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HAMEL Pipe, Conundrums and Operation Pluto

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Conundrum which carried the HAMEL steel pipe for Operation Pluto across the English Channel.

Photo shows the giant Conundrum wound with HAMEL steel pipe used for Operation Pluto during WWII. As it is towed it lays the fuel line. Image is a still capture from from Universal Studios Newsreel June 4, 1945, Victory Pipeline.

Development of HAMEL Steel Pipe

A steel steel pipe was developed as an alternative or backup to the HAIS cable that would be laid across the English Channel to supply fuel for the WWII Allied troops attacking Normandy. It was called HAMEL pipe, using an acronym for the developers' names, Hammick and Ellis.

It was believed by the developers that steel could be used as a short term fuel pipeline. It had strength, was flexible if used in long lengths, and could be made available in quantity, which was a great advantage, because of the scarcity of lead which was being used for the HAIS cable. A three inch pipe with 1/4 inch walls was used. A steel line could be made to fit any set length by welding on additional pipe.

Conundrum wound with HAMEL steel pipe being towed by tugs across the English Channel during Operation Pluto

Photo shows the Conundrum as it is tow by two tugboats, with one tug tethered in the rear to help steer. The tugboats and Conundrum are traveling away from the viewer.

HAMEL steel pipe was not without its drawbacks. It was estimated that it could last only 6 weeks under the English Channel and could not be coiled horizontally like the HAIS cable because it would not twist, which would make it difficult to carry and lay.

The HMS Conundrum

Planners hoped that 6 weeks would be enough time and began looking for a solution that would allow the pipe to be carried and laid. The solution was a very unique creation called a Conundrum.1 A giant 90 foot floating steel bobbin or drum, around which the HAMEL steel pipe was wound, was used to transport and lay the steel pipe. The Conundrum was towed by two tug boats (one on either side), with one tug tethered behind it to help steer.2 As the Conundrum traveled, it would rotate, allowing the pipe to uncoil and be laid across the Channel.

The Conundrum was approximately 40 feet in diameter and 52 feet between the end flanges and could carry up to 80 miles of the 3 inch steel pipe. It weighed 1,600 tons3 when fully loaded making it a quite impressive sight. Eventually the Conundrums allowed six HAMEL pipelines to be laid from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg and six lines from Dungeness to Boulogne, in addition to the HAIS cable that was laid.

1 The name Conundrum caught on since the drum solved the conundrum. Several were made and were dubbed H.M.S. Conundrums.

2 Pluto – "The Undersea Pipeline”, Popular Science, August 1945.

3 Adrian Searle, PLUTO, Pipe-Line Under the Ocean. Isle of Wight: Shanklin Chine, 1995. p. 36.