Friday, February 20, 2009

Sir John Norton-Griffiths


I have to read a lot for school. Normally, I read assignments while watching a movie or wondering around on my computer and thus the pages blend together in a haze. Every now and again something catches my eye. A couple days ago I was reading Daniel Yergin's "The Prize" and stumbled across a brief discussion of an adventurer named Sir John Norton-Griffiths (pictured above). Here is the exert that captured my imagination:

“The British Government took matters into its own hands (the sabotaging of German occupied Russian oil fields) and recruited Colonel John Norton-Griffiths M.P., to organize the destruction of the Romanian oil industry. A larger-than-life figure, Norton-Griffiths was one of the great engineering contractors of the British Empire. He had undertaken construction projects in almost every corner of the world—railways in Angola and Chile and Australia, harbors in Canada, aqueducts in Baku, sewage systems in Battersea and Manchester. On the eve of World War I, he was in the midst of promoting a plan for a new subway for Chicago. Handsome, physically imposing and with the strength and endurance of a prize fighter, Norton-Griffiths was a charming swashbuckler and a persuasive showman. Men invested in his projects, women were attracted to him. He was considered ‘one of the most dashing men of the Edwardian era.’ He was also a man of fiery temperament, rebellious nature, and uncontrollable rages. He lacked discipline and perseverance, and some of his projects were spectacular financial flops. But he did achieve prominence as a Parliamentary back-bencher, variously known as ‘Hell-fire Jack,’ and ‘the Monkey’ (for having eaten a monkey while in Africa) and since he was a thoroughgoing imperialist—by the sobriquet he treasured most, ‘Empire Jack.’” (Daniel Yergin, The Prize, 180)

I will leave it at that....

Here are some more links,
The Prize (Amazon),
Sir John Norton-Griffiths (Wikipedia),
Sir John Norton-Griffiths (Royal Engineering Museum and Library),

3 comments:

tsgdd said...

I ran across your Griffiths excerpt. My father assisting him in 1916 in blowing Romanian oil depots and wells. This account will appear in a one-hour documentary I am producing entitled "HILL 789" (see www.kogainonfilms.com ). The script includes these passages:

D. DIMANCESCU FIRST PERSON ACCOUNT

As we got near Ploesti and Campina I could see a long black cloud rising from the oil fields on a shallow hill where the wells had been set on fire so that they would not be captured by the enemy. At night it was a frightening spectacle with huge flames rising skyward. 15 sec

We were between this wall of fire and the German wave of troops pushing up from behind when suddenly we encountered a car with an English officer whose name I recall well as Norton Griffiths. Behind him were several trucks with Romanian soldiers. In perfect French he informed me that he was the leader of a group setting fire to the oil wells and other installations. 21 sec

When we spoke, I mentioned that I had been told that the best method to destroy an oil well was to take large industrial screw drivers and wedge them upside down deep into the well's pipe. Dropped in the right place, the screwdriver completely de-joints the gears and makes them unworkable. Taking me and my group with him to demonstrate to his team how to execute this method, we worked fast.


NORTON GRIFFITHS ACCOUNT

On the morning of November 26, I drove out to Targoviste from Bucharest. Romania authorities were dead set against my efforts. They were too focused on short term profits. But we proceeded anyway. All reservoir valves were opened and the oil allowed to flow into the dams surrounding the reservoirs and then ignited thus burning and exploding. All along, the enemy were making rapid progress from the north and from the south to our rear. The roads were becoming impassable with refugees and the retreat of Romanian convoys.

Bailers and other tools were dropped down to the bottom of the holes. Bits, hooks, tool wrenches, pulleys, iron bars, and bolts were jammed together. After this we smashed the machinery. Unplugging would be most difficult.

At the Vega refinery, one 50,000 ton reservoir was virtually lifted in the air and simultaneously the half-ton plates were scattered far beyond and around the officers working.

Captain Masterson and others barely escaped being crushed and burnt. An officer of the British Mission was literally blown out of the main exit into the open with his clothes partially alight.

The spectacular sight was remarkable and the heavy volume of smoke which stretched for some 100 kilometers or more, must have considerably inconvenienced the enemy on the windward side.

Time alone can balance the gain as against the loss and devastation with which it has been the Mission's painful duty to lay waste the land. … I venture to think that where we have passed a deep impression of what war should be has been made.


NARRATOR
Romania, the first country to produce commercial oil in 1857, was the second largest European source of coveted black gold. In a one week period Major Griffiths and his Romanian team managed to destroy 400 wells and 750,000,000 liters of oil, an amount equal to 70,000 large modern-day tanker trucks. As a result of his work, the Germans were long delayed in getting oil to flow again. They even attempted sought help from American engineers not yet at war with Germany. The effects were soon felt on the Western Front by slowing the increasingly oil-dependent German war machine and buying time for the Allies.

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