Wonders of World Engineering

Crude oil is transported directly from its source to the consumer through 1,150 miles of pipe line, the laying of which across the desert involved an expense of £10,000,000 and the employment of 10,000 men


LOWERING A SECTION OF THE IRAQ PIPE LINE into its trench. Ten or eleven 40-feet lengths of pipe were welded together, and the completed section was then lowered by a derrick into the trench. When two complete sections had been laid, a pit was dug so that a welder could weld the joint all round. These pits were necessary because the sections in the trenches could not be rotated.

ONE of the problems confronting the oil engineer is how to bring the valuable liquid quickly and economically from the fields where it is found, to the centres of civilization. A reliable method is to pump it through pipes. By far the most spectacular of modern pipe lines is that recently laid across the deserts of Syria, from the oilfields of Kirkuk, in Northern Iraq, to the ports of Haifa and Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast. The scheme called for the laying of 1,150 miles of pipes across barren and uninhabited country, the building of a dozen pumping stations far out in the desert, and the installation of a telephone line along the whole route - from which some idea of the colossal character of the undertaking will be apparent. An army of 10,000 men was engaged in the task and a sum of £10,000,000 expended upon it. It was the biggest job of its kind ever put in hand.

The work was carried out by the engineers of the Iraq Petroleum Company, which controls the oilfields of Kirkuk, in Northern Iraq. This is an international concern, representing British, French and American interests, under the direction of a British chairman, Sir John Cadman. Great Britain is the most prominent partner and was responsible for the building of the great pipe line.

In October 1927 a boring was made in the neighbourhood of Kirkuk. This caused the opening up of a new oilfield. There are now thirty-two serviceable wells, each of which is capable of yielding from 1,300 to 2,000 tons of oil daily. The average depth of the wells is 3,000 feet, and the cost of drilling one - work that occupies about three months - is about £10,000. The field lies in open, hilly country, some five miles from the town of Kirkuk, and eighty-five miles south-east of Mosul, on the Tigris.

The region is bituminous. It was here, tradition says, that the three friends of Daniel -Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego - were cast into the "fiery furnace." There is a field, about an acre in extent, called Jehannum by the natives - the name being Arabic for Gehenna, which means the place of eternal fires. It bears this name because of the jets of fire which issue from the ground and which, as far as is known by the natives, have been burning from time immemorial.

There are also the bitumen pits. Bitumen is a mineral substance, a kind of fossilized tar, and makes an ideal pitch. It is used to-day, as in Biblical times, by the natives of Iraq as a pitch for rendering boats and the roofs of dwellings waterproof. It was probably the pitch used by Noah to smear the Ark. It was also used as a binding agent in bricks by the ancient Babylonians, and the bricks of Babylon and Ninaveh contain it.

A DITCHING MACHINE AT WORK on the Iraq pipe lineHaving tapped oil and learned something of the vast quantity available, the next thing considered was how best to transport it to the markets of the world. The British Navy was looking in the Mediterranean for an oil depot on which its ships could rely for their fuel, as was also the French Navy. After long and careful study the engineers decided to pump the oil through two pipe lines, one to Haifa in Palestine, and another to Tripoli, in the French Mandated Territory of Syria. It was to be a costly proposition, but with a pipe line capable of handling 4,000,000 tons of oil annually, there was every reason to believe that the venture would be a financial success.

A DITCHING MACHINE AT WORK. Trenches were dug for the entire 1,150 miles through which the oil pipes had to run, and gangs of "ditchers" were sent along the route before the welders were ready to join up the sections of pipe. The machines used were capable of digging a trench 6 feet deep and 2 feet wide at a rate of a mile a day. An excavating wheel was equipped with steel buckets. These buckets picked up the soil and boulders and dropped them on a conveyer belt which threw them in a continuous line alongside the trench.

Almost a year was spent in the desert surveying possible routes and determining those which were finally chosen. Nearly the whole length of the pipe lines had to pass through desert wastes, without roads or railways, having only a few settlements, and uninhabited save by a few scattered nomadic Bedouin tribes. Water existed at certain points, but it was inadequate in quantity and quality.

Ultimately two routes were selected. For the first 156 miles, from Kirkuk to Haditha on the Euphrates, the two sections of the line run together. At Haditha they separate. The southern one continues through Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine to Haifa, and the northern one through Syria to Tripoli. The length of the Haifa pipe line is 620 miles, and that of the Tripoli line 530 miles.

Although the country through which the pipe lines run may be described as nearly all desert, its nature differs from section to section. Between Kirkuk and the Tigris few geographical difficulties were encountered, but the approaches to this river and to the Euphrates are rough on either bank and called for some engineering ingenuity in their negotiation.

From Haditha through Rutba and as far as Burqa, a distance of some 270 miles, the obstacles to pipe line construction were limited to stretches of rather rough country, occasional patches of rolling stony ground and a few small wadis, or valleys. From Burqa to Jebel Asfar, in Transjordan, the line crosses its most difficult section. Between these two points there lie seventy miles of "lava country."

The surface of the ground is covered with basaltic rock which in some places takes the form of a solid sheet and in others exists as boulders varying from six inches to a yard in diameter. The sand beneath the boulders is loose and abrasive. Transport across this section of the route was almost impossible and a metalled road had to be built for a distance of ninety miles. From Jebel Asfar the pipe-line turns west-north-west, crosses flat country to Mafraq, and then enters limestone hills of increasing heights as it approaches the River Jordan. At its highest point, eighteen miles east of the Jordan, the pipe line is 2,600 feet above sea level. When it reaches the Jordan it has fallen 3,450 feet to 850 feet below sea level; and in a further ten miles it rises again to 750 feet above the sea. Thence it falls in a steady slope through the Plain of Esdraelon to Haifa on the Bay of Acre.

The northern section of the line encounters no such serious obstacle as the lava country crossed by the southern line. From Haditha to Palmyra the northern route traverses ground which is stony or rocky, broken by occasional deep wadis, notably the Wadi Ratqa, ninety-two miles from Haditha.


A TYPICAL PUMPING STATION IN THE DESERT. Twelve of these stations are necessary to ensure a steady flow of oil along the line, the height of which varies from 2,600 feet above sea level to 850 feet below. Manned by British and American engineers, the pumping stations are complete little communities, kept in touch with the outside world by telephone and wireless. At each of these forts six 500-horse-power diesel engines drive reciprocating pumps. Workshops, offices and dwellings for the staff are separated from the engine houses and pump rooms. in which elaborate precautions against fire are enforced.

The elevation of the line rises gradually as far as Palmyra and thence climbs steeply from 1,250 feet to 2,000 feet, over a rocky saddle in the hills. The climb continues, more gently, as far as El Furklus, whore it reaches 2,600 feet and proceeds through stony limestone hills, falling fairly sharply as far as the valley of the Orontes. Then, after a final rise from 1,600 feet to 1,750 feet, the line drops gradually to Tripoli. The first task was to "string" the route; that is, to lay the pipes along the ground preparatory to fixing them. The stringing gang was followed by the ditchers and welders, whose business it was to weld the pipes and bury them. The stringers were given three months' start. Their task was not an enviable one. The transportation of the heavy piping over the desert proved to be a difficult problem.

Each pipe is forty feet in length, the 1,150 miles of piping representing a combined weight of 120,000 tons. The surface over which this piping was carried varied considerably, being composed in some areas of loose sand; in others of irrigated farm land, limestone grit, or boulders of lava. On several occasions during winter a large part of the desert becomes a morass because of the heavy rains, and for days at a time transport over it is impossible.

Two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flow across the track of the pipe line and, as they are unbridged, special methods for negotiating them had to be devised. Ferries were out of the question because, during the spring floods, when the mountain snows are melting, the current is too swift for the safe navigation of considerable loads. At both rivers an overhead cable-way was erected.

THE COURSE OF THE PIPE LINE across the Jordan ValleySteel towers standing on concrete foundations were built to support a steel ropeway over the river. Across this cable - which was nearly seven inches in circumference - loads as great as ten tons could be lifted from one bank and deposited on the other. When necessary, a lorry complete with its load could be carried across the river without disturbance of its contents and allowed to proceed with a minimum of delay.

The span between the towers was nearly 2,000 feet, and to permit the passage of river craft and to make allowance for the sagging of the cable during hot weather, the towers were of considerable height - 130 feet for those beside the Euphrates and 140 feet on the Tigris.

THE COURSE OF THE PIPE LINE across the Jordan Valley. A bend of the River Jordan may be seen in the upper left-hand part of the illustration. From the foreground of this picture the course of the oil pipes may be followed until it disappears over the brow of a hill. Emerging in the plain beyond the hill, it continues across the Jordan valley until it is lost in the Mountains of Moab.

The type of transport vehicle used depended upon the country it was to negotiate. Over loose sand and irrigated ground crawler tractors were used. On the more favourable terrain 10, 20, and 40-tons lorries, the latter specially designed and built for the work, were used.

In hilly country cranes and special lifting tackle had to be carried. The stringers had to carry not only the pipes and all the necessary tackle and tools, but also everything else that was needed - tents, bedding, provisions and even water.

Out in the Syrian desert, far away from the centres of civilization, the engineers encountered many hardships. Floods repeatedly delayed their work. Their camps became waterlogged and the men experienced a trying time. Another source of anxiety was the looting propensities of the wandering Bedouins. Given the opportunity, they would raid the camps and carry off provisions and tools. Some were even bold enough to hold up a whole camp at the point of their rifles. In some sections of the desert it was necessary for vehicles to travel in convoy, guarded by an armed escort.

The men learned to dread the dust storms, which sometimes lasted for days, entirely blotting out the camps. The storms were particularly severe in the lava country. Here, almost without warning, blinding and suffocating dust would rise and envelop the lorries and even the camps. Drivers were blinded for hours on end by these dust storms, which prevented their seeing more than a yard or two ahead. Worse still, the grit and sand got into the engines and brought all transport to a stop. Dust invaded the tents, the bedding and the food.

In the summer and autumn the heat was intense, the thermometer registering 120° at mid-day. This would be maintained for weeks on end with no shelter or shade of any kind. At night, in the winter, the thermometer would drop far below freezing-point. As one worker aptly put it  "Out in the desert here we are either being baked or frozen."

The Iraq oil pipe line

A BITUMEN PIT in Northern Iraq, Bitumen is a mineral substance, a form of fossilized tar. It makes excellent pitch and is used by the natives of the bituminous region, through which the Iraq pipe line runs, for making boats or roofs waterproof. In the bricks of the ancient cities, Babylon and Nineveh, pitch was used as a binding agent.

GIANT OIL TANKS AT HAIFA, on the Mediterranean coast. One of the two pipe lines ends here, and the oil is received and stored in tanks, some of which have a capacity of 11,000 tons. There is also a factory for producing petrol tins, and a depot from which oil is supplied to the local markets. Further pipe lines link this depot with the harbour, where oil is pumped into ocean-going tankers and into ships of the British and French Navies.

REFINING PLANT at the oilfields at Kirkuk, Iraq, about eighty-five miles south-west of Mosul. In this region there are more than thirty serviceable wells, each capable of yielding nearly 2,000 tons of oil every day. From Kirkuk to Haifa and Tripoli, on the coast of the Mediterranean, the pipe lines carry 4,000,000 tons of refined oil in a year.

Thus the men toiled day after day, week after week, in the lonely wastes, seeing little life, and being cut off from the outside world save tor the occasional arrival of a messenger from another camp.

They were followed by the ditchers and welders. The pipe line was to be buried throughout its entire length. The first operation, therefore, was the digging of an adequate trench. To have employed manual labour would have taken far too long, the plan being that the laying of the pipes should not occupy more than a year. That the work was carried out in that time is evidence of the elaborate preparations which were taken before it was put in hand.

The trenches were mechanically excavated by ditching machines. These consisted of a crawler tractor bearing a power unit which operated an excavating wheel overhanging the rear of the machine. The wheel was equipped with steel buckets which picked up the soil - including boulders fifteen inches in diameter - and dropped it on to a conveyer belt which threw it neatly and continuously beside the excavated trench.

The machines used were capable of digging a trench just over two feet wide and six feet deep at an average rate of about a mile a day. In rocky ground, too hard for the ditching machine, recourse was had to blasting. A line of fifty or more holes was drilled by pneumatic machines, rammed with explosives and fired. The loose stone was then removed and the trench finished to the correct size.

Protection Against Corrosion

Now came the welding of the pipes. The ends of each section of piping were expanded to accommodate a sleeve which fitted into the adjacent ends of two contiguous sections, the effect being similar to the joining of two lengths of rubber tubing by slipping their ends over a metal union. The sleeve facilitated the joining of the pipe and was so arranged that the interior of the pipe was of constant diameter throughout: thus there is no obstacle to free passage of the oil through the pipe line. In the ordinary way ten or eleven forty-feet lengths of pipe were lined up on the ground and joined by are welding.

Each joint was welded and, when all the joints had been treated, the great length of pipe, 400 feet or more, was lowered into the trench. As it was impossible to rotate the section already laid a pit was dug beneath the point of junction, and a highly skilled welder descended into it and carried out the final operation of adding yet another length of pipe. Thereafter the welding gang, composed of twelve welders and some 300 general labourers, moved on.

A SPOUTING OIL WELL in the oilfields near Mosul. The region in which the oil is found is bituminous, and there is a field, about an acre in extent, from which jets of fire have issued from time immemorial. This field is known as “Jehannum”, a native form of Gehenna, the place of eternal fires. The average depth of the oil-wells in this neighbourhood is 3,000 feet, and the drilling of a new well takes about three months.

The pipes are made of steel. In several regions through which the line passes, the soil contains corrosive salts which would speedily eat into the metal. Measures, therefore, had to be taken to guard against corrosion, and as soon as a section of the line had been welded, protective substances were applied. A mechanical cleaner, filled with rotating brushes - first wire, then coir (coconut fibre) - was drawn along the pipe.

The wire brushes removed all dirt and rust, leaving a clean steel surface on which the coir brushes deposited an undercoating of primer. When that had dried, a protective enamel was applied by hand. Hot enamel was ladled on to the upper side of the pipe, and as it ran down it was spread evenly by a strip of canvas passed under and round the pipe and worked backwards and forwards. A remarkably even distribution was obtained, and the entire pipe was finally wrapped in asbestos.

With such great lengths of metal, in a land where temperatures vary so widely between day and night, and in summer and winter, it was necessary to allow for an unusual amount of expansion and contraction. This was done in an ingenious manner. At points seventy yards apart the pipe was supported on skids slightly above the level of the trench, and allowed to sag. This meant that the pipe was slightly longer than the trench it was destined to occupy. If it could be forced down under compression to an even level, allowance would then have been made for a certain degree of contraction.

The skids were removed and the pipe forced down to the determined level by loaded crawler tractors. There is no possibility of the pipe contracting sufficiently to pull it apart, even in the coldest of weathers. When the pipe was in position, the soil was rapidly shovelled into the trench and rammed down hard. Thus the great pipe line lay securely at the bottom of its trench, providing a smooth transit for the passage of oil, protected from corrosion and immune from vagaries of temperature.

FROM KIRKUK TO TRIPOLI AND HAIFA run the two great pipe lines

FROM KIRKUK TO TRIPOLI AND HAIFA run the two great pipe lines, with pumping stations at regular intervals. From the oilfields to Haditha the two lines follow the same course. From Haditha onwards they separate. The northern line is 530 miles long, and the southern 620 miles. Black circles indicate the sites of the pumping stations.

After the line had been laid only a slight disturbance of the ground marked its route. Along it to-day stretches an apparently interminable row of telegraph posts, running without deviation from horizon to horizon. Between the posts copper wires glint in the sun. The posts and the wires form a track, visible for many miles on the surface or from the air. This track, if followed by a traveller from Haifa or Tripoli, would eventually lead him to the Euphrates - to water, shelter and roads. Never before has a path across the desert been so plainly marked.

Oil, being a liquid, can flow only by gravity. As the pipe line runs up and down hill it was necessary to build pumping stations along the route to ensure a steady and constant flow. There are twelve of these stations scattered along the line, from 50 to 150 miles apart. They are known as K1, K2 and K3, named after Kirkuk, the source; H1, H2, H3, H4, and H5, named after Haifa, one of the terminals of the line; and T1, T2, T3, and T4, named after Tripoli, the other terminal, nine of them being situated in the open desert.

The building of these stations, particularly those far out in the desert, was no light feat. First the necessary labour had to be collected and a camp established. Then came the digging of wells in the hope of finding the all-important water.

Serviceable water was found, but until then every drop of the precious liquid had to be brought to the camps from long distances. The hauling of the necessary building material, and more particularly the heavy and cumbersome pieces of machinery, over the rough desert terrain, called for skilful handling of the heavily loaded lorries. Then came the building of the engine houses and pump rooms, workshops, telegraph and wireless houses, offices and dwellings for the staff and their servants.

WELDERS AT WORK joining two of the pipes

WELDERS AT WORK joining two of the pipes. The ends of each pipe were expanded to accommodate a sleeve which fitted into the adjacent ends of two contiguous pipes. Ten or eleven 40-feet lengths of pipe were welded together above the ground by men wearing protective goggles. These longer sections had to be joined by men working in pits dug under the trench in which the pipes had been laid.

The engine houses and the pump rooms are built of steel as a protection against fire. The engine houses are equipped, as a rule, with six diesel engines each of 500 horse-power, which transmit their power to direct-coupled reciprocating pumps working in adjoining rooms, separated from the engine rooms by gastight partitions. There are also small electric generating plants, but these are located a little distance from the engine houses, so that there may be no risk of a spark igniting the petroleum gases. The dwellings of the staff of the Iraq Petroleum Company and of their helpers are of concrete with flat roofs. This is a type of architecture which is much favoured in hot countries.

The stations are manned by British and American engineers, who with their Arab servants form little modern communities in the desert. At every station there is an armed guard to protect the settlement and its occupants from attack by wandering Bedouins.

Raids on the Pipe Lines

AS THE stations are in telephonic and wireless communication with the outside world, life in these desert forts is not so lonely as one might suppose. Stop at a station overnight, as many travellers do to-day, and you would be amazed at the amenities its occupants enjoy - first-class accommodation, hot and cold baths, and jolly company. Many of the stations boast of attractive little gardens, and when they are lit up at night they remind one of beacons illuminating some lonely outpost.

During the Arab strike in 1936 there were several attacks upon the pipe line, in Palestine and in Transjordan. Here and there the earth was shovelled away and bullets penetrated the pipe, allowing the oil to escape. As soon as the damage was discovered, the flow was cut off by the pumping station immediately to the east of the incident, and the punctured pipe was quickly repaired.

Strangely enough, the oil engineers did not look upon this damage as serious, describing the occurrences as "mere pin-pricks," although they often involved the loss of a few hundred tons of oil.

At Haifa the oil is received in giant tanks built on reclaimed ground close to the port. There are sixteen of these tanks, the largest ones each having a capacity of 11,000 tons of oil. There is also a factory for producing petrol tins, with a capacity of 6,000 tins a day. The depot supplies oil to the local markets - Palestine, Egypt and Transjordan. The tanks are linked with the harbour by special pipelines through which the valuable liquid is pumped into ocean-going tankers. Ships of the British Navy now go to Haifa when in need of oil fuel.

The discovery of petroleum in Iraq, and the building of the pipe line across the Syrian desert to the Mediterranean coast, should be of considerable ultimate benefit to the peoples of those countries. Some fourteen to fifteen thousand local inhabitants were employed on the various works of construction.

The capacity of the pipe line is 4,000,000 tons of oil a year. The royalty payable to the Iraq Government is 4s a ton. If the full quantity is taken it means a revenue of £800,000 a year. Indeed, Iraq's principal source of revenue will be her oil, towards the development of which she has not been called upon to subscribe.

CRAWLER TRACTORS were used for transporting the lengths of steel pipe

CRAWLER TRACTORS were used for transporting the lengths of steel pipe over the loose and sandy ground of which so much of the route was composed. On more favourable ground heavy lorries were used. The gangs of "stringers," whose task it was to lay the separate lengths of pipe over the entire route, started out three months before the ditchers and welders were ready to begin work.

[From part 1 and part 2, published 2-9 March 1937]

You can read more on “The Story of Oil” and “Oil Refining in Iran” on this website.

The Oil Route From the East