Britain’s Secret Fuel Pipelines

Jun 2, 2021 0 comments

How do airline companies procure fuel for their fleet? In the UK at least, the fuel comes through pipelines delivered directly at the airport. This extensive network of pipelines and associated facilities such as storage depots and pumping station, together called the “Government Pipelines and Storage System” or GPSS, was a national secret until very recently.

The idea to build pipelines for aviation fuel was put forward in 1936 as part of the planning for the Second World War, after the Air Ministry realized that the ability to distribute aviation fuel to the RAF's aircraft and petrol to its ground support vehicles was essential to sustaining any battle. The military authorities recognized that air superiority would be vital during World War II, and thus building, maintaining, and supporting the RAF was given high priority in planning. But sending fuel via roads and rail made this precious and strategic commodity vulnerable to aerial attack. The solution, hence, was to build a pipeline and hide it under the ground.

Photo: Shahizal Rizwan Ahmat Raslan |

The initial plan was to build a storage capacity of 90,000 tons, but this was increased to 800,000 tons by 1938. By the start of World War II in 1939, a number of these new protected storage depots were already operational. However, actual construction of the pipeline did not begin until after the war started. By then, it had become increasingly difficult for existing roads and rail networks to meet the demand to transfer the fuel eastwards and southwards from the west coast ports, as the east coast fuel import facilities were closed because of bombing. As a result, the British government gave the go ahead for the construction of an oil pipeline joining Liverpool’s Stanlow Refinery with Bristol’s Avonmouth Docks. Construction of the pipeline was carried out in utmost secrecy, often in the darkness of the night so that enemy reconnaissance aircraft couldn’t see any activity. Before long, this underground network expanded to reach RAF bases in Berkshire, Essex, Kent, Lincolnshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, providing vital fuel for British and American bombers that carried out raids over Germany and occupied Europe.

To protect the pipeline from damage during the war, a team of men and women was employed to patrol the pipeline and lookout for leaks. Each person was responsible for a section of pipeline eight to ten miles long. Later, scouting was done aerially using commercial helicopters on a fortnightly basis, and helicopter landing pads were constructed on the depots.

Photo: Brian Hughes

In 1944, the GPSS’s reach expanded even beyond the borders of the UK with the construction a new pipeline under the English Channel towards France in anticipation of the upcoming Allied invasion. Operation Pluto (Pipe-Lines Under The Ocean) provided fuel for the tanks and other armored vehicles that landed in Europe starting 6th June 1944. And as the Allied troops advanced further into Europe so the pipelines extended with them, eventually reaching the banks of the Rhine River.

After the end of the war and the rise of civil aviation, the GPSS found use again, carrying fuel to new civilian airports as well as military airfields across the UK. The GPSS remained officially secret until the end of the Cold War, although knowledge of the pipeline was already in the public domain through the publication of various books and papers. In 2015, GPSS was sold to a private Spanish company and is now known as the CLH Pipeline System. However, the military continues to use the system.

A section of exposed pipeline crossing the Stroudwater Canal, near to Whitminster, Gloucestershire. Photo: Caroline Tandy/Wikimedia Commons

GPSS marker plate, near Heydon, Cambridgeshire. Photo: Keith Edkins/Wikimedia Commons

A section of the PLUTO pipleline, running through Shanklin Chine, Shanklin, Isle of Wight. Photo: Editor5807/Wikimedia Commons

# Stephen Dowling, The UK’s network of secret fuel pipes that helped win WWII, BBC
# Ben Johnson, The Government Pipelines and Storage System (GPSS), Historic UK


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