Chapter 3

Water, Fire & Iron Pipes

Photo: Российский государственный архив кинофотодокументов

Present: специальный проект «ИСТОРИЯ НЕФТИ»

Sometimes an invention or a feat has a name. But the feat we would like to talk about has a lot of names, and we are going to reveal only a few of them, though we will remember that it was a deed carried out by so many people who can fairly be called true heroes and patriots. Having built the first long-distance underwater pipeline in the USSR, they helped the people of Leningrad to survive the Siege.

The story of building the pipeline which carried fuel straight to the fighting and besieged Leningrad is interesting not only as another act of valour of the Soviet people who stood their ground in a deadly fight against a ruthless and powerful enemy. It also is the most important point in the history of the Soviet oil industry, a unique event which triggered a change in attitude toward pipeline transportation in the Soviet Union. And finally - it is a sort of a technological breakthrough.

In fact there was a time when the advantages of pipelines even over the railway transportation were called into question. Advocates of carriage by rail had been having it their own way for a long time. There also were some problems with technology so the pipes had to be purchased abroad. This all began to change in the mid-1920s when Soviet industry grew more and more oil-consuming. It became clear at a certain point that railway men could no longer cope with the growing scope of transport operations.

Oil industry workers prepared a report for the Soviet government in 1926. They highlighted in this report that if the building of the Grozny-Tuapse and Baku-Batumi oil pipelines hadn't been supported in due time, a transportation standstill on the Transcaucasus railways would have occurred. The arguments were significant and the Grozny-Tuapse oil pipeline was put into operation in 1928.

And in 1931 the first pipes of the Armavir-Trudovaya pipeline were laid. The pipeline was more than 450 km long. It was put into operation a year later. The building of the most powerful pipeline in Europe - Guryev-Orsk (more than 700 km long) - was started that same year. It was also remarkable due to the fact that it was built entirely from homemade pipes.

The year 1932 was marked by the discovery of the Ishimbay oil deposits which became the first fruit of the vast oil-producing province later named "The Second Baku". Initially, it was considered enough to build a railway line from Ishimbay to the oil refinery in Ufa. It became clear very soon that the line at 170 km long couldn't cope with the flow of oil and the decision to build an oil pipeline buried in the ground was made. The pipeline had to be buried to reduce the impact of winter frost on the oil flowing in the pipes.

Even the almighty Lazar Kaganovich who promoted railcars for the transportation of oil when he was People's Commissar for Transportation had to admit in 1939 that the reliance on tanker cars was a mistake. But did anyone suspect at the time that there would be so much oil? Only Gubkin believed in "The Second Baku"...

So in 1931 when David Shinberg, a young graduate of the Oil Institute, started his career, pipeline transportation in the USSR was still in its infancy. And so many solutions had to be sought for.

Fast Preparation Pipeline

Following the development of the Red Army's armaments in the beginning of the 1930s, there was a demand for a rapid improvement in fuel supplies for motorised units. The army was interested in all the latest innovations and it was no wonder that in 1933 the Fuel Supply Office ordered Nefteprovodstroi Trust to design a quick-assembling (as well as quick-disassembling) pipeline for transporting fuel in field conditions. The work was delegated to the young experts Schinberg and Khromov under the guidance of the trust director Georgy Rogachev.

The sectional field pipeline had to be 75 mm in diameter and up to 100 km long. About 350 tons of fuel per day had to be pumped through it. The young engineers invented a modular-type pipeline. It consisted of sections 10 km long and delivery measuring stations mounted on cars.

A year after the beginning of design activities they were ordered to build a preproduction section of the pipeline 2 km long. The pipeline was to be made of special lightweight pipes which had to be connected by specially designed sleeve joints. In 1935, experts of Nefteprovodstroi Trust together with the army ran petrol transportation tests on the pipeline in Armavir. The army liked the project but the costs were too high because a very small number of lightweight pipes was produced in the USSR and they were quite expensive.

Eventually, the Red Army's Fuel Service put the so-called "sectional depot pipeline" into operation at the beginning of 1937. It was much shorter than even the preproduction section designed by Schinberg and Khromov - only 1.5 km long. Still it was a real step forward.

Four years later, when Hitler's tank convoys were breaking the Red Army's lines of communication, it became clear that one of the most important supply problems was to rapidly deliver fuel to the functioning armoured units and to refuel them just as rapidly. So in August, 1941, the engineers Shinberg and Khromov wrote to People's Commissar for Oil Industry Ivan Sedin suggesting their 1935 project be revived.

The Commissar instantly supported the engineers and funds were allocated for improving the project and building the first pipeline. The situation on the front line in the autumn of 1941 didn't inspire any experiments with new technologies, so the project was postponed. But what couldn't be implemented within active moving warfare turned out to be much in demand in a siege environment. Only the pipes had to be laid not on the surface but under water...

When there is no fuel left...

The last train left Leningrad at the end of August, 1941. German forces cut off the railway line and were heading north to Lake Ladoga. On September 8, the Wehrmacht reached Shlisselburg, the place where the Neva flows from Lake Ladoga. Finnish forces successfully made their way north of Ladoga closing the ring of the siege. On September 10, the Badaev warehouses with large quantities of supplies were bombed.

In September, Hitler with plans to hasten the fall of Moscow in mind, gave the command to call back some tank units from Leningrad, to intensify artillery and air strikes on the city and to begin its systematic destruction. There were lots of refugees from the occupied territories in the city at the time, mainly old men, women and children. They could do nothing to protect the city and were most probably constituted a burden. There was a need to arrange the evacuation of the civilian population from Leningrad so as to improve the supplies for the remaining defenders of the city. Leningrad was running out of provisions and fuel - fuel for military equipment in particular.

Leningrad had become an "island" which could be supplied only via Lake Ladoga. But autumn came with the season of Ladoga storms, and the thirty kilometres of water between the eastern and western banks of the lake had to be crossed not only under the enemy's fire but also in the toughest weather conditions.

Even Peter the Great had faced the problem of autumn and spring storms on Ladoga, during which the waves, steep and choppy, rose up to 5 metres and blocked vessels with cargoes for building St. Petersburg. Up to a thousand ships of different sizes vanished every year, and due to this fact Peter gave orders to build a canal more than 100 km long along the south coast of Ladoga in 1718. A new canal was built under the reign of Alexander II. This canal is still in use today.

The fleet the Soviet side had was too small. Moreover, the enemy successfully sank barges containing people and cargoes. But the winter which was closing in fast brought hope of an ice motor road. Indeed, the "Road of Life" was opened on November 28, 1941.

It was down this road that fuel was planned to be transported to besieged Leningrad. But the calculations made by the supply officers were disappointing: more than seventy thousand tons of fuel and lubricants were to be brought in. According to the calculations, the fuel from seven thousand 10-ton railway tanker cars had to be pumped to here.

25 thousand tanker lorry trips had to be made to carry this amount of fuel, and even then the lorries had to go loaded only in one direction, and come back empty. It would have been more useful to carry fuel in barrels on lorries so as to evacuate people in the barrels on the way back. But hundreds of thousands of iron barrels were needed for this. The return of the empty barrels wasn't part of the calculation. And even if they had the barrels available, they didn't have enough lorries. So the usual approaches couldn't provide a comprehensive solution to the fuel problem. There was a need for another fresh idea.

The Birth of an Idea

In the winter of 1941/1942, the forces of the Volkhov Front held an important base area on the western bank of the River Volkhov, where fuel was transported down ice roads. But in the beginning of spring the ice started to melt and fuel transporters constructed an original pipeline. They used pipes from the depot pipelines and connected them with each other by means of rubber-coated flexible joints. Thus they managed to solve the problem of transporting fuel across the Volkhov, under an unceasing enemy fire.

That is why the very idea of creating a pipeline under Lake Ladoga undoubtedly occurred to many people involved in the transportation of oil products. A pipeline of this sort could function around the clock in any season and was much less vulnerable to the enemy's strikes. But virtuous wishes are one thing and a practical decision is totally another. After all, a real pipeline many kilometres long had to be laid under Ladoga. Significant underwater investigation was needed to ascertain the geological and hydrological conditions on the line.

The environment at the bottom of the lake was best known to specialists of EPRON - the well-known Special Expedition for Underwater Works. It was they who laid a telephone cable on the bottom of Ladoga so as to connect Leningrad with Moscow. They also invented the unique technology of transporting oil products using floating railway tanker cars. This meant that the tanker cars were brought via a railway line to the edge of water. The tracks went straight down into the lake and the tanker cars started to sway gently, pulling away from their wheel bases. The "train" of tanker cars rocking on the waves was headed by a tow boat, which pulled them to the other bank of Ladoga where they, still under water, were put on the tracks and pulled out on to the railway line. So EPRON experts never lacked imagination.

This work was directed by the first female diver in the USSR, Nina Sokolova. A graduate of Leningrad Water Transportation Institute, the engineer Sokolova didn't just want to supervise the divers from the surface - she wanted to take part in the underwater works herself. She started her diving career in Sochi back in 1937.

Nowadays, in the era of aqualungs, it is difficult to imagine how hard and dangerous the work was with heavy diving equipment on. A diver didn't float in the water, and actually there was little benefit in that - he or she stood on the bottom and did a complicated and hard job. The work was directed by engineers who stayed on the surface and told the divers what to do. Nina Sokolova dived herself unlike her land-bound colleagues, saw the underwater objects "on the spot" and knew the limits of what was possible better than anyone.

So by the spring of 1942 Sokolova was already considered an experienced professional who had the ear of the top brass. This young and seemingly fragile woman also possessed a determined character and, as they say now, thought outside the box. And one day in February 1942, going to Moscow to visit one of the meetings, she shared her idea with some higher officials. To her mind, the divers could build such a pipeline in no time. The question was, how to put the pipes together.

The Sum of Technologies

But in fact, the idea of building an underwater pipeline through the south of Lake Ladoga also occurred to the old friends, Shinberg and Khromov, who were still working for Nefteprovodproekt Trust, which had close contacts with the Red Army's Fuel Service. Sokolova's plan confirmed that the pipeline could be buried on the bottom of the lake, and the Khromov-Shinberg project was elaborated well enough technically as well as technologically.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that everyone backed the idea. It was usual for a pipeline to cross a river mounted on the truss of a railway bridge. It was known that on the Sakhalin island, a pipeline a little less than 10 km long was successfully laid under the waters of the Strait of Tartary on March 22. But they welded the sea part of the pipeline when it was still on the surface, and only then put it under water. This was impossible on Lake Ladoga because of the longer length of the line and the inevitable air attacks of the enemy. And also, there was no experience of laying a pipeline at such a distance in open water.

So when the idea of an underwater pipeline was made public at the Fuel Service Administration, many experts labelled it at once a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the Head of Administration, General Mikhail Kormilitsin, saw fit to delegate to his subordinates ways of figuring out how to build this line and its potential practicability.

As David Schinberg later remembered, there were more questions than answers when the decision to build the pipeline was made. It wasn't clear if they had the necessary quantity of pipes for a start. How shall they connect the pipes with each other: by thread or by weld, and if they choose welding, then what shall they choose - gas or electric welding? How to do this literally in the eye of the enemy? Which tasks could be done in the light of day, and which ones only at night?

Every time Shinberg met officials they were of a higher rank than before. The next report was to be delivered to Anastas Mikoyan, who was in charge of the whole Red Army's supplies. Mikoyan was the ultimate authority before Stalin, and a report to him was very important. It turned out that the report was delivered by Shinberg, and General Khrulev, who was in command of the rear, inserted some additions. But Mikoyan and Khrulev weren't satisfied with the planned construction time - three months, because the amount of fuel left in Leningrad was only enough for 60 days at most. They agreed that the pipeline was to be built within 50 days. Executives and representatives were rapidly appointed, and David Shinberg took up the post of Head Engineer of the project. A project which to all intents and purposes did not exist.

A Project Which Did Not Exist

To be in charge of such an important and unprepared project means to be held up at gunpoint. There is a huge risk of failure, its consequences will be terribly harsh, and the punishment, taking into account the peculiarities of wartime, can be the severest possible. Schinberg only had old calculations, rough layouts and general plans. He also had the crazy responsibility, particularly to the people who had to bring his plans to life. There also was a deadline - June 20, 1942.

At the end of April, Schinberg had the following: the pipeline transmission capacity had to be about 500 tons of petrol per day. To this end, he needed from 35 to 40 km of pipes 100 mm in diameter, transfer pumps and containers to hold the fuel along both banks of Ladoga.

There were no pipes at all, and he already had to work out the technology of pipeline construction. The experience Shinberg had with the 1934 project came in handy:

the pipes had to be connected in sections and coated with a waterproof layer at first, then assembled in stalks and, as soon as the weather allowed, laid on the bottom of Lake Ladoga. The work had to be carried out most inconspicuously, so that the enemy would understand what was being done on the bank of the lake as late as possible.

Camouflage was facilitated by the fact that the port facilities and transfer points of "The Road of Life" were situated there. The enemy knew about the constant activity on the banks of Ladoga and tried to deliver air strikes, but air defence was quite strong in this area. Thus the work had to be designed so as not to stand out against the general background.

The experts from EPRON, who arrived almost at the same time as Shinberg's team, immediately established the exact underwater route of the pipeline. They suggested building at once two racks for the pipes to be taken down to the water. The racks were essentially roller-type tracks 300 m long. Simultaneously, a team of geological engineers was moving along the breaking ice. They regularly made holes in the ice and collected samples of the bottom soil, taking measurements of the depth at the same time.

The lake bottom profile was being formed this way, and later, it was given to the divers from EPRON for drafting further work plans. Thus every unit was itself doing what was needed for the common goal. But they also needed the pipes and the technology of connecting them with each other. And the pipes were kept at the fighting line.

The Pipes From the Fighting Line

From the very moment of taking the decision to build the "OS - 6" facility, the executives in charge contacted the directors of industrial plants and asked them one and the same question: "Do you have any pipes?" They found out that 100 mm diameter pipes made for oil wells were kept in the warehouse of the Izhor plant in Kolpino. There was only one problem - the fighting line ran through the area.

Maybe it was because the warehouse with the pipes was very close to the German positions that it was preserved in a relatively good condition. Schinberg went there himself to select the pipes for further transportation to the building site.

It turned out that the words "warehouse at the front line" were to be taken at face value. Schinberg with his convoy had hardly started measuring the pipes when an artillery attack began. The warehouse keeper who was in the convoy died. The new pipes were twisted by the force of the explosion and damaged by the shell fragments right in front of their eyes. It was clear that they had to work very gently and only at night.

On the other hand the pipes were of excellent quality. The thread was protected by special caps, the pipes were marked according to the steel grade and already were base coated. It was simply impossible to lose such a treasure and the pipes were literally carried out by hand.

Eventually, the builders of the pipeline had two sorts of pipes. About two thirds of the pipes had no thread, and almost one third of them had a thread and a sleeve joint. A decision was made to weld all the pipes for safety, including those which were first connected by joints. Such connections were to be made between longer stalks at first, welding them in water.

As the builders had few high-quality pipes, they decided to transfer the eastern entrance of the route to a protruding land tongue on the eastern bank. They managed to save a few kilometres of the underwater section as a result. The pipes had to be buried at a depth of up to 13 metres.

Some "tables" were prepared at the eastern bank near the Kokorevo settlement, where pipes of 5, 6 or, very rarely, 7 metres long were welded together into sections 300 metres long. And the question there was: how good will the welding be? Engineers could do nothing - it was all in the hands of the welders.

Seams by the welder Lomonosov

The first section of the Ladoga pipeline was welded at the beginning of May, 1942, by an experienced welder, Grigory Lomonosov. His work was recalled by many people who were there at the time, and David Shinberg told this story in his memoirs twenty years later. As Shinberg stated, this was a brilliant job of wonderful quality, and it was fast, too. Lomonosov didn't make a secret of his method and had become a tutor for his colleagues.

In early May the welders could already weld two sections 300 m long per day. The pipes were cleaned, scrupulously covered with bitumen coating and tested with the help of kerosene under pressure of 35 atm, that is, 15 times higher than the pressure in car tyres.

Although section assembly was started at the beginning of May, the laying of the pipeline itself across the lake began only three weeks later. On the one hand there still was some ice on Ladoga in early May, on the other hand Shinberg saw fit to prepare sections beforehand so as to do the most dangerous "water" task as quickly as possible.

By May 25, everything was ready for the beginning of the pipe laying. According to the designed technology, when a section was ready, it had to be pulled down to the lake about 50 m apart while fixing the head end on the pontoon, and the pontoon itself took the end from the tow boat. The tow boat then started pulling the section away from the bank. When the rear end of the section was already on the shore front, it was connected with the next section and the procedure had to be repeated. All this resulted in the so-called "stalk" which was up to 1.5 km long, welded on both ends and held afloat not only with the help of pontoons, but also logs tied to the pipe on both sides.

But on May 26, the very day of laying the first stalk, the weather foiled all the plans. A sudden storm carried the tow boat with the stalk southwards, the stalk was moved in parallel to the bank, pontoons and logs were torn off and the stalk sank. All the diver's efforts to find it were unsuccessful - Lake Ladoga hid the precious pipes.

Above and Under the Waves

After this loss, a decision was made never to work in a storm under any circumstances. The importance of divers grew - they constantly examined the bottom where the pipes were laid. Besides, they were delegated the task of fixing the pipes on the bottom so as they would be stable enough not to be carried away by the current. Cast iron loads weighing 50 kilograms were hung on the pipes. They were hung every fifty metres at a depth of less than four metres, and half as frequently again at a greater depth.

In shallow waters and the coastal area the pipes were buried with the help of a jet gun breaking the sandy and muddy bottom. Thus both ends of the pipeline were made inconspicuous against the background of the traditional crossings which were still functioning. Camouflage and active lake navigation allowed for keeping the pipeline works secret.

Stalk laying was started on May 31. The EPRON men worked almost ceaselessly. The engineer diver Sokolova did a considerable amount of dives together with her colleagues. The welders who worked on the shore increased the speed of work - they could already weld three sections per day, that is, almost one kilometre. In two weeks, on June 14, the last stalk, the fifteenth, was welded to the pipeline. The pipeline was laid across Lake Ladoga.

But this didn't mean the end of the work. The divers once again checked the pipeline all the way along its length. The bend radii conformed to all of the project parameters. There was no sagging. Then the tests began - they started with piping in some water. After that they pumped in kerosene, gradually increasing the pressure. Finally they injected kerosene in the pipeline under pressure of more than 20 atm and started watching the manometers. The divers checked the joints trying to find some points of leakage but there were none. Three days later, on June 18, the pipeline was ready to be put into operation.

A Route to the Future

After the government committee signed the pipeline acceptance and operation commencement certificate on June 19, 1942, the attitude to pipeline transportation changed dramatically. On the very first day of operation petrol of high quality went down the pipeline. More than 17 tons of highly-valued fuel were transferred to the receiving terminal at Borisova Griva every hour.

But Italian MAS naval launches began operations on Lake Ladoga three days later. They were relocated purposely on German warships to Finland and further - using the railway, to impede water transportation of Soviet cargoes across Ladoga. Besides, the Germans forwarded 6 combat launches to Lake Ladoga in May, each one armed with two AA rapid-fire guns and bearing underwater mines.

Landing craft armed with 88 mm main guns and 20 mm AA rapid-fire guns were brought to the location after a short while. Thus, that same summer of 1942 a joint Finnish, Italian and German flotilla consisting of more than 40 battle units (not counting sixty communication support boats) started operating against the Soviet lines of communication on Ladoga.

The Luftwaffe also constantly delivered air strikes along the route. But nevertheless the underwater pipeline functioned without failure. 50 thousand tons of fuel were delivered down this pipeline and it was switched off only after the lifting of the siege.

Captured documents revealed that the Germans didn't know about the pipeline and its role in supplying the defenders of the city with fuel.

The experience of building the Ladoga pipeline was used almost immediately.

Sectional field pipelines became more popular for transferring fuel across small water barriers. And already in April 1943, a more serious task arose. The EPRON experts from Lake Ladoga and Sakhalin were invited to complete this task - they had to lay a long-distance pipeline across the Volga. Pipelines were laid across the Dnieper in 1944 and the Vistula in 1945. In total, more than 1200 km of pipelines were laid during the war, and many of them across water barriers.


When the war was over many former EPRON professionals committed themselves forever to building underwater pipelines and oil and gas platforms. A specialised administration for building trunk line underwater passages known today as "Podvodtruboprovodstroi Open Joint Stock Company" was created in 1956. Experts from this company built underwater passages across the biggest rivers of Asia, Europe and Africa, laid underwater pipelines on the shelves of the Baltic and the Black Sea, the Caspian, the Mediterranean and the Sea of Okhotsk.

Still, it is the Ladoga pipeline that stands out. According to the builders' recollections, the secret of success was that all of them - field engineers, design engineers, divers, welders and tow boat operators - understood perfectly the essence of the given task, organised the production process on their own site, looking forward for the demands that may occur at the next technological stage. The trust which the project directors put into the directors of separate sections and, in their turn, into the actual performers of the work, allowed for the waiving of red tape delays.

The story of building the Ladoga pipeline is a story of brilliantly organised production where military supply services were involved alongside of the units of the Navy (EPRON) and civic design organisations. They managed to wade through departmental barriers, create a new organisation and fulfil a most difficult task with excellent quality and ahead of schedule.

As it happens, these people wouldn't meet the definition of "heroes" in the Soviet era. But as the time goes by, it becomes clear that they possessed what was needed back then and what we lack nowadays - the skill to do one's job in a clear, creative and effective manner - and with minimal losses. In a word, professionally.

No one would be amazed by the pipeline itself these days. But the case of successful organisation and management is worth a careful examination and builders themselves should be honoured and well remembered. As every long-distance pipeline that negotiates water barriers or is hidden under the waves of rough seas is the descendant of that very pipeline.

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