IMPERIAL OIL REVIEW Winter 1945 pages 28 to 31
courtesy of Glenbow Archives, Calgary

A cargo of oil being loaded at Halifax Refinery of Imperial Oil. Shuttle service took 16 billion barrels of oil to Great Britain.
A cargo of oil being loaded at Halifax Refinery of Imperial Oil. Shuttle service took 16 billion barrels of oil to Great Britain.


THIS service, although a separate unit, carried on quietly throughout four war years in the midst of the operation of the company’s Halifax Refinery. Only a handful of persons in the port knew that in addition to the normal work of the refinery P.F.T.S. was contributing from the same site an immense flow of oil to Britain’s war machine.

In all 16,486,172 barrels of petroleum products were received, stored, and tran-shipped to the United Kingdom or, in the case of a small amount, used for emergency fueling of warships. To discharge or load fuel for the shuttle service 477 tankers entered Halifax harbor.

In the tanker shipping crisis of 1942 the shuttle service was an invaluable reserve, but the full weight of its effort came when the Allies were girding their supply bases for the invasion of Europe, and in the months following when the extravagant demands of war called for more and more fuel. Almost 6,000,000 barrels were trans-shipped in 1944.

Under wartime urgency almost incredible tasks were performed to make the shuttle service possible. Concrete tanks, for instance, are not practical in the Nova Scotian climate; if for some unusual reason they were built in normal times, it certainly would not be in Winter when concrete would freeze before setting. But a shortage of steel plate forced the building of concrete tanks, and in Winter. Under giant tarpaulin "warming ovens" three 100,000 barrel tanks, 130 feet in diameter and 42 feet high, were erected.

Under the driving necessity of war, too, there disappeared one of Canada’s oldest military landmarks, Fort Clarence, famed as the old eastern battery of Halifax Harbor, said to be so impregnable in olden days that its mere presence protected the city from attack.

The Shuttle, as it was popularly known, arose out of an almost desperate shipping situation. At the time it started United States was neutral, and her ships did not haul oil to Great Britain. Submarines were beginning to show what they could do to Allied supply lines. The haul from the United Kingdom to southern oil ports such as Aruba, the Dutch West Indies island off the coast of Venezuela, was long and dangerous. The outlook was black; in fact, the failure of this thinning stream of oil might mean victory for Germany.
The cargo hose is bolted up. It is being used here to fill the cargo tanks of a merchant aircraft carrier.
The cargo hose is bolted up. It is being used here to fill the cargo tanks of a merchant aircraft carrier.

The United States, friendly in spite of her neutrality, came to our help. Her ships could not cross to Britain, but they could haul oil from Aruba to Halifax - the “Shuttle”. With a much shorter haul from Halifax to the United Kingdom Allied ships could immensely step up the oil supply. In addition, in the ever-changing picture of war this would make available another stockpile.

The first incoming cargo, carried by the S.S. "Beaconlight" arrived in June 1941, arid the first outgoing cargo left the same month. For the P.F.T.S. employees it was the beginning of a strange and exciting series of visitors - for a seaport always has a breath of romance and adventure, and in wartime the tanker fleet brought men and ships to stir the whole gamut of the emotions.

They saw the early anti-submarine defences - the net ships, that carried great steel nets over their sides to stop or explode torpedoes before they hit; then the "Cam" ships, which catapulted a Hurricane fighter’ plane off its bow if a sub appeared and the pilot parachuted down as best he could after a strike at the sub; and in later years, the "MAC" ships, merchant aircraft carriers, that did much to turn the tide of war.

All these and more tied up regularly at the docks. In January 1943, the M.S. "Rapana" loaded oil for the United Kingdom. In September of the same year she came in again this time a flattop! A flight deck had been built above her upper decks, and now besides hauling cargo she carried aircraft to shepherd the convoy.

When the first flattops came in their overhanging sponsons welling up to the flight deck prevented them from docking properly. Special wood floats were constructed as fenders so they could be brought alongside. Then it was discovered the sponsons would fit into certain natural recesses in the docks, and this problem was solved.

In July, 1943, the S. S. John D. Archbold", said to be the largest tanker in the world, 130,978 barrels of fuel and sailed for England - and as some dockside wit remarked at the time “that’s a lot of oil”. Amazingly enough her record was almost equalled by a whaling ship - one of the floating factories which left the business of manufacturing whale oil and brought in 130,596 barrels of fuel to replenish the ever changing stockpile. Behind her, she left on every hand whale’s teeth for souvenirs.

Ships loading at the shuttle service docks in Halifax Harbor, in the background is Imperial Oil’s Halifax refinery.
Ships loading at the shuttle service docks in Halifax Harbor, in the background is Imperial Oil’s Halifax refinery. The Company undertook to build the shuttle service equipment and operate it for the British Petroleum Board.

A group of 24 small Diesel tankers, built in U.S. for British use, brought local cargoes down from the Lakes and then picked up a P.F.T.S. load for the ocean crossing. They were neat, new and very trim.

There came, once, a tanker which had been luxuriously, fabulously fitted out by her rich seagoing owner. His suite was done in rare woods; the feet sank deep in a Persian carpet in which was worked his crest; the rooms were panelled with rare woods; there was a grand piano in the corner of the main room and an immense chesterfield in front of a marble fireplace. Life at the dockside was always interesting.

There came from the sea many cripples. Some ships were torpedoed, others the victims of collision. Some had burned, and many of their crews had died at sea. Within a period of months five ships came in with huge cracks, victims of North Atlantic weather and water.

The cripples meant much work. They had to be unloaded in such a way as not to strain and further damage the ship. Every bit of their precious cargo had to be salvaged if possible. Once salvaged it had to be "cleaned", for it usually was contaminated with sea water. All this added to the wartime burden of extra work on both men and equipment.

Such was the ever-changing, ever-fascinating wartime picture. But to care for these many ships there was great activity ashore.

Under the first agreement the British Petroleum Board rented five 80,000 barrel tanks from Halifax Refinery, Both the British Petroleum Board and the officials of Imperial Oil Limited, however, acted without realizing the future trend of the war at sea - something no man could foresee. In the light of developments their plans had to be revised.

At first the Americans, unhampered by war had filled all tanks and the convoy-bound Allies could not get the oil away fast enough. Then the United States entered the war. Submarines sank ship after ship along the Atlantic seaboard. Demands upon the Halifax Refinery skyrocketed as American ships were added to those already clamoring for dock space and fuel. The shipping situation grew steadily worse.

Operating the valves to release a cargo of oil for shuttle service. Nearly 17 million barrels of petroleum were shipped.
Operating the valves to release a cargo of oil for shuttle service. Nearly 17 million barrels of petroleum were shipped.

It became apparent that the strain upon existing facilities at the refinery was too great, and the British Petroleum Board decided to spend a large sum of money to build seven 100,000 barrel steel tanks, together with additional dock space, pump houses, lines and all the auxiliary equipment necessary to operate the shuttle service without interference to the wartime work of the refinery.

All of this equipment makes an imposing list. Eventually two wooden docks were built; five miles of 16-inch pipeline were laid, and many more miles of smaller lines—two, six, eight, ten and twelve-inch lines; two pump houses and two foam houses, with powerful modern equipment, were added; miles upon miles of steam, water, foam, air and sewage lines were installed; telephone and electric systems were included along with all the other auxiliary equipment for a complete unit. All of the above were tied in with the existing refinery systems for efficient operation.

It was fortunate indeed that in 1927 Imperial Oil Limited had acquired, for addition to its refinery property, the adjacent 34-acre site of old Fort Clarence. It was the logical place for the erection of additional tanks.

Few construction jobs have been more interesting than the levelling of old Fort Clarence. It was a vast, rambling, old-fashioned fortress, first built in 1754, and rebuilt many times since. It had many narrow, winding, brick-flagged passages - gloomy, chilly, echoing - where the ghost of a woman was said to wander. About 1916-7 this legend gained some credence when workmen exhumed the skeleton of a woman, in an upright position from the earthen side of one of the embrasures. In 1889 a dozen adult human skulls had been found during the construction of a new magazine. Even if there were no new or startling disclosures when the bulldozers and shovels attacked this ancient bastion there was plenty of interest to pique the imagination.

It took two tractors to haul away each of the 9-inch guns that were lying unused outside the fort. The great moat had to be filled in; the high outer walls, pierced with a row of loopholes and enfilading gun-ports, surrendered to the construction battalions. So, too, went the "solid masonry and bomb-proof casemates", built with other improvements at a cost of some $271,000.00 in the 1860’s. Rough-clad workmen tramped where once Royal Artillery gunners stepped smartly out in cocked hats, long frock coats and spatterdashes. The staccato of rivetters’ hammers rang out where muzzle-loading cannon once boomed; in record time four great steel cylinders that were modern 100,000 barrel oil storage tanks stood ready for use.

The secret ships which kept oil in their holds and aircraft on an upper flight deck
The secret ships which kept oil in their holds and aircraft on an upper flight deck

Still three more tanks were required, but now the most critical stage of the war shipping losses was approaching. Shipbuilding took all priorities for steel plate. Essential as the tanks were, there was no steel plate to be had for them; none at all. It was decided to build concrete tanks, unsuited as they were to the climate.

Concrete tanks, however, are huge, enormously heavy shells. They must be built on solid ground, or they will crack and split. The newly-filled earth of the old fort site was useless. It was decided to use three sites which were available in the Halifax Refinery tank farm.

Although by then it was the Fall season of 1941, the work went ahead immediately. Sites were cleared, concrete prepared and poured. Steel plate was not available, but reinforcing steel was, and actually the requirements for rod steel reached one-third the weight of a steel tank.

As the three inches of "lean" and six inches of reinforced floor slab was laid it was covered with two-inch steam pipes, tarpaulins and straw to give it Winter protection. Above this a maze of lumber was erected - 205,000 board feet in all. Outside of, and around this, went the light wooden form on which tarpaulin was tacked to form the "warming oven" - and although the temperature outside varied throughout construction from 15 degrees below freezing to 70 degrees F., 12 unit heaters kept the temperature above 50 degrees at all times.

The most important feature of the tanks was the "pre-stressed steel" reinforcing. This consisted of a single rod, anchored at one end in the floor, running spirally around and around the tank up to the top, where it was again fixed. Actually it consisted of many rods, locked by special sleeve nuts. The spirals of steel, held a few inches apart by wooden blocks, were tightened and slackened to a point of zero tension. Then the nuts were tightened. Each one was turned the same amount, until the inward tension on the steel rods was equal to the amount of outward pressure which would be exerted when the tank was full of oil.

The concrete tanks, therefore, don’t do any work when they are filled; they are only under stress and "working" when they are empty.

They carry a different type of strain to the steel tank, however. Crude or heavy oil is thick and slow-running; it is customary to keep it heated by means of a steam coil so that it will flow freely through refinery pipes. Imagine, then, the strain on the concrete walls when a constant temperature of 100 degrees F. is being kept inside the tank, while outside the temperature is rising and falling in variations of Winter weather.

Because of this the most meticulous care was taken in construction. Water was free from all material injurious to concrete. An approved brand of cement was used. The sand and crushed stone were clean, hard, strong, and free from all extraneous matter. The steel rods used for "pre-loading" the tank had a minimum yield point of 60,000 pounds per square inch. The concrete work was carried on continuously, once started, by "guniting" - applying it from a nozzle in the form of a stream or spray. At the bottom the tank wall was 18 inches in thickness, tapering off to five inches at the top. The dome, containing steel reinforcement, was three inches thick, and had no inside supports.

There were 1,036 square yards of cement in each concrete tank, and 205,276 pounds of steel, The tanks were an expensive war item; they took about twice as long to build as steel tanks, and were about twice as expensive; at the same time they met an urgent war need and were in useful operation when the shuttle service ended shortly after the war in Europe. Without doubt they will perform many more years of useful service.

A glance at a few of the overall figures of shuttle operations will show some of the returns on the investment. In round figures 33,000,000 barrels of oil were handled - 3,900,000 in 1941, 3,000,000 in 1942, 8,200,000 in 1943, 11,200,000 in 1944, and 6,100,000 in the first five months of 1945. In long tons, the vessels which docked at the shuttle jetties carried cargoes totalling 4,622,506 - an imposing figure.

Today the shuttle service from Halifax Refinery has become history. The ships and men who were part of it are turning again to peacetime work, But at Halifax Refinery, in the tanker fleet, and among the master minds who plan strategy in high places, the shuttle service out of Halifax will stand as a triumph in the vital war of oil supply.

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Imperial Review Winter 1945, PDF format courtesy of  Glenbow Archives, Calgary