The Hammer and Van Sickle
The Russians in Austria grabbed off Keith Van Sickle's oil wells and sat tight. But this chunky Canadian pitted an iron will against the Iron Curtain and the Red commissars are still doing business with the boy from Petrolia, Ont.
JOSEF ISRAELS II
IN THEIR rough-and-tumble drive to swallow everything of value in Eastern Europe the Russians have found no business competitor more indigestible than a beefy 50-year-old Canadian named Richard Keith Van Sickle. Despite the fact that he’s competing on the Soviets’ home grounds and has little except his own iron will to pit against the toughness of the Iron Curtain, Van Sickle, an oilman, a former lieutenant-colonel in the British Army, and an unregenerate capitalist, simply and stubbornly refuses to be swallowed.
As one of the discoverers and developers of Austria’s Zistersdorf oil fields Van Sickle has, singlehanded and minus any effective support from the Western powers, battled the Soviets to an economic standstill in their own front yard. The Van
Sickle oil wells are deep in the Soviet occupied zone of Austria where legally or illegally the Russians have seized and exploited for their own the former “German property” which they claim as their due under the Potsdam Agreement.
Diplomats, military men and most of all the other businessmen who have found you can’t do business with Uncle Joe are aghast at and envious of Van Sickle’s success. Almost, alone among Western property owners who saw their assets grabbed first by the Nazis and then by the Communists, Van Sickle has banged the table, shouted for his rights at the top of his lungs and by hook, crook and sheer force of will power obtained not only formal Soviet recognition of his capitalistic claims but. actual hard-cash payment for the oil (at present 160 tons of it every day) pumped from his property.
True, these victories have Limitations. Van Sickle has to accept a Russian stipulated price far
below the world level for the exceptionally greasy crude from his wells. He cannot offer his oil where and when he would wish. Without Russian cooperation he cannot remove it from within the Red zone.
But, in this part of the world, for a Western businessman to claim, and get, an income of $300 a day out of the Russians is a source of wonder. Most property owners trying to regain control of investments swallowed up in the “people’s democratization” process have wound up at best in a sea of paper and contention, with compensation merely owing if admitted at all.
The indomitable Keith Van Sickle, though bom in Romania, unites two Canadian families inseparable from the world history of petroleum. Both his parents—his mother was a Keith, of Lambton County, Ont. — were raised and nurtured on oil. The Keiths and the Van Continued on page 39
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Sickles adventured in oil from Canada to the Persian Gulf. It was grandfather Van Sickle, a descendant of the United Empire Loyalists, who first dipped a finger in the magic crude. His people had settled on rich farmland on the Niagara Peninsula. That’s where they were peacefully growing crops when word spread from Pennsylvania that an E. L. Drake had done something about the smelly oil seepages which were to be seen at various places on the continent. In 1859 Drake had a single oil well which produced 25 barrels a day. A refinery had been built, where the crude was “cooked” into “kerosene” which was said to burn in lamps almost as well as whale oil. What was more important, the thick residue after the lamp oil and something even more volatile called benzine were cooked away was rich, costly axle grease far superior to animal fats for wagon wheels and machines.
A Canadian Born in Campiña
In Lambton County were pools and streams discolored with the same black seepages. If it was worth money that was interesting news. No one was more interested than Grandfather Van Sickle He scouted around the sections which were later named Oil Springs, Oil City and Petrolia, then mortgaged the Niagara farm to take an option on some land in Petrolia.
By 1885 Ontario oil was already past its peak. But all over the world oilconscious peple and governments were looking for men who knew how to drill for the stuff. Only a few had practical experience to match that of the Lambton Canadians.
Richard Van Sickle’s father set out for Poland where Petrolia boys—Scotts, McGarveys, Keiths and others—had struck it rich. He stopped off in London to marry Florence Keith. After bringing in European wells he joined one of the Keiths in Australia where they sank water wells for Queensland sheep-
He soon returned to Europe and settled for a job in the then flourishing fields at Campiña, Romania. Here, in 1900, Richard Keith was born, a Canadian far from home.
Keith Van Sickle isn’t too sure today just where home is. He lives in Vienna, in a British zone apartment shared with a friend. His wife and son live in London on the premise that the boy should remain in school and maybe operations in Austria might collapse of political causes. His principal business and social life are in a block-square floor of offices in Vienna’s international zone. From this office he generals his endless economic war with the Russians, administers the 200 workers who bring oil from the 80 producing wells on Van Sickle property.
Van Sickle is a handsome man recently described by a visiting woman journalist as having “a Herbert Marshall build and a Gary Cooper mouth.” Instead of a winter overcoat he wears a short fur-lined jacket presenting a slightly dashing air which is accentuated by his pork-pie, Bavariantype hat. He is well known in Vienna and his progress down any street is slow as people stop and talk to him.
His office, in an old building on Freyung Square, occupies a whole floor, 27 rooms. The office is in the only Viennese building which has oil heating. Everywhere else in the city offices are heated by stoves.
Van Sickle’s personal high-ceilinged
office is cluttered with models of oi^ derricks, the walls are lined with maps' '1 here are comfortable chairs around a coffee table which gives the place the air of a living room rather than a business establishment. Here Van Sickle offers his guests coffee topped with whipped cream, Viennese style. Here Frau Elfie Krasa, a Van Sickle director, will serve a favored guest some of her apple strudel.
Beyond the office is a paneled boardroom sometimes used for formal dinners. Beyond that again, at the far end of the office flat, is a sitting room with a bar equipped with every known drink, including a well-known brand of Canadian ginger ale.
When Keith Van Sickle was 10 his father and Henry Drader sold their rich wells near the Ploesti field to Henri Deterding, who went on to build his fabulous Shell Oil empire. Keith remembers his father paying off Romanian peasants their royalties from a big stack of minted gold on a table in front of the field office at Moreni; the peasants didn’t trust paper money.
Back went the Van Sickles to Petrolia, Ont., and Keith was sent to Greenfield School, Hamilton. Van Sickle, senior, lost money in bad gold mines and the family soon returned to Europe. Keith was dropped off at Orleton School, in Yorkshire, England, in 1912; he ended up at Cambridge University with a Master of Science degree.
There was never the slightest doubt in the youngest Van Sickle’s mind that he’d follow in the oily trail of his father and grandfather. He went right from college to a job with old Henry Drader in Romania. He was a driller and then a tool pusher. He was well paid and saved his money, always watching for the chance to go prospecting on his own. He bought his own drilling rig, hired his own crew and went “contracting.”
By 1932 young Keith had found good oil near Guara Ocnitei, in Romania, but his funds ran out. In 1934 he read of oil strikes in Lower Austria, studied maps for days till he spotted a single available block. The owner of that block was a real - estate speculator named Fred Musil. He didn’t know oil. But he had bought the land for oil speculation. Van Sickle had no money, but plenty of nerve and an honest and determined manner.
SI Million in Profits Vanished
He found oil in the very first of 90 wells sunk to date on Van Sickle land, and it’s still producing. The Van Sickle wells made history as the most westerly major oil-producing area on the European continent. And they helped the German war effort far more than Van Sickle wished.
In August of 1939 a British consul urged Van Sickle to pack and go. He entered Switzerland with car, camera and a small suitcase of clothes—all he had to show for his Austrian career. His home, offices, oil fields, bank accounts and half a million dollars’ worth of drilling and pumping equipment were in enemy hands two days later when war was declared. They were administered by the Nazi Enemy Property Office which kept scrupulous accounts of what the fields earned during the war—almost $1 million clear. Not one penny of this was to be found after VE-Day.
“It wasn’t easy for a man of my age to get into the Army,” Van Sickle recalls. “But someone in the British War Office remembered a deep-well driller had been looking for a job and they needed water in the Western Desert in the campaign against Rommel.”
Van Sickle takes special pride in having found water at places where the Germans had drilled before him and given up.
In 1943 he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and sent as oil attaché to Bagdad and Teheran where he watched over the production and shipment of 4 million tons a year of Lend-Lease oil. As a sideline he worked with a secret group of oil experts studving Nazi oil supplies. Their information helped guide Allied bombers in raids on oilfields.
It was not until Aug :st 1945 that the
Russians allowed the British, F ench and Americans to join them in quartering Vienna into occupation zones and it wasn’t until December of that year that Van Sickle got his superiors to agree on a Vienna stopover while he was on a last mission to Borneo for the Oil Ministry.
He flew into the badly plastered Schwechat airport, motored into town through miles of desolation, and quartered at the Sacher Hotel, playground of Hapsburg archdukes and now a British VIP hostelry.
Next day Van Sickle sought out
his old firm’s offices. Nothing there but a pile of bricks and twisted steel. He asked oil people.
“The Van Sickle firm?” they said. “Oh yes. It still exists. Run by a woman, Frau Krasa. She’s a terror. But she’s handling the Russians.”
That was good news to Van Sickle. Elfriede Krasa had been his secretary and office manager; she had promised to watch out for his interests when he had fled in 1939. But he had not heard from her since and supposed she, too, had fled or been arrested. He later learned Elfie hadn’t written simply be-
cause it was safer to pretend she wasn’t loyal to Van Sickle.
After the Russians arrived Frau Krasa had battled her way out to the oil fields over battered railway lines and highways. With blood in her eye and a length of lead pipe in her hand she by-passed Red Army guards right into her ex-boss’ property to see what was what. Much of the tools and equipment had already been shipped to Russia. She found the Van Sickle employees unpaid, mistrustful after their experiences with the Nazis and pretty unhappy about the rough treatment the Russians had given them. She found a Russian major in charge, swaggering about in Van Sickle cars, occupying a Van Sickle field manager’s house and office and stuffing his pockets with Van Sickle money.
Elfie laid down the law to him and the workers. The wells would be put back into production, at once. Idleness would give them a chance to sand up and might take much money and time to cure. The production would be carefully tallied to Van Sickle’s account. It was, too.
By the time Van Sickle arrived in Vienna he had thousands of tons of oil to his credit. Even the Soviet conquerors agreed they owed him money for it. The grateful Van Sickle made Elfie Krasa a director.
Now the No. 1 problem was how to get the Russians to pay up.
A Showdown With the Soviet
During that first 1945 visit to Austria Keith Van Sickle lay low as far as the Russians were concerned. Still in British uniform he felt he wasn’t free to move ahead on private affairs. But in the summer of 1946 he was back in mufti and full of fight for the millions owed him and the potential millions his property will produce. And lie’s winning that fight.
If Austria stays outside Communist rule Van Sickle will have established the rights of Allied property holders in conquered territories in a sense that goes far beyond his own personal interests. His stand has saved English, American and other United Nations firms and individuals from expropriation on the usual Soviet assumption that any property held during Hitler’s regime by the Nazis was per sc “German assets” belonging to the Soviet Union under the Potsdam Agreement.
This has been neither easy nor without danger. For his first months in Vienna Van Sickle stayed away from the actual oil fields and saw no Russians. He set up his offices in the international zone.
At first, with the Russians sitting tight on all his funds and surrendering no income. Van Sickle financed his office staff and overhead by smuggling occasional truckloads of his own gasoline into town and selling them on the black market. He gave tin; Russians no chance to refuse him permission to go lo his own fields. Frau Elfie and some trusted field men took care of his interests there.
The first showdown came when a Soviet controller from Zistersdorf drove a Van Sickle car he had “borrowed” into Vienna, parked it outside the building where both Van Sickle and the Russians had separate offices for the same firm. The Canadian simply went downstairs, drove the “borrowed” car into his own garage and locked it up. The Russians did not ask directly for the return of the auto. But several days later came the summons Van Sickle wanted. Mikhail Rabunin, the Soviet boss of the company Moscow had set up lo exploit Austrian oil invited Van Sickle lo a meeting.
When Van Sickle entered the conference room Rabunin, a civilian, was absent. Instead there were 12 grim Soviet officers, headed by Col. Yagorov who had directed the plundering of the Zistersdorf fields. The greetings were Asiatically polite.
“Have you heard of me?” asked Yagorov.
“Of course I have,” replied Van Sickle. “Nothing good either. Have you heard of me?”
The first issue was the car. “It’s mine and I don’t intend to return it,” said Van Sickle. “If your man has an accident in it I’m the one who’ll be held responsible.”
“Suppose we insist on having the car back?” they asked.
By now the Van Sickle dander was up. It’s hai'd to get anger through an interpreter, but Van Sickle managed. “Remind Col. Yagorov that he’s in charge and can do as he likes if he does it by force. And while we’re on the subject of force I’m fed up with the rudeness and thieving of the ‘gallant Red Army’ on my property. And why don’t you pay the money you owe me and have been promising for months? Is that Soviet honor? And give me the permits you’ve promised to visit my wells. Your promises aren’t worth a
“That floored them,” Van Sickle recalls. “Probably no one ever talked to them that way. We parted politely. But nothing happened for quite a while. Then just on the eve of the conversion of German marks into Austrian schillings they suddenly called me to the Russian Military Bank and gave me a bundle of cash. They thought it would be too late for me to change it, but they would have discharged part of their debt. I got the marks changed anyway. I think it increased their respect for me.”
The Reds still didn’t come through with a pass for Van Sickle to visit their zone and his wells. But in early 1948 Rabunin invited him to a joint inspection trip.
“When I got back I sat down and wrote a pretty brutal letter,” the man from Petrolia says. “I listed all the
property and oil they had stolen and demanded compensation for it—about two million dollars worth. But what really got under their skins was that I told them in great detail how they were mismanaging my field, working the wells without thought for their future and spoiling their capacity by overproduction. And I told Rabunin I was sending a copy of the letter to his boss, the Russian High Commissioner and to all the Allied chiefs in Austria. That hurt their pride.
“In a few days they sent me Pass No. 1 to the Van Sickle properties and transferred control and management back to me. I’ve been running my own show ever since. But I have to sell the oil to them and they pay me what they please, which is currently about 40% of the world price and even a smaller percentage of what they sell my oil for. But that’s more than anyone else in mv spot has gotten out of the Russians. It’s an incentive to fight for more.”
Now Van Sickle’s in the midst of another hot exchange with the Soviet oil authorities. They asked him in an angry letter to explain why his field’s output wasn’t maintained at a minimum of 170 tons a day, a figure he considers too high for the field’s welfare. He lashed back with an equally hot letter: “I cannot see what possible interest the amount of production on my lease has to you you have no right to dispose of my crude oil and to control my field as you must surely be aware, I am an Allied national and my business has nothing remotely to do with German assets.”
Keith Van Sickle comes daily to his Vienna office and maps his own personal cold war to get complete control of his own property. The seven crude-oil samples which decorate his desk are, he is sure, approximately the same stuff that flows in the veins of all true sons of Petrolia, Ont. He means to fight Communism to a standstill, at least as far as Van Sickle interests are concerned.
Whoever wins in the long run. it seems unlikely that Van Sickle will stop trying. ★