Fuelling the fleet – the network that supplies oil to the Royal Navy

Without fuel the navy goes nowhere. Replenishment at sea is an important part of the RN’s global reach and is well understood, but more fundamental are the land-based organisations and facilities that ensure the fleet is supplied with oil and ammunition. In the first of a 2-part article, we focus on the fuel infrastructure.

Most fuel for HM ships is issued at the naval bases via the Oil Fuel Depots (OFD) located close to Portsmouth, Devonport and Faslane. There are a further three MoD-owned depots that can provide fuel to RN, NATO and commercial vessels in Scotland. There are also fuel facilities in Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Singapore, whilst the RN also has access to the Greek-run shared NATO depot at Souda Bay, Crete.

The DSFA (Defence Strategic Fuels Authority) administers contracts with commercial suppliers for the supply of fuel to the MoD. It also places ‘spot bunker’ contracts for one-off fuel consignments worldwide to HM Ships, RFAs and Charter tankers. F-76 diesel is a specialised military fuel grade used by the RN and most NATO navies. It has no direct commercial equivalent and is not readily available in the market. Marine Gas Oil (MGO) or even F-44 can be used in an emergency by RN vessels if F-76 is unavailable but this impacts negatively on engine life and performance.

MV Cumbrian Fisher, on charter from James Fisher Everard unloading its cargo at the Gosport Oil Fuel Jetty, July 2017.

The oil freighting task, formerly undertaken by RFA ships, is now done by light tankers chartered from James Fisher Everard. These vessels collect the F-76 marine diesel and F-44 aviation fuel from the refineries, mostly around the UK, and deliver it to the OFDs. The fuel is stored at the depots an until needed. When a warship needs fuel it is connected to the network of fuel lines fed from the nearby OFD or from fuel barges loaded at the Jetty and brought across the harbour. The naval air stations at Culdrose and Yeovilton are provided with aviation fuel from the OFDs delivered by road tanker.


The amount of fuel required by the fleet has declined significantly as the number of vessels has fallen and engines are becoming more efficient. Despite this, the volume of fuel demanded by the RN remains significant, for example the MoD purchased around 230,000 tons of marine diesel in 2014 alone. The arrival of the aircraft carriers will also place a greater demand peaks on the system and is driving new investment in the fuel supply infrastructure. To fully fuel HMS Queen Elizabeth requires 4,800 tonnes of diesel and 3,700 tonnes of aviation fuel. A Type 23 frigate can take on around 600 tonnes of diesel.

The Oil and Pipelines Agency (OPA), manages the Government Pipeline and Storage System (GPSS) and the six OFDs on behalf of the MoD. The GPSS is an obscure, but critical strategic national asset (Privatised in 2015) consisting of a network of storage sites and underground fuel pipes connecting oil terminals, refineries, civilian airports and RAF bases. The Naval OFDs are not, however, connected to the GPSS network and must be sustained with deliveries primarily by sea or occasionally by road.

The storage and handling of fuel is subject to stringent regulation. Safety, quality control, environmental and accounting considerations require competent people to manage the system and operate each of the OFDs. The MoD has a good record for the safe management of fuels but Civil Servants engaged in this kind of obscure work that is critical to operations on the front line are often maligned or forgotten.

Gosport

Gosport Oil Fuel Depot at Forton provides fuel to the fleet across the harbour at Portsmouth Naval Base. The depot is supplied by ships discharging at Gosport Oil Fuel Jetty (OFJ). The jetty was originally built in the Victorian era but was extended in the 1950s to allow the berthing of deeper draught ships. Pipelines run the length of the jetty carrying marine diesel, aviation fuel, dirty ballast water and a fire-fighting main.

Portsmouth Naval base receives fuel from the Gosport depot (bottom right) which supplied by ships discharging at the jetty (top left).  (Photo: Google/DigitalGlobe)

After many years of uncertainty over its future, beginning this Spring the Gosport OFD is being upgraded under a £45 Million contract with J Murphy & Son. The depot was originally built in 1910 and seventeen riveted plate oil tanks, some over 100 years old will be replaced and new gatehouse and site security features added. Due for completion in 2021, the work will be done in phases to ensure continuity of fuel supplies during the upgrade.

It is interesting to note that the Portsdown Underground Fuel Bunker which held 137,700 tonnes of furnace fuel oil (FFO) used to be connected by three underground pipes to the Gosport fuel depot. FFO passed out of use in RN vessels with the end of steam propulsion and the Portsdown site was closed in 1989. It is instructive to consider the inherent protection from terrorism, air attack or serious accident provided by underground fuel tanks, compared to the above-ground tanks in a residential area of Gosport.

Thanckes and Yonderberry

Thanckes Oil Fuel Depot, Torpoint was originally built in the 1920s and provides fuel to Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and to warships across the river Tamar at Devonport Naval Base. The depot covers 97 acres and is supplied by ships discharging at Yonderberry Jetty. The tanks have storage for 145,000 tonnes of marine diesel, 17,000 tonnes of aviation fuel and 34,000 tonnes of oily water, dirty fuel and compensating water.

Thanckes Oil Fuel Depot (right) and Yonderberry Jetty (top left). The Jetty, now being replaced, was built in the 1950s, comprises a 230m long approach and 60m long jetty head. (Photo: Google/DigitalGlobe)

Yonderberry Jetty is suffering from corrosion and is going to be replaced under a £43M contract with marine construction specialist VolkerStevin. A brand new jetty will be built just to the north of the existing facility. The dredging and clearing works began in January with the main piling works starting in September 2018 and the whole project is due for completion by November 2019. The site is within a Special Area of Conservation on the River Tamar and the project has to comply very with stringent environmental regulations. Firefighting services in the depot and at the new jetty are also being improved.

Final delivery to the customer. Tank barge operated by Serco delivers fuel to HMS Diamond, Portsmouth 2013. (Photo: Proslip via Shipspotting)

Scotland

There are four Oil Fuel Depots currently in operation in Scotland. All were built in the 1960s to NATO specification and originally had a total capacity of 600,000 tonnes. Drastic reductions in the size of the Royal Navy and the number of visiting US Navy vessels leaves the annual NATO naval fuel requirement in Scotland less than 10% of what it was in the 1960s. Despite this overcapacity, the four depots at Garelochhead (Faslane), Loch Striven (near Dunoon), Loch Ewe (Wester Ross) and Campbeltown (Kintyre), are still considered to have important strategic value and remain open. With the exception of Garelochhead, the MoD has attempted to reduce the overheads for each site by running them on minimum care and maintenance basis and sharing them with commercial operators.

  • RFA Tidespring at the Garelochead Oil and Fuel Jetty, April 2018. The shiplift at Faslane naval base can be seen in the background. (Photo: Harry Garland via Flickr)

  • HMS Diamond at Loch Striven OFD in 2011. There are 19 oil tanks buried in the hillside behind the jetty which is used by naval and commercial vessels.

  • HMS Ledbury Campbeltown

    HMS Ledbury at the Campbeltown Oil Fuel Jetty, May 2008. (Photo: Steve Partridge)

  • Loch Ewe Oil Fuel Depot on the eastern shore of the loch. It is also a licenced ‘Z’ birth, which allows nuclear submarines to come alongside for short periods. There is deep water not far from the jetty, minimising the time a submarine needs to spend on the surface. (Photo: Nilfanion via Wikipedia).

  • Close up of Gosport OFD prior to redevelopment, looking east across to Portsmouth naval base.  (Photo: Google.com/Digital Globe)

  • Thanckes Oil Fuel Depot, Torpoint, Cornwall

    Close up of Thanckes OFD looking east across the Tamar to Devonport Naval base. Note the containment moats designed to prevent oil from spilling into the river in the event of a major leak.  (Photo: Google.com/Digital Globe)

  • MV Clyde Fisher at Yonderberry Jetty

    MV Clyde Fisher at Yonderberry Jetty, July 2018 (Photo: RFA Nostalgia)

Garelochhead OFD is just to the north of Faslane and provides fuel to the base. Faslane’s fuel requirements are more modest than Portsmouth and Devonport as it is primarily a nuclear-powered submarine base. However the submarines embark small amounts of fuel for back up diesel generators and the base supports the Sandown class minehunters as well as other RN and NATO warship visitors. Unlike the English facilities, all of the Scottish OFD tanks are partially or fully buried underground, reducing their impact on the scenic landscapes of the region and offering some protection from attack.

General Robert H. Barrow of the USMC famously remarked: “amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics”. It is clear, even from this cursory study, that provision of fuel for a globally-deployable navy that can respond quickly to events is no simple matter. In part two of this article, we will consider the munitions infrastructure that enables the RN’s fighting capability.

Main image: HMS Iron Duke alongside at Campbeltown Oil and Fuel Jetty, Nov 2011.
Royal Navy Type 31e frigate programme abruptly suspended - but not dead in the water
Making sense of the Royal Navy's frigate building schedule