If it was not for the invention of the Mining Institute’s Professor, the fate of Leningrad could have been a lot more tragic
This September marks the 78th anniversary from the day the siege of Leningrad started (Leningrad is a former name of Saint-Petersburg, commonly used throughout the Soviet period or, more precisely, from 1924 till 1991). During that time, up to 1.5 million people were presumably killed - more than nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused, if combined. Despite that, local people working at the factories succeeded in supplying with ammunition both defenders of Leningrad and Moscow troop forces. How did they manage to do so?
In December 1941, Georgy Zhukov, Chief of the General Staff, Army General, in his telegram to the besieged city wrote the following:
"Thank you, citizens of Leningrad, for helping Moscow people in their fight against the bloodthirsty Nazis".
This way, he reacted to air delivery of defence items - guns, automatic rifles and mines - to the army forces defending Moscow. Regardless of that, it is hard to imagine those hungry, broken, freezing people being able to triple their production rates and develop brand new, unusual for peacetime product lines.
Leningraders had to work for up to 12-14 hours a day with no days off work. They also often stayed at the facilities so as not to waste time on the road home. Back then the trip home could have easily ended in the fatal outcome, since people were extremely tired out. They used to work under the motto:
"If the front needs it, it will get done”.
As a result, in the second half of 1941, Leningrad factories manufactured or restored 713 tanks, 480 armoured vehicles, 58 armoured trains, more than 5 thousand regimental and anti-tank guns, about 10 thousand mortars, more than 3 million shells and mines, over 80 thousand rocket-propelled missiles and bombs.
The latter figures are in particular impressive if we take into account that no explosives were manufactured prior to the start of the war. Moreover, there was a lack of raw materials required to manufacture mines, shells and grenades. Therefore, mass production of those items set for the end of July 1941 was on the verge of failure.
It was Alexander Kuznetsov, Professor at the Mining Institute (now named Saint-Petersburg Mining University), who found a way out of the situation. Together with a group of co-authors, he invented a new explosive substance called "Sinal" (Si N Al). This substance manufactured on the basis of aluminum-silicon blend was proposed to the military officials then. As an active ingredient, Cambrian clay was used, which was easily found in the city and its suburbs.
The original intention was to use Sinal to speed up the process of penetrating down the bottom of the well. Its use would also allow to make explosive works more safe. In practice, military specialists concluded that better use of Kuznetsov’s innovation would be to charge hand grenades, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and bombs, whereas the simplicity of the technology resulted in the establishment of mass production of explosives.
There were two production facilities at the Mining Institute. Altogether, they produced more than two tons of Sinal per day. Most of the factory workers were women, regardless of the fact that working conditions were hazardous and arduous.
After the end of the war, Alisa Goppe, a former student of the metallurgical faculty at the Mining University, wrote ”The facility where we worked was a small room with two or three rows of small-capacity devices used to grind ammonium nitrate. To the left of the entrance, there was a conveyor-trough dryer. Nitrates were stored there for pre-drying purposes. Once the saltpetre had been dried, we poured it into small boxes. Those boxes were brought to the crushing units then, and nitrate was put into the machines. A grinding mill was in the opposite corner from the entrance door."
Maria Oshurkova, who was studying to become a geologist, recalls her working experience at the production facility. Coping with an extreme work load and physically taxing work conditions was not easy. The work shifts lasted only six hours due to occupational hazards, but by the end of the shift it was nearly impossible to continue because of the hunger.
As she explained, ”Eyes were hurting thanks to contacting with nitrate. Lifting the saltpetre up the shaky ladder and stuffing the mill with it was a physically demanding work. It was equally hard to drag ready-made explosives. They were put in the plywood barrels which had to be taken all along the courtyard of the Institute right into the basement, where they were kept in the storage until being transported away. Upon that, the taken away explosives were used for manufacturing the shells. We were also living in very harsh conditions - back then we were placed at one of the Institute’s premises, the one where the military department was located. There were twenty of us living in the same room.”
Due to the fact that every tenth grenade produced for the Leningrad Front was made at the Mining Institute, it became one of the easy targets for German forces who were aiming to destroy it with either air or artillery attacks. During the course of the war, all of the buildings were to some extent damaged. On February 24, 1942, the special production facility, the one described by Alisa Goppe, was crushed with a direct hit of a landmine. By the end of the war, over three thousand square meters of the University’s area were totally destroyed while the rest required extensive repairs.