specially adapted to cope with the rigours of the Normandy beaches, were also to play a vital role in the landings — and their success was all down to a corporal serving in the Home Guard.

Major General Sir Percy Hobart was a man of determination who believed firmly in tanks. But despite success in other campaigns the military chiefs of the time sidelined him, so, disappointed and angry, Hobart retired early.

He joined up in the ranks of the Home Guard in 1940 but three years later Churchill insisted that he be recalled to mastermind the ingenious tanks that were to be so crucial to the future invasion force.

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The Americans largely decided against using Hobart’s Funnies – a decision that would cost them dear on the bloody beach codenamed Omaha.

Breaking out was the aim of the Allied invasion force once ashore and established on the beaches of Normandy, but this was reliant on two factors, determination on behalf of the men and a constant supply of fuel for vehicles.

The troops proved themselves over and over again in the surf at H-Hour and as they fought their way yard by yard up the beaches but the other element was down to the ingenuity of the backroom boffins that designed PLUTO as well as the harbours.

PLUTO itself was born during a conversation between Lord Louis Mountbatten, then Chief of Combined Operations, and a politician in the Ministry of Fuel.

Lord Louis was asked if there was anything that could be done to help in the planning for D-Day.

“Yes you can lay an oil pipeline across the Channel,’’ said Lord Mountbatten.

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In the fullness of time, the experts came up with a plan which resulted in a network of pipes covering a total of 770 miles. The nerve centre for the operation was in an ordinary-looking house in Upper Vicarage Road, Woolston, Southampton.

It was manufactured at Pirelli General Cable Works Limited in Southampton – the same factory that produced three-and-a-half million miles of wire for the Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War.

Before laying the first stretch of line to Cherbourg, about 20 lines were laid between Lepe, on Southampton Water, and the northern shore of the Isle of Wight and from there to Sandown and Shanklin where powerful pumps provided the heart for the fuel-line. A secondary base was also established at Tilbury.

The PLUTO pipeline pumped 210 million gallons to the fuel-thirsty British and American units as they pushed forward into the Continent.

When PLUTO was salvaged after the war the metal in the pipes supplied the plumbing needs for 50,000 houses and yielded 75,000 gallons of high octane fuel.

As an added benefit the pipeline, which cost £3,000 per mile to construct, was sold at £2,400 per mile once salvaged after the war.

Sir Winston Churchill called Operation PLUTO “a remarkable feat of British Engineering, distinguished in its originality, pursued with tenacity and crowned with complete success.”

“This creative energy helped us to win the war,” he said.