An Englishman’s home is his castle they say, so as a young lad I was intrigued as to why there were doors in the high wooden fencing separating my grandma’s back yard in England from her neighbors’ gardens. That sort of thing was against the norm, as one mostly kept oneself to oneself except when spying on the neighbors from behind net curtains.

The reason became clear when it was explained that grandma’s garden shed, that ugly, half-buried thing made of corrugated steel panels with earth covering the roof, was in fact a communal six-person neighborhood bomb shelter during WW2. As a tool shed it was dark, damp and dank, and I imagine it was probably no more welcoming in its original incarnation.

There were all sorts of strange war-related artifacts left around after the second world war in the area of south east England where I grew up. This was in southeastern Kent, which was given the nickname of Hellfire Corner due to its proximity to the coast of France. This little nook of England was on the front line of any attempted invasion and within easy range of marauding airborne bandits, doodlebugs and V2 rockets, mainly due to its misfortune of being in the direct path between London and the enemy. The southern coastal towns were also within the range of huge guns firing from the top of French cliffs that lobbed shells indiscriminately 22 plus miles across the English Channel, causing great disruption to everyday life.

In addition to these real and present dangers there were also plenty of not-so-real things popping up around Kent in the latter half of WW2. There were inflatable fake tanks, fake landing craft, fake aircraft and airfields, and even a fake army, the 1st US Army Group, although under the command of a very real General Patton.

These and other forms of deception, like fake radio traffic and misinformation from double agents, were all part of an overall plan titled Operation Fortitude. The main objective of this plan was to deliver the impression that a massive build-up was underway for an allied assault across the English Channel to France at the narrowest point, the Pas de Calais.

Last week we paid tribute to those who took part in the real allied landings on the Cherbourg Peninsular 75 years ago, which unfolded while the brunt of enemy troops was concentrated further north poised in preparation for the impending fake invasion that never was.

This degree of deception took an extraordinary level of forward planning, especially when having to ensure that the secret didn’t get out. One logistic of an allied invasion that required meticulous planning concerned the supply of fuel to allied forces once they had landed and were advancing inland. Seaborne tankers were slow and easy targets, both underway and when discharging their cargo, so in early 1942 Lord Mountbatten hatched up a plan to supply fuel to an invasion force via a pipeline under the English Channel. Codenamed PLUTO, for Pipe Line Under The Ocean, two routes were planned. One pipeline, codenamed DUMBO, was to be from a desolate shingle beach near Dungeness in Kent to a point 30 miles away near Boulogne. The other, a longer crossing from the Isle of Wight to the Cherbourg Peninsular, was given the somewhat more elegant codename of BAMBI.

Soon, pipelines were being laid to connect these two sites to the main UK pipeline network, and pumping stations and ancillary buildings were being constructed. These were disguised as residences, a garage, and one even operated as an ice cream shop. So, now that the fuel was deliverable by pipeline to the pumping stations ready to be pumped across to France, all that was missing was the undersea pipeline, and that was a real conundrum.

It was a pipeline engineer that came up with the ingenious idea of laying the missing link for DUMBO from a huge floating reel, which some bright spark duly named a “Conundrum”. Imagine a 30’ diameter, 250 ton floating steel drum with 30 miles of pipe wrapped around it. Anchor one end on shore, attach a yoke to the hubs on each side of the drum, hitch it up to a sturdy vessel and tow the bobbing bobbin across the Channel with the pipe unreeling as it goes.

This provided for a suitably speedy crossing of less than twelve hours, which minimized the possibility of detection and helped when tackling the Channel’s strong tidal currents. After successful full scale tests elsewhere in Britain during the preceding year, the first pipeline from Dungeness was up and running in October 1944, and a total of 17 pipes were eventually laid. By war’s end, 4,500 tons of fuel a day was being pumped ashore, and it’s estimated that a total of 172 million gallons of fuel were supplied to allied forces via the DUMBO route and then onward through pipelines laid through France, Belgium and Germany.  

Now, 75 years on from PLUTO we have NEMO. This is a new underwater energy artery in a similar vein, but carrying electricity in place of liquid fuel. This submerged power cable stretches between England and Belgium and joins an existing network of similar cables that supply electricity backwards and forwards between the UK and her European neighbors dependent on demand.

The need for flexible power supply arrangements between countries is increasing rapidly as ever more green energy is being produced and the lack of high-volume energy storage exists. If one country has a surplus of renewable energy that it can sell to a neighbor, and that alleviates the need to stoke up a fossil fuel plant, then it’s a win-win situation.

Power can be transmitted in either direction through the cable and is done so in one hour blocks, so the UK can be sending power one hour and receiving it the next. The power is transmitted as high voltage direct current (DC), with rectifier/inverter converter stations at each end to convert it into alternating current (AC) to match the power grid. Sending high voltage DC is more efficient than transmitting AC, and simplifies the synchronization of the incoming power to the customer country’s grid frequency. Get that synchronization wrong, and with 1,000 megawatts at 400 kilovolts (that’s a whopping 2,500 amps by my math), it would not be a pretty sight

What’s next in the pipeline for Britain and her European neighbors? Solving the Brexit puzzle.

USNA aerial 640x368
The first clue that the upcoming week was to be no normal week in Annapolis came during a trip to the local grocery store on Sunday. It seemed unusually busy, and closer inspection of the wandering shoppers showed that many were wearing clothing and hats emblazoned with emblems and logos depicting their support of or attachment to the US Naval Academy. The next clue came to light from a quick scan of my Eastport neighborhood, where unfamiliar vehicles, flags, and gently rocking porch occupants adorned a number of residences.

OK, I’ve got it! It’s Commissioning Week at the Naval Academy, and a good number of locals have rented their houses out to make way for families of graduating Midshipmen while pocketing a sizeable chunk of cash in the process. And why not indeed.

For those not familiar with Annapolis, it must be understood that the US Naval Academy is Annapolis, and Annapolis is the US Naval Academy. The two are inseparable, which will be apparent from a quick look at a map where the magnitude and proximity of the Academy relative to the town is evident. This is no distant fixture perched on a remote hill, but right there breathing down the necks of the shops on Main Street and the boats at City Dock.

Having to accommodate around 4,500 Midshipmen, plus staff and ancillary workers, it is a sizeable chunk of real estate and provides much employment and income for the surrounding area. Don’t get the impression that Annapolis is alive and crawling with marauding Mids, as they are for the most part incarcerated behind the imposing perimeter walls. The few lucky ones that are allowed out for brief sojourns into the real world are noticeable only by being impeccably dressed in crisp uniforms.

So what is Commissioning Week all about?

boat gas explosion

We all make mistakes … don’t we? For me the worst things seem to happen when I rush something or am pushed to a time limit. And having someone look over my shoulder adds an even greater level of stress that can end in a right old fustercluck. Take the time many years ago when a customer insisted he watch as I installed a new alternator and regulator.

I hadn’t been in business that long, and was scrambling for any work I could get in deep, dark rural Virginia, so the chance to install a high-output alternator and remote regulator on a sailboat was welcome indeed. But I hadn’t reckoned on the owner insisting he be on board and watch me, and after a while I just knew this wasn’t going to work. “Don’t worry about me” he said, “I’ll just sit here and keep quiet. You’ll not even know I’m here.”

monkey thinking carefully
I’ve been thinking about a lot of things lately. I don’t know why, maybe it was the winter blues bringing on a bout of the melancholies. In particular, I’m often fascinated with things that just seem to happen, but without any obvious visible clues as to why or how. Take the theory of flight, for example.

I was on a ‘plane recently, and got to thinking about the whole theory of lift and flight. We are taught that air flows over the wing and bla bla bla. But air doesn’t actually flow over the wing, now does it? No, it’s the wing that slices through the air.

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