A BP geologist using instruments to conduct a survey in Persia, 1926. A local guide stands by his side
On roadsides in mainland Europe the letters ‘BP’ became a familiar sight, too, as Anglo-Persian, which produced BP gasoline, entered these markets with gusto. A German magazine advertisement in 1936 depicted an aeroplane mechanic working heroically beneath a large BP shield.
Persia changed its name to Iran in 1935, and to stay modern the company followed suit. But the good times wouldn’t last much longer.
Amy Johnson, the first woman to complete a solo flight in a plane from England to Australia, was sponsored by BP for her round-Britain tour in 1930
Everything changed in the autumn of 1939, when Britain entered World War II. Suddenly gasoline was a rationed commodity, and BP, Shell and the other brands on sale in the UK were consolidated together into a generic fuel labelled ‘Pool’. Nationality trumped commercial viability, and BP’s growth on the continent abruptly stopped.
Winston Churchill once again called on Anglo-Iranian to support a war effort, and this time to give it everything they had. Ordinary employees lent their expertise to some curious and innovative schemes. They burned petrol at British airstrips to clear fog for take-offs and landings and helped engineer the giant, spooled gasoline pipeline that trailed Allied ships on their way to Normandy.
All three British armed services used oils and lubricating equipment from BP heritage company Castrol.
A typical WWII 'pool lorry', with no company branding
Air power took on a new significance during World War II. American planes ran on aviation fuel from two BP heritage companies, Amoco and Sohio, among others. The British Air Force turned to Anglo-Iranian, which had recently found a way to improve aviation fuel’s efficiency. But the quantity of fuel needed could only be made with a major refit at the Abadan refinery in Iran. Three ships carrying those supplies were sunk.
The open seas were dangerous. During the war, 44 of the company’s tankers would sink, killing 657 crew, with 260 others taken prisoner of war.
Anguished by the risks of transporting oil to Britain from Iran, the British government asked Anglo-Iranian to find more oil on British soil than the trickle it had previously discovered. The company obliged, upping production at a field in Nottingham, England. Quantities were still relatively small, but they were large enough to help the country get by – and to count as one of the best-kept secrets of World War II.
Crowds gather around a motorcycle as it is filled with Castrol lubricant, on its record-breaking drive from Vienna to Ostend in 1934
At the company’s facilities in Iran the war years were equally fraught. Japan’s entry into the war made the refinery at Abadan a prime target. When Allied troops moved in to secure the facility, three employees died in friendly fire.
A severe wheat shortage made life miserable for the 200,000 people living at Abadan and for the 80,000 more spread out in remote camps and villages at the oil fields. At times, the line at Abadan bazaar stretched for a mile. Anglo-Iranian sent a representative from London to help with the crisis. Tankers brought food rations from India and Australia. Second-hand clothes arrived from England.
But things would get worse before getting better. Smallpox and typhus swirled through the nearby countryside. Something close to hysteria gripped the community. In the malaise, at least one of the British women at Abadan planted her small provision of dehydrated mutton, mistaking it for nasturtium seeds.
A concession covering most of Iraq is granted to the Turkish Petroleum Company, in which Anglo-Persian held a 47.5% interest.
Oil is discovered in Iraq – in what is to become the immense Kirkuk field, with Baba Gurgur at its heart.
Anglo-Persian’s holding in the Turkish Petroleum Company is halved to open the concession to a consortium of American companies. The ‘As-Is’ agreement, under which world oil output is fixed to the major producers’ current levels, is signed.
As the Depression takes hold and with prices falling, Anglo-Persian and Royal Dutch-Shell agree to combine their UK marketing operations, to be known as Shell-Mex and BP. This arrangement lasts until 1976.
A new, 60-year concession is agreed with Persia, reduced to 100,000 sq miles - still larger than the whole of the UK.
Two pipelines, running from Kirkuk to Tripoli in the Lebanon and Haifa in Palestine, totalling 1,152 miles, are completed – and a new refinery opens in Haifa in 1939.
The Anglo-Persian Oil Company is renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
Recovery peaks, with the company’s sales reaching 209,000 barrels per day – compared with 117,000 barrels per day in 1931.
Production from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s oilfields reaches 345,000 barrels per day – as demand from the East drives up production from 135,000 barrels per day at the end of 1941. By May, Abadan is also producing 20,000 barrels a day of high-octane aviation fuel, using a process developed at the Sunbury research station.
Castrol advert, 1926
German Benzol Verband advert, 1920s
BP achievements book, 1934