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Dive to the future: Conversion of the Royal Navy from coal to oil

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There are some occasions in history when, in order to proceed forward, a great push is required. The first jump is very important, never mind the risks involved. One such decision was the conversion of Royal Navy from using coal as fuel to oil. The final decision was of Winston Churchill, this post will explore that.

Being an Indian, one might find it hard to appreciate Churchill and his foresight behind this decision and I understand that especially when Churchill’s blatant racism towards Indians in general and Hindus in particular is a known fact. But, one can learn even from one of the despised characters of one’s history.

Every industry in the West, especially since the industrial revolution, has supported and even encouraged innovation but, has been usually wary of applying that innovation on a larger scale. The initial push for implementation in larger industries has always been full of apprehensions and requires great foresight and courage for the risk involved. Oil by the end of 19th century was still used mostly for non-fuel purposes. Coal was still reigning supreme in the West. “The only industry that occasionally used oil was the railway industry when it needed to reduce the smog in major cities or when carrying members of the royal family.”

Coal had its advantages which made it the go-to fuel source. To start with, coal was easily available and Britain had quite a lot of it. Britain had even established a network of coaling stations. Coal was also inert (chemically stable) and “thus supplemented armor by reducing the damage from shells exploding in cold storage bins.”

But the use of coal created many problems as well.”As Churchill noted, the ordeal of coaling ship exhausted the whole ship’s company. In war time it robbed them of their brief period of rest; it subjected everyone of extreme discomfort.” Oil as fuel made sure that ships could be at the sea for a longer period of time, it provided them with greater speed and maneuverability, the ship could also be refueled while at the sea and required a lot less manpower. It also allowed ships to be less visible as warships run by oil as fuel produced lot less smog as compared to warships that used coal fuel. Oil was evidently a better option, despite the risks involved.

“Before oil was discovered in the Middle East, the Shell Transport and Trading Company, first struck oil in Borneo in 1897.” But, the important point here is that the aim with which oil was discovered was not for fuel, rather for use as kerosene. Hence, it did not have a great value for Britain at the start of 20th century. The chemical traits of the Borneo crude oil was such that it didn’t yield much kerosene. “It could, however, be used unrefined as a fuel oil.” The idea was already implemented by the Russians in late 19th century on its ships in the Caspian Sea. They were since the 1870s, had been “using the waste residue from kerosene, ..demonstrating the substance’s high capacity and efficiency.”

But as mentioned above, large industries are usually wary of putting new inventions on a bigger scale, the positive effects of the invention notwithstanding. Almost all industries were still coal based, they “quickly rebuffed the vision of oil as a primary source of fuel and none more aggressively than the Royal Navy.”

The role of Admiral John (Jackie) Fisher was really important here. He was the one who recognized the importance of running the navy on oil as fuel rather than coal even before Churchill did. The first experiment of Fisher was on HMS Hannibal in 1903, which didn’t turn out that great. “A faulty burner caused the entire ship to engulfed in black smoke on suddenly switching from coal to oil.” Later, in 1904 HMS Spiteful became the first warship run by fuel oil. But, this was still the exception not the rule because HMS Spiteful was only a destroyer and though “the Royal Navy had adopted oil for submarines and destroyers” and by early 20th century, “in most ships it was sprayed on coal to increase its combustion”, large battleships were still run on coal as their main fuel.

Still, Fisher couldn’t make the industry and the authorities see the light and retired. By this time another development had occurred. As mentioned above, one company was already there in this trade of oil – Shell Transport and Trading Company established in 1897 by Marcus Samuel (a Jew, as to why this point is important, will explain below) which later became the Royal Dutch Shell in 1907 by amalgamating the rivals, the Shell Transport and the Royal Dutch Petroleum company.

By 1901, oil exploration in Persia had also started when one private citizen, William D’Arcy “purchased petroleum exploration rights from Persia.” In 1908, oil was struck in Masjed Suleiman in Iran and a company was established – Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). These two companies, the Royal Dutch (the Shell and the Dutch conglomerate) and Anglo-Persian Oil Company were later to play an important role .

Churchill had himself not been that keen on the oil front and even wanted an Anglo-German Naval agreement but changed his mind when in July, 1911, “a German gunboat, the Panther sailed into the Moroccan Port of Agadir.” German expansionism had him worried and alert.

When he became First Lord of Admiralty (the civilian head of Britain’s navy), he sent an invitation to Fisher and made him unofficial advisor. Fisher was still very steadfast on the coversion of royal fleet to oil. He told Churchill that Queen Elizabeth class battleships needs to be built, fully functioning on oil. He “wrote to Churchill in 1912- “What you do want is the superswift – all oil – and don’t fiddle about armour; it really is so very silly! There is only one defence and that is speed!”

Churchill and Fisher, 1913

When Churchill got more research conducted as to how much speed was required for a fast division to outmaneuver a German fleet, the answer was 25 knots. The only possible way for a fleet to reach this speed was – oil !

“To meet these challenges Churchill established a royal commission. With Fisher as chairman, the commission eventually published three classified reports confirming the benefits of oil. It judged that ample supplies of oil existed but urged that a storage capacity be built in peacetime to ensure sufficiency in time of war.” Churchill was now convinced. Oil was the only way forward.

Britain incidentally wasn’t the first one to try this. As told above the Russians had been using them in some of there ships, “the Italian navy led the way in experimenting with oil starting in 1890, and by 1900 most of its torpedo boats were oil-burning…and a liquid fuel board in the United States recommended using oil as a standalone fuel in 1904. The first oil-burning American destroyer, USS Paulding, was commissioned in 1910, and by 1911 the USS Nevada-class battleship was planned for solely oil as fuel.”

After Queen Elizabeth – class battleships were made (with oil as the only fuel), rest of the Royal Navy followed. The main question now remained was how to secure a regular supply of oil, both politically and militarily. There was also another tough choice – which company would be given this responsibility, the Royal Dutch Shell ( RDS, British-Dutch conglomerate) or APOC, Anglo Persian Oil Company. The finally chosen company was APOC. The man who made the choice possible was one Charles Greenway.

HMS Queen Elizabeth – 1913

Greenway had been involved as a senior partner in the Shaw Wallace & Co of India and Ceylon and of R. G. Shaw & Co of London. He had been associated with Burmah Oil company as well and later joined hands with D’Arcy of APOC. As noted above, the Royal Dutch Shell was made after amalgamating two rival companies – the Shell Transport and the Royal Dutch Petroleum. Greenway stressed that the “Jewishness” Samuel and the “Dutchness” of RDS cannot be trusted and they might even eat away the smaller company, Anglo Persian Oil in future. Hence, Churchill selected APOC as a source for the supply of oil to the Royal Navy.

An agreement was signed between APOC and the British government on May 20, 1914. After a month on June 14, Churchill introduced a bill in the Parliament for an investment of the British Government’s 2.2 million pounds in the Anglo Persian Oil Company. The bill passed and henceforth, the British government had in Anglo Persian, 51% ownership of the company’s stock. In this way, Churchill secured a regular supply of oil for the Royal Navy, “placed two directors on its board and negotiated a secret contract to provide the Admiralty with a 20-year supply of oil under attractive terms.”

But, the Shell (RDC) wasn’t left behind totally. Churchill had behind the doors, started negotiating a fuel oil contract for the navy with this bigger company as well. Today, when even the superpower of the world like United States, conduct their foreign policy on the basis of oil, when oil is the foundation of an entire kingdom like Saudi Arabia, it is interesting to note that this was probably the first time in history for a nation, when oil had become “a strategic commodity and an instrument of national policy.”

Although, everyone knew that a war was looming over Europe, no one could have predicted the scale of it, much less the incident which sparked the cannon. Barely eleven days after the bill was passed, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assasinated by Gavrilo Princip. The war had started !


  1. The Fateful Plunge.
  2. Fears of war caused Winston Churchill to make a huge decision.
  3. Less Oil or More Caskets by Gregory Ballard.

Photo Credit:

  1. Australia’s foreign wars: Origin, Costs and Future.
  2. The Oil Story 5- Behind the Anglo-Persian
  3. HMS Queen Elizabeth – 1913 (Wikipedia)

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