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How Hellfire Jack sent the Kaiser’s invasion plans up in flames

OLD SCHOOL HERO: Sir John Norton-Griffiths didn’t care a lot for guidelines or conference (Picture: ALAMY MY)

The faces on the opposite aspect of the desk gawped in horror. The English officer sitting reverse them in wartime Romania was insisting they take pick-axes and excessive explosives and fully destroy their very own most valuable asset: the nation’s large oil fields.

It appeared like madness, however Lieutenant- Colonel John Norton-Griffiths was lethal severe. The invading German military was simply days away. The oilfields had been of their sights. Excessive measures had been required.

When Romanian officers demurred, Norton-Griffiths merely collected his luggage, introduced that “radical and complete destruction” was the one answer, and set off for the oil area alone.

Norton-Griffiths, quickly to be higher often called Hellfire Jack, had been Whitehall’s first selection for what would develop into one of many Nice Warfare’s most daring and spectacular missions. The eccentric English baronet, straight out of a Boy’s Personal journey e-book, had caught the attention of officers two years earlier, in 1915, after devising an ingenious clandestine operation on theWestern Entrance.

Touring the trenches in his battered previous Rolls-Royce to ship superb wine and biscuits to his shattered troops, Norton-Griffiths had provide you with an thought: as a substitute of going excessive, could not his males go beneath? Underground, that’s, avoiding the shells and gunfire to inflict shock subterranean assaults on the Germans?

The 44-year-old returned dwelling and recruited a staff of expert sewer diggers from Manchester, forming his personal unit: the 170 (Tunnelling) Firm Engineers.

They turned often called the Manchester Moles, burrowing a whole bunch of metres beneath enemy strains and detonating excessive explosives. It was perilous work, however extremely efficient.

So, when the Directorate of Army Intelligence wanted somebody for a technically difficult and close to suicidal mission on the opposite aspect of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, Norton-Griffiths fitted the invoice.

Romania had entered the struggle late, on the aspect of the Allies in August 1916, decided to understand its ambition of unification with Transylvania. The nation’s geography meant it was uncovered to enemies on two fronts: Bulgaria to the south and the highly effective German and Austro-Hungarian armies to the northwest.

Within the opening months, Romanian forces made speedy good points, storming northwards throughout the snow-capped Carpathian peaks and seizing their Transylvanian prize. Exhausted and jubilant, some troopers relocated to the nation’s southern border to shore up defences there.

It was a deadly mistake. Within the north, the German military mounted a surging counteroffensive, driving the Romanians again over the Transylvanian mountains, in direction of the plains under. There, inside hanging distance, lay Europe’s most prolific oil fields.

On November 26, 1916, Norton-Griffiths sped northwards in direction of Romania’s oil belt in a race in opposition to time with the Germans. En route he recruited a gang of British engineers, geared up with spades, golf equipment, pick-axes and crates of explosives.

Enemy planes buzzed overhead as his staff arrived within the historic metropolis of Târgoviste – the fifteenth century capital of Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Dracula, the Prince whose legendary ruthlessness impressed Bram Stoker’s well-known gothic novel. Norton-Griffiths had just one factor on his thoughts. Battling by waves of retreating Romanian troopers, he made his manner by town to probably the most westerly of Romania’s 3,000 oil wells and reservoirs.

Hellfire Jack

Hellfire Jack delivering wine to troops by Rolls-Royce and inspecting the trenches he designed (Picture: ALAMY MY)

He tried one ultimate time to safe Romania’s blessing. Native officers reiterated that Norton-Griffiths’ scheme was insanity. He had permission, they stated, solely to burn off reserves of oil to stop them falling into German palms, to not destroy infrastructure, which the Romanians hoped to reclaim in good working order after the struggle.

Their perspective, stated Norton-Griffiths, was “each farcical and ineffective”. He marched off to defy his Romanian allies in probably the most spectacular of manners.

Romanian Consolidated Oilfields Ltd was located on a 14-hectare website on the outskirts of Târgoviste beside the railway station. The British staff used sledgehammers to smash pipework, equipment and electrical circuitry. They dropped iron bars into the wells to jam gear.Then they dug channels linking the massive oil reservoirs to the primary infrastructure earlier than throwing open the valves and flooding the entire website.

The thought was to “ignite, burn and explode” the whole refinery, he informed the Warfare Workplace later in his report. Native officers regarded on in horror, mentioning that the practice station was too shut and would possibly go up in flames.

Simply as Norton-Griffiths lit a match, a Romanian officer ran over with definitive orders from Basic Command to cease the firing.

“No heed was paid to those orders”, reported the Englishman proudly to the Director of Army Intelligence in London, “and earlier than we could possibly be stopped the refinery was blazing.”

Flames soared 60-feet into the night time sky, scattering burning ash throughout Târgoviste and surrounding countryside.

The explosions went on for days. Norton-Griffiths and his staff leapt into ready lorries, and headed for the subsequent refinery.

Throughout Romania’s oil belt, roads had been changing into impassable with refugees. The German military was simply sooner or later away and shutting. Subsequent was Romania’s largest oil discipline, the mammoth 2,000-acre website of Moreni. Notoriously harmful, its wells had been so highly-charged with gasoline, reported Norton-Griffiths, that “odd workmen tremble on the thought of lighting a match”.

The Romanian authorities had made halfhearted makes an attempt to disable the rigs, however Norton-Griffiths was in no temper for moderation.

Whereas he argued with officers, his staff set to work with sledge hammers destroying each conceivable piece of equipment.

Then they flooded the whole website with oil and set it alight. The place went up like a furnace, inflicting explosions so large that every one “native human components” fled, a proven fact that delighted Norton-Griffiths, relieving him, because it did, of any additional interference.

Additional alongside the highway, on the Vega Refinery, a 50,000 ton reservoir was detonated with such pressure, it despatched half-ton metallic plates spinning into the sky above Norton-Griffiths’ head.

Considered one of his assistants, a Captain Masterson, barely escaped being crushed and burnt. One other officer was “actually blown out of the primary exit into the open along with his garments partially alight”.An easterly wind blew thick plumes of smoke within the Germans’ route and slowed the enemy advance.

Hellfire Jack

He blew up the oilfields of Romania to maintain them out of the enemy’s palms (Picture: ALAMY MY)

German items arrived on the western finish of the oil area hours later. However all they discovered was smouldering particles and scorched earth. Norton-Griffiths was already 30 miles east, on the oil metropolis of Ploiesti, the place a close to biblical scene was unfolding.

On December 3, 1916, a priest regarded throughout the plains in direction of town and witnessed a terrifying scene.

“Big clouds of black smoke twist and bend like nervous dragons,” he wrote. “Tongues of fireplace are rising to a whole bunch of metres excessive. It’s just like the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah… You could have the impression that the world is over. It’s an apocalyptic sight, pure and easy.”

Someplace contained in the inferno was John Norton-Griffiths guaranteeing the “full destruction” of Romania’s oil trade.

Inside every week, Bucharest was overrun and the Romanian authorities had retreated to a tiny space across the historic metropolis of Iasi near the Russian border, the nation’s momentary capital for the remainder of the struggle.

Romania’s British-born queen, the elegant and much-loved Marie – a granddaughter of Queen Victoria – was making an attempt to maintain spirits up by nursing wounded troopers on the entrance. Whereas she was doing so, a soot-blackened determine got here stumbling throughout the frontline, garments caked in oil, hair singed.

John Norton-Griffiths had accomplished his mission.

In a makeshift royal palace in Iasi, Queen Marie, who had understood the sad crucial of fully destroying her nation’s oil trade, awarded the Englishman the very best accolade for a foreigner – the Star of Romania.

With out his uncompromising strategy, a lot of the nation’s oil would have fallen into German palms, strengthening the Kaiser’s struggle effort and undoubtedly resulting in many hundreds extra casualties.

Because it was, it took German engineers greater than a 12 months to extract only a meager move of oil from the smouldering ruins. Norton-Griffiths, in the meantime, turned often called “Hellfire Jack”. On this age of self- flagellation aii ta sbSGre about Britain’s previous, it is perhaps retro to dwell on tales of imperialstyle endeavour, however the exploits of Sir John Norton-Griffiths deserve recognition.

He was a hero of the old fashioned; proudly patriotic, uncompromising, selfless, he disregarded guidelines and conference – a real extrovert.

He turned a Conservative MP and a director of Arsenal Soccer Membership. It appeared that something he put his thoughts to was inside his attain. However, tragically, his internal demons lastly received the higher of him.

When Norton-Griffiths secured an overambitious contract to re-engineer the Outdated Aswan Dam in Egypt after the struggle, he bumped into crippling monetary difficulties.

It was September 1930. His daughter, Ursula, had simply given delivery to her first youngster, Jeremy Thorpe – the longer term chief of the Liberal Occasion.

However the pleasures of being a grandfather had been overshadowed by what Norton-Griffiths believed can be monetary smash.

He took a rowing boat from the seashore of the On line casino Resort close to Alexandria, and shot himself within the head. He was 59 years previous.

  • Paul Kenyon is a BAFTA successful creator and journalist. Kids of the Evening: the Unusual and Epic Story of Fashionable Romania (Head of Zeus, £25) was revealed final Thursday. Totally free supply, name Categorical Bookshop on 020 3176 3832



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