In order to prevent the use of Romanian oil by the Germans in the First World War, the refineries, wells, as well as the installations in the south-east of the country were destroyed in the autumn of 1916 by British engineers, with the consent of a relunctant Romanian government. In the ensuing fires, 800 million litres of crude oil were lost.
British command watched with concern the outcome of the battles in southern Romania, especially as the Germans approached the oil-rich fields of the country. Just like in the Second World War, Romanian oil would prove invaluable to the German war effort. Following consultations with Romanian authorities, who eventually gave their consent, the decision was made to destroy all the oil installations that could have been used by the enemy.
Norton Griffiths, the leader of the sabotage operation
Colonel Griffiths, an accomplished engineer and soldier, a veteran of the Second Boer War, created the first British units of engineers specialized in the counter-mining of German fortifications.He was coordinating the efforts of these units on the Western Front, at Messines in Belgium, when he was ordered to Romania.
In November, together with his team, he arrived in Bucharest and was greeted by Queen Marie. She warns him that the profits of some politicians are so great that they will do everything possible to stop the colonel.She also asks that, regardless of the obstacles that would arise, that he carry out his mission to the end and prevent the Germans from seizing Romanian oil.
Indeed, he received very little support from the authorities and had to enlist the help of Romanian soldiers who were retreating from the German army. In other cases, he also recruited oil company employees, who knew more details about the oil-rich area of Prahova.
He first stopped in Târgoviște where the headquarters of the English company “Romanian Consolidated Oilfields” was located. Griffiths had to improvise as the German army advanced rapidly. The wells were blocked with what tools they had at hand, cement was poured into the installations, pipes were ruptured, nails were thrown into the tanks. Trenches were dug, then the valves of the tanks were opened and the oil was burned.
The fires darkened the sky
In addition to the “Romanian Consolidated Oilfields” refinery, three more were destroyed in Târgoviște, belonging to German and Dutch companies.
More than 24.000 tons of crude oil were destroyed here alone. Powerful explosions shook the ground. The drowning smoke rose in columns from the refineries, and the city of Târgoviște was plunged into darkness because of the fires.
Moreni, the most productive oil field in Romania, benefiting from the best technology existing at that time, was transformed into a ruin almost overnight.
The boreholes were clogged and people went from well to well, breaking all mechanical components. The tanks were then emptied into ditches connecting to the ancillary installations. More than 100 wells, along with dozens of buildings, were set on fire, 42.000 tons of oil being destroyed.
Dozens of other wells were destroyed in Băicoi. Near the city train station there was a warehouse of the “Astra Română” company, as well as a number of tanks, that were set on fire, destroying an additional 60.000 tons of oil.
Câmpina, another important centre, was set alight. The wells were clogged, followed by the ignition of another 60.000 tons of crude oil. The same fate befell the installations in Buzău, where another 45.000 tons were destroyed.
The German army is approaching
The most dangerous part of the operation took place in Ploiești. Colonel Griffiths was informed that German troops had already entered the northern part of the city. Following a sustained effort, they managed to destroy most of the tanks and refineries from around the city, mere minutes before German soldiers engaged. They managed to destroy 100.000 tons of oil. Griffiths and his men also blew up a 50.000 tonne Vega refinery tank. The explosion was much stronger than expected and some of the colonel’s men narrowly escaped death. Griffiths himself cheated death at the Astra Refinery after entering a building flooded with oil with a torch, and then hurried out with his clothes burning.
The success of a dramatic operation
The most important oilfields and installations of the Prahova valley were burned. In only a week, the south of the country was drowned in the smoke of the fires started by Colonel Griffiths, making the advance of the entire German army difficult.
The cloud of smoke moved unabated, fuelled by the huge fires and the flames erupting from the wells. The fires were the largest the European continent had ever seen. Four hundred wells and seventy refineries totalling 800.000 tons of crude oil were destroyed. The damage, adjusted for inflation, was estimated at over 2.5 billion euros.
It was not until the spring of 1917 that German engineers managed to resume operations, but production was only at a quarter capacity. The damage was so great that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, accompanied by Marshal Mackensen, visited Câmpina to inspect the repairs. However, German efforts were not enough to supply their increasingly oil-dependent war machine, which would succumb in late 1918.