Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, June 15, 2020

"Hellfire Jack" Norton-Griffiths and the Ploiești Oil Fields

Burning Romanian Oil Field, 1916

By James Patton

Born John Griffiths (he officially added the surname "Norton" by deed poll in 1917) to a minor public servant in 1871, Jack left home at 17, served a  short tour of duty in the Life Guards, then went to Africa and began working on heavy engineering projects, especially railroads. He served as an irregular in the Second Matabele War (1896) and the Second Boer War (1901–04), by the end of which he was a captain and a member of Lord Roberts’s bodyguard. After the war, his construction business boomed, and with his new wealth, he returned to the UK and secured a seat in Parliament in 1910, where he gained the sobriquet
"Empire Jack.”

Lt. Colonel Norton-Griffiths
In 1914, before there was a New Army, he was the first wealthy man to raise a battalion at his own expense, the 2nd King Edward’s Horse (2/KEH), and he was made a major and second in command. King Edward’s Horse began in 1901 as a Yeomanry regiment known as the 4th County of London (Sharpshooters). Subsequently it was an Imperial Yeomanry unit made up of Britons or persons of British ancestry from other parts of the Empire and it was re-titled from "Sharpshooters" to "King’s Colonials," then became the King’s Overseas Dominion Regiment, and finally King Edward’s Horse in 1910, assigned to the Special Reserve. 1st King Edward’s Horse claimed to have suffered the last British KIA of the war. It was disbanded in 1924, but its traditions continue in a Masonic organization.

As for Maj. Norton-Griffiths, because of his background, he was quickly seconded to the Royal Engineers. He helped start the tunneling war in the Ypres Salient, which earned him the additional nickname of “Hellfire Jack.” He also earned a promotion to lieutenant colonel and received a DSO. Without him, 2/KEH served dismounted with the 56th (London) Division, then with the 1st Mounted Division until seconded to the CEF Cavalry Brigade in 1915 as an augment to the Fort Garry Horse. Later placed in reserve, the regiment was in Ireland during the Easter 1916 troubles and disbanded in August, 1917. 

Much more could be written about his tunnel war, but this article is about another, equally fantastic, exploit of "Hellfire Jack."

From The War Illustrated 13 April 1918:

"Smoke-Clouds of Destruction" by Hamilton Fyfe, an American reporter—

"What is war," Napoleon asked, "but a game of barbarians?" Savage and senseless, save from its own distorted view-point, acts of war must always be.

It was on a sunny November day that I first saw in Bucharest my old acquaintance "Jack" Norton-Griffiths — "Empire Jack" his constituents used to call him. He was looking at the ruins of a building wrecked in the early morning air raid. At first I did not recognize him, in uniform with red tabs, but I found that being a Staff colonel had not a whit changed his jolly, kindly, care-free nature, nor diminished his immense energetic capability by any job of "militarism."

He had been sent out to see that the Germans got as little as possible out of Romania, either in the way of oil or grain. Already it was clear that the Romanian Army could not save the country from invasion. Help was looked for from Russia, but the Russians could not send it in time…

By the end of November it was clear that the oil-wells must either be destroyed or presented to the enemy. Already they had been left untouched too long. The Romanian Government urged that they should be left a little longer. But now Colonel Norton-Griffiths had his orders. Off he went to Ploiești , the capital of the oil country. He called together the British engineers and managers who had longest experience and those who were reputed to possess the longest heads.

He got valuable advice also from American oil-men. There was general agreement that the only way to seal up a well, so that it could not be used again, was to drop the dipping machinery into it upside down. Wherever such a thing had happened by accident, it had been found impossible to get the machinery out.

Then the colonel got to work. He is by the way, the founder and head of a very big contracting firm which makes docks, digs canals, [and] builds harbors all over the world. Now he proved that he was no less competent at destruction than at construction. A "destroying angel," the oil people nicknamed him. One mine manager of a poetical turn, described him to me as being "in love with ruin."

A great deal of oil was pumped or run off from the reservoirs into shallow basins, where it was set on fire. It did not explode. It did not blaze up. It burned sullenly, giving off a dense black smoke. All over the country the dense black smoke rolled in sinister, slowly-moving clouds. At a place called Targovistca, twenty miles away, it was thick enough to blot out the daylight and make dark night at four in the afternoon.

As I look back, those days of destruction are like a nightmare in my memory. A nightmare lit up by huge flares of burning petrol, lakes of petrol, rivers of petrol, and always above them dense, black stinking smoke.

Nothing in the war has made a deeper impression on my mind. The lurid sensationalism of it, the hurry in which it was all done, with the query lurking at the back of everyone's thoughts: "Can we do it in time?"

. . . It was a perilous job they were engaged in. There were dangers of falling roofs or walls, dangers of fire, dangers of suffocation. And added to these, there was danger in the threatening mood of the population.

German Soldiers at a Damaged Oil Derrick

By the same author, for a German magazine, Illustrate Berliner Zeitung

"Just in Time"

If the oil would not light up quickly the colonel took bundles of blazing straw and flung them into it. He was seen swinging sledge-hammers against the oil-refining machinery, "He ought to have been killed a hundred times," said an admiring American. "Why he wasn't, I cannot understand." His example made all his assistants work like three men apiece.

Just in time they got their work finished. The sound of the guns, magnified by the mountain echoes, had been coming nearer and nearer. Through the town wounded men and deserters and fugitives were flowing in solid streams. There was no hope now that the enemy could be checked before he had captured Bucharest and the oil region.

The well-to-do part of the frightened population had no thought but to flee. The rest for the most part, took a fatalist view. "Let the Germans come," they said to each other. "They can't harm us more than these foreigners have done."

On a Saturday the destruction was almost completed. It was, known that the Romanian Headquarters Staff had passed through Ploiești in flight. "Give it up now," the colonel was urged. The bombardment sounded very near.

“No," he said, "we'll make a clean job of it." They went on until the Monday. Then the remains of Avarescu's Army began pouring down from the passes they had held so bravely, and so much longer than they had been expected to hold them.

Only then did Colonel Norton-Griffiths give the word to quit…

It is estimated that Norton-Griffiths and his men destroyed about 60 % of the productive capacity and huge amounts of crude oil stockpiled pending the re-opening of the Black Sea to tankers. Ludendorff was said to call this action as a key turning point in the war. For his war service, Norton-Griffiths received a KCB and was titled as the 1st Baronet of Wonham in 1922. Later he was a director of the Arsenal Football Club, and in 1930 he died of a gunshot wound while in Egypt. Romanian agents were suspected, but it was ruled a suicide.


  1. What a story, with such imagery.
    I wonder how Romania rebuilt the fields afterwards.

  2. Related question: was he based in Salonika?

    1. He was one of the "gardeners," eh?

    2. Hi again Bryan,

      I had to delete the entry that confirmed Norton-Griffiths served in Salonika. His hyphenated last name confused me. As of now, I see no evidence that Norton-Griffiths was assigned to Salonika, although he may have transited through it.

    3. Aha! Thank you for the followup, Mike.

  3. Still, the reffineries survived this, and one of them still exists today, preserving reservoirs, buildings and installations from before 1916 ! It is STEAUA ROMÂNĂ oil refinery at Câmpina, just recently closed. Come to see it before it is too late.