StandingWellBack

You can contact me at rogercdavies(atsquiggle)me.com  If you have a comment and the system won't let you post it, ping me using the @ for (atsquiggle)

This blog has evolved into a review of historical and modern explosive devices, and responses to them. Links are drawn between historical activity and similar activity in the world today. Mostly I focus on what are now called IEDs but I have a loose personal definition of that and wilingly stray into discussions of more traditional munitions, the science and technology behind them, tactical employment and EOD responses. Sometimes it's just about interesting people in one form or another. Comment is welcome and encouraged but I do monitor it and reserve the right to delete inappropriate stuff. Guest posts are always welcome. Avoid any stuff that makes the enemy's job easier for them.

A note on moral perspectives. Throughout this blog there are descriptions of all sorts of people using IEDs, explosives, or suffering the consequences. Some of the people using IEDs are thought of as heroes by some and terrorists by others. One person's good guy fighting for a cause is another person's evil demon.  It's complicated, and history adds another series of filters too. All of us too live in a narrative made up around however we were brought up, what we were taught and what we learned along the way, rightly or wrongly. So if you sense moral ambivalence, one way or the other, well, I'm guilty and I'm not perfect.  By and large though, I have unapologetic sympathy for those dealing with the devices, whether they be soldiers, cops, or whatever, even those who are part of Nazi or other nasty regimes. That's the cool thing about EOD techs - we don't really care who the enemy is.

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Wednesday
May022018

The history of metal-cased military rockets - an investigation

A couple of years ago a wrote a few posts about the emergence of metal cased military rockets as a weapon system in the early 1800s. In retrospect I made some hurried assessments, and after a while digging I’d like to revisit. The links to my older posts are below but I’ll repeat some of the story here for coherence. This is a story of terrorism, weapons technical intelligence, politics, subterfuge, tall tales and obfuscation, leading to financial success for one individual (William Congreve) that perhaps wasn't entirely deserved.  The traditional, commonly accepted wisdom was that Congreve “invented” rockets in about 1804, introducing “new” metal-bodied rockets, and also introducing larger calibre and longer range variants. He was supposedly "inspired” by the use rockets by Tipu Sultan in the Mysorean wars in India in the late 1700s.  I think that is a misrepresentation (mostly by Congreve himself), of a much more interesting story which I’ll try to make here.  I’ll also try to give credit for what I think Congreve deserved . I have been encouraged by a new colleague, a keen historian from India, Nidhin Olikara from Karnataka in India. Nidhin is involved in some exciting research in this area which I cannot reveal yet. Mr Olikara’s blog is here:  

 

I’ll lay the story out chronologically as best I can:
  1. After being “invented" in China, rockets appeared first in Europe in the late 1300s and early 1400s. Rocketry was discussed in the book “Bellefortis” written in about 1405. However I think there is a red herring - the picture below, from Bellefortis, is quoted often as an image of a rocket. But I think it is not - to me it is simply a spear head, and the “rocket vent” is simply the socket for a spear. Some people quote the size of the man holding the rocket/spear but the other images within Bellefortis are massively inconsistent in scale too.  I do accept however that Bellefortis does apparently discuss rockets elsewhere in text.

Rocket or spearhead with socket? I think the latter.

2. Throughout the 1500s and 1600s rockets were well known in Europe, mainly as a component of massively complex fireworks displays which became very popular in the late 1500s onwards. Leonardo da Vinci discussed rockets and a number of books about “pyrotechnics" were published. Some of the books clearly made the jump from rockets as a form of pyrotechnic entertainment, to rockets as a military weapon.  In the 1500s rockets were clearly being developed by Conrad Haas (1529 -1569) in Austria/Hungary. Haas’s technology was surprisingly advanced, and included bell shaped nozzles and multi-stage systems.

Note the venturis on the rockets and the engineer creating a combustion chamber with a spike  

3. Haas probably influenced a German, Johann Schmidlap who developed further the staged rockets in about 1561.

Double and triple stage rocket motors4.  In the late 1500s and early 1600s there were a number of experts publishing instructions on rocketry, these include the aforementioned Haas and Schmidlap, and others referred to by later authors as “Brechteltus”, Diagus Ulfanus, Adrian Roman, James Valhouse, Furtenbach and Frontsbergue. Many of thse authors/experts developed their own formulae for the best dimensions of rockets in terms of diameter and length. Many also describe a very specific number of taps with a mallet of a specific weight for driving a needle into the packed rocket for the purposes of optimisng the rocket motor ignition surface/chamber. This may seem an obscure instruction but is important.  As far as I can tell these rockets were not metal cased but made from paper or card.   In these early years of rocketry I understand that the propellant was standard blackpowder (gunpowder). As firearms developed over this period improvements were made to gunpowder to speed up its reaction.  This made it rather too powerful for rockets with the pressure from the product gases being very high and the cardboard and paste cylinders could not contain the pressure so the tube ruptured.  So rocket gunpowder was made by adding additional carbon (charcoal) which reduced its burn rate.  This issue is fundamental to the development of rockets over the period - having a slow enough burn rate to not rupture the body of the rocket, but enough to project the rocket forward. Much trial and error went in to the development of effective geometry and hence design and production of the rocket motors.  I have found some vague references to the military use of rockets against cavalry in 1600 but so far I have no detail.

 

 

5.  A book was written by Jean Appier in about 1620, called La Pyrotechnie de Hanzelet Lorrain.  Here’s an image of a simple rocket design from that book. Note the “warhead” with a fuse that is initiated as the rocket motor finally competes burning. Still there is no sign as yet of metal cased rockets. Note the combustion surface in the rear, created by tapping a mallet into the packed propellant.

Note warhead initiation when motor finishes burn

6.  In 1635, and English book called Pyrotechnica by Robert Babington detailed rocket manufacture. These were not metal cased. Here’s a diagram of the mould used to create the rocket motor. Note the “needle” used to create the correct combustion geometry within the rocket’s gunpowder. Many of the documents and books discussed here recount how the needle is inserted into the packed gunpowder and gently knocked into place with a number of blows from a hammer. Basically the mould former on the left is lined with paper and card, filled with damp gunpowder, then the needle inserted and tapped into place and then dried. The needle is removed and the vent/nozzle formed (“choked”) with a twist of card held in place with string. This rocket is two and a half inches in diameter (which is a dimension that will be repeated in the future. Babington’s book is remarkably detailed. Babbington describes that the best paper to use for the body (“coffin”) of the rocket should be “old law books”!  He then describes a range of explosive compositions and how to make them. The thrust of Babington’s book is entertaining firework displays - but it is fascinating how some of his more exotic pieces presage the use of sub-munitions. He also describes a range of test apparatus to allow the testing of gunpowder.

 

Rocket mold, cross section and needle for making combustion chamber.

 

7.  Another book  “The Great Art of Artillery" by Kazimierz Siemienowicz published in 1650 also described a number of rocket systems.  Again I can see no detail referencing metal cased rockets but there is considerable discussion about the variants of propellant mixes needed for various sizes of rockets.   This document provides extremely detailed manufacturing instructions.  (I am using an English translation published in 1729.)  it is interesting to note that Siemienowicz comments about the habit of “pyrobolists” (those making rockets) to keep the methods of manufacturing very secret - but who let the secret out while drunk…  Siemienowics describes rocket cases made from paper, pasteboard in some cases reinfoces with wound thread and in some cases made from wood, with conical noses.  The paper ones are described in some cases as being reinforced with iron wire, “for fear the powder would split it".  He does describe however a range of quite large rockets.  Here’s a diagram of some of a range of Siemienowicz’s rockets.  Note the Multiple rocket using 7 smaller rockets (unlike Elon Musk’s 9). Note also the range of payloads and multi staging. Siemienowcz is extremely detailed on various aspects of quality control.

Siemienowicz's advanced designs

Siemienowicz appears to be an admirable chemist, physicist and engineer. He spends pages decrying his predecessors who were closer to alchemists, who described their rocket making art in mystical forms hiding the secrets of their craft through pseudo-science. Siemienowicz developed some rules for rocket making and explains the science behind these rules:
 
    First Rule: The larger the rocket the weaker and slower should the rocket propellant be (and vice versa, the smaller the rocket the faster birning propellant is required. This, he explains relates to the available surface area of the combusting propelllant’s hollow cone.
The second and third rules relate to the compostion of the propellant in certain circumstances, adjusting the carbon, sulphur and saltpetre comparative quantities.
 
Siemienowicz describes rockets that are stabilised in flight with sticks and others stabilised by fins. He also describes a stabilisation method I have not come across before using a lead ball fastened to a piece of wire that trails to the rear of the rocket, which he says acts like a stick. Another technique he describes is to add lead filings at various points in the rocket motor - very sophisticated in concept, altering the movement of centres of gravity and thrust in a complex manner.
 
8. In 1696 Robert Anderson, and Englishman wrote a book with a clear rocket design, two and a half inches in diameter and about 18 inches long.  In my earlier blogs I had misinterpreted some of the instructions from this book, assuming them to describe a metal cased rocket. After careful research and examination of this book I now no longer believe this to be the case, and my earlier assessment was an error.  I think Anderson was using paper and pasteboard and not a metal cased body.
 
9.   In the late 1700s , in the Mysorean wars in India with the British, the Army of Tipu Sultan used rockets extensively. Some of these were metal cased rockets (I think the first) and some of these rockets were recovered to England for analyis, at Woolwich Arsenal laboratory.   The laboratory was under the control of William Congreve’s father. At the time William Congreve (junior) was not employed at Woolwich, he was busy as a publisher of a political magazine. So there were military metal-cased rockets in Woolwich some 20 years or so before Congreve is credited with their invention. I believe two of these metal cased Mysorean rockets are in a museum in the UK and I’ll be checking on this in coming weeks.  My Indian friend Nidhin is investigating his excellent sources in India. I suspect that the crucial key here is the advanced metalsmithing available in Mysore at the time - often underestimated by Western historians - able to create a closed end lightweight metal cylinder, strong enough to contain the pressures of a rocket motor but light enough to not interfere significantly with flight.
  
10.  In 1803 Robert Emmet’s uprising in Dublin used metal cased rockets (two and a half inches in diameter) against British forces, it is possible using the specific design and dimensions of Anderson's rockets from 1696, or even Babbington's from 1645. However rather than use paper or pasteboard, Emmet used a metal cased rocket.  I’m not sure yet where this idea came from but it is possible it came from Robert Fulton, the American inventor whom he met in Paris in 1802. There is also a French connection to Mysore, and the French could also have recovered metal cased rockets from Mysore to Paris, and hence to Emmet.  Certainly, reports suggest that Emmet came back from Paris with specific instructions on on how to construct rockets.   Another possibility is that one of his workmen, Johnstone, had previously worked in India for the East India Company and had encountered the earlier metal cased rockets.  There is a possibility that Emmet was using manufacturing instruction from one of a number of pyrotechnic books - many had similar instructions and statements suggest those intrstuctions included tapping the rockets with needles to create combustion chambers.  I believe some of Emmet's rockets were recovered to the Ordnance laboratory at Woolwich, still under the control of Congreve’s father, in 1803.  Again, this is just a few months before Congreve junior became employed by his father at Woolwich. So we know that there had been two sources of metal-cased rockets in Woolwich laboratory before William Congreve (Junior) even began his employment there, and it is very likely tyhat Weapons technical intelligence activities and exploitation were undertaken by the laboratory..    There is also a very strong suggestion that one of Robert Emmet’s men, Pat Finerty, who had been employed by Emmet to make rockets for the Irish uprising was now taking the Kings shilling and was working in the laboratory at Woolwich, perhaps prpoviding insight and experience. Perhaps he was a British spy in the first place.
 
11.  In 1804, Congreve junior was struggling. His political publishing venture had gone bust and he needed work. But his father was a senior admninstrator for Woolwich Arsenal,  and all of a sudden he had employment at Woolwich, and he also had potential access to political patronage - vitally important for raising money.   The next few years saw Congreve develop and deploy military rockets. As a former editor of a political publication, Congreve knew the power of media and in parallel campaigned vigorously for funding and patronage to further develop military rockets. He even got himself awarded a commission as a Colonel and took charge of the rocket attack on Copenhagen and elsewhere, distrusting the military to deploy "his" invention. (In return they distrusted him and his lack of military experience).  The development of Congreve’s rockets needs a whole different blog post (or book). But the point I am making here is this:
a. Congreve was a canny political operator, seeking patronage and funding.
b. Within the politics of the time, he understood that he would optimise his chances of patronage if he could take the entire credit for the development of militarily useful rockets.
c.  Diluting the credit for the development with tales of Haider Ali or Tipu Sultan did not fit the politics of the time.
d. Nor indeed would giving the credit in any way to Irish rebels.

 

I also note that Congreve was an ardent patent producer - except when it came to rockets. was he concerned he might have been challenged?

 

So, Congreve has gone down in history as the “inventor” of military metal-cased rockets. but we can see that this was incorrect.  We can also see that a wide variety of rocketry principles were developed by scientists and engineers in the two or three hundred years before 1804.  What Congreve did do was this:
 
    a. Management of a secret technical intelligence exploitation operation which reverse engineered both the Mysorean rockets and rockets from the Irish uprising.
    b. Modern quality control and the development of robust and repeatable industrial processes- therefore enabling predictability of range etc.
    c. The development of larger rockets with greater ranges and payloads, utilisng the scientific knowledge of propellent technology at Woolwich.
    d. The development (albeit by trial and error) of improved deployment and use operationally to improve effectiveness.
 
Congreve made much of the fact that an enemy capturing a Congreve rocket couldn't reverse engineer it, and my assessment  is that this could only be because of the chemistry of the propellant, which by the technology of the day could have been tested but not analysed chemically very well. I think the techncial knowledge of the Woolwich Laboratory with regard to propellant science was crucial to the development of Congreve's rockets.   
 
In the future I hope that the work of Nidhin Olikara and his colleagues will shed more light on Mysorean rocket technology, and the pre-eminent role they had in the development of metal cased rockets, well before 1804.

 

 

Monday
Apr302018

IEDs in Belfast - 1922

Ian Jones has passed me details of IEDs in Ulster in 1922. Ian is a real EOD history guru and I recommend his excellent books

In 1922 Ireland was still being fought over and Irish republican bomb attacks were still relatively frequent (see my earlier posts such as this

Belfast was no different and a range of IEDs were encountered. There are details below of some interesting devices.  But note that the military response to these was by the Royal Engineers, not the RAOC who later became responsible in the province for such activity.  In a report published in the Royal Engineer Journal, which I cannot reproduce here for copyright reasons,  Captain EW T Graham-Carter reports a series of incidents that his Unit responded to. 

1. An attempted bombing of a telephone junction box in Arthur Square in the centre of Belfast, two IRA men disguised and equipped as telephone repair men opened a manhole cover and left a times device behind. A Sapper Unit was requested to deal with the device. The manhole was filled with water by the Fire Brigade (!) and after three hours the package was removed. The device, wrapped in sacking, consisted of a wooden box with a slider switch on the outside. The timing device was an adapted alarm clock. (There are pictures in the journal). The device failed because the alarm clock had not been wound up. The main charge was an unidentifed home made explosive or incendiary material (possibly sodium chlorate and sulphur). The initiators were interesting - two glass tubes sealed with insulating tape with two copper electrodes immersed in magnesium flash powder. Subsequent experiments were able to cause the main charge mix to explode. 

2. A series of other devcies are interesting because like many modern devices in the Middle East they utilised artillery shells, in this case 18pdr, but filled with home-made explosive. These were left in a number of "picture-houses" (cinemas), but on a number of occasions failed to function and were recovered by the Royal Engineers.

3. Other devices were designed to be hidden by or in roads. One found near Armagh consisted of hollow concrete blocks, 9in X 9in X 9in, with the addition of scrap metal as improvised shrapnel. It held 5lbs of explsoive and was initiated electrically by a command wire of 300 yards in length. 

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Apart from the Sappers that is. 

Tuesday
Apr032018

Discovering London's bomb disposal facility from 1894

I have written before about the early British  EOD facility on Duck Island, a short distance from Downing Street, at the bottom end of St James’s Park, London. There, barely 100m from 10 Downing St is a small Island at the end of the lake, with a link to the road over a bridge.  The facility was established by Colonel Majendie and his assistant Dr DuPre in about 1894.  Col Majendie, had been working for the Home Office as Chief Inspector of Explosives for over 20 years by then having been first appointed in 1871.  During that time he had dealt with a wide variety of IEDs and associated investigations, and developed some C-IED procedures.  But the world was changing.  Following a visit to Paris that I discussed here and here,  he pushed hard for some similar facilities to the four French EOD facilities dotted around Paris at stratgic locations. The context at the time was an upsurge in anarchist bombings around the world. The 1890s were later described as “the decade of the bomb”. Majendie had undertaken overseas liaisons before, includng with the US authorities during the Fenian campaigns of the 1880s (many of the IEDs were made in the US and shipped to the UK, with US based support).  Majendie reviewed the French EOD techniques and liked what he saw. 
 
Majendie recommended three such facilities be established in London, one on Duck Island to be adjacent to the seat of government, one in “The Gravel Pit” in Hyde Park, adjacent to the district of Oxford St and Mayfair, and one in the moat at the Tower of London, covering the banking district of the city.  Duck Island was the first and I believe that the Hyde Park facility may have existed as well, but I can find no evidence or suggestion that the Tower of London site was ever set up.  The facilities were housed in wooden sheds, (like in Paris) I believe with some form of earth mound in the manner of the French facilities. I understand that amongst the equipment  in Duck Island was a hydraulic press and a mercury bath contraption for lowering an IED into a mercury bath, dissolving the solder which held together some spherical-shelled anarchist devices.  Other devices were dealt with at Woolwich Arsenal Laboratories in some circumstances in a proofing lab there, which also had a blast proof cell. 
 
The EOD facility at Duck Island (that’s my description, not Majendie’s) was operational from November 1894 and was still apparently in use in at least 1914 when some suffragette devices were taken there. IEDs were moved to the facility in the hand cart I described here or later in a specialist vehicle provided by the Army. I don't know when it fell into disuse.  However in the 1980s the derelict wooden shacks were still there, hidden amongst rhododendron bushes and out of site, out of mind.
 
 
At this stage, for reasons that are unclear the Army was tasked with removing the facility, and that task fell to the Royal Engineers. A recce of the site was undertaken, and the remnants of the facilty (fundamentally a rotting wooden shed and its contents) was taken to Chatham and subsequently and regrettably lost or scrapped.  However in the last few days I have been given sight of some photos taken by the Royal Engineers on the recce, now held by the RE Museum .  Regrettably the Royal Engineer’s Museum own the photos and have not given me permission to republish them without a not insignificant licence fee. This website simply doesn't have the budget for the license fee requested, so all I can say is that the photos appear to show what I believe is a hydraulic press, probably installed by Majendie in 1894. The photos are not too clear but the press appears to be somewhat more complex than the French version that I showed an image at the earlier link.  There appear to be a number of levers which may have been able to be adjusted remotely by attaching lines.  My assessment is that both the French and the British presses were used to “crack open” devices semi-remotely.  By this I mean set up with a specific action prepared, then activated from a distance by means of a rope or line on a lever, activating the press.  A typical anarchist device was contained in two halves of a metal sphere, soldered together.  It may be that a variety of other IED containers, such as tins and boxes could have been opened remotely by this method.  The lightweight wooden huts were cheap and easily repairable and the earth mounds would have been designed to stop shrapnel. 
 
Without more detail, which I'm investigating, I cannot tell more, and I hope to persuade the RE Museum archive to allow me to reproduce the photos without the current expense they ask for.
 
The use of a hydraulic press is interesting. Majendie would have been very familiar with such presses, his role as Inspector of Explosives meant he investigated industrial explosive accidents and he developed much of the legal regulations surrounding explosives manufacture. Presses were used extensively in the explosive industry to press explosives into shape in gunpowder mills. Presses were also used for some explosive testing. As a former Superintendent of the Woolwich explosive laboratory, Majendie would have been familiar with their use. 
 
By their nature presses are pretty resilient pieces of equipment  - take a look at the hydraulic press channel on YouTube for a feel of what they are capable of. 
 
Some key points :
  1. The facility then was a copy of the French facility, to some degree, and the French EOD/C-IED methodology appears to have been utilised (with variantions) by Majendie and Dr DuPre from 1894.  
  2. The site was operational for at least 20 years.
  3. The British and French were not the only EOD operators active in the 1890s in C-IED. See details of New York’s Owen Eagen here http://www.standingwellback.com/home/2012/1/14/the-eod-operator-who-dealt-with-more-ieds-than-anyone-else.html
  4. The facility remained derelict until the 1980s or 1990s but was then demolished and scrapped. The organisation sent to deal with it probably had no clue as to its historical importance. 
Wednesday
Mar142018

EOD Decision Making

After some recent dialogue with colleagues, but with some caution, I am returning to aspects of EOD Psychology. I have spoken at length to some leading medical doctors on how medical diagnostics are made prior and during complex surgery and I have continued to devour what I think might be relevant literature.

Let me explain my caution first.  When I trained as an EOD operator I received no instruction in dealing with cognitive biases, whether they be my own or others with whom I engaged with. When I commanded an EOD unit I had no real concept or understanding of cognitive biases displayed by my teams. But I think I  could tell a good operator from a bad one, and retrospectively I think it was those who were best able to make decisions under stress who stood out.  Without realising it I think I was identfying those who had techniques for coping with cognitive biases. Poor operators were ones whose cognitive biases overwhelmed them to a point of confusion.

In the (many!) years since I moved on from operational duties I have worked with a significant number of bomb squads and EOD operators around the world. I have also studied, on an amateur level, aspects of psychology that I felt were relevant. I have written some posts about this activity on this website before - you can find them by following the "EOD Psychology" tab on the sidebar to the right.

For what it is worth, I still consider myself very much an amateur in this field. But some of the lessons I have learned apply not only in the EOD world but in broader life, business, especially in complex projects.

One post that got some interesting personal feedback was the identification of techniques that EOD Operators could use to "force" them past cognitive biases. I proposed the use of a what I called a pre-mortem technique to force a more objective analytical approach in certain planned EOD operations. So, under some pressure to come up with more, here's a second technique which may have some utility.  I'm thick skinned so if you think this is nonsense, let me know. I'm fairly certain that at its worst, it can do no harm.... here goes.

I think that lessons can be learned from most EOD operations, but that most EOD operators are intrinsically poor at learning those lessons, due to cognitive biases. EOD operators (and frankly this applies in many other fields) are humans who need to force themselves to better identify "decision quality" from "outcome quality" and clearly differentiate between the two.

So, to give this context, ask yourself this question - In your last period of operational activity which was the operation where you made the best decision?  Think hard on that now before reading on....

 

 

Now... I'm willing to bet that many of you are now thinking about an operation that went well, as a result. But here is your mistake - you are probably thinking about the "outcome" of your decision not the decision itself.  It is really tricky to identify decision quality subjectively. But I genuinely think it is a skill that one can learn and also dare I say comes with age (I'm making a case for grey beards here!).   So here is the technique I propose that will not interrupt operational activity but in after-action thinking might help you train your brain to think more about decision quality :

After every operation have a think and identify the best decision you made on that operation and the worst. Try to do that consistently. It works well for major business projects too, I think. You will probably find it tricky to start with, and only identify trivial decisions, but it will come as you "force" your brain to address its biases. After a while you will start to identify those decisions you make that have a "quality" that is perhaps unrelated to to the outcome quality. You will build a personal awareness about those decisions you find easy and those decisions you find tricky. Self awareness is the key. You might start to see pattern. I hope you will, and you can use your consequent undertsanding to make more better decisions and less poor decisions, notwithstanding the outcome of the operation. A "good enough" operation is not one where all your decisions will be satisfactory - use the opportunity!  I would even recommend including these questions in post operational reports with a specific box for each. I would recommend instructors on training courses ask these of their students after a training task. I think it will encourage self awareness, encourage a focus on decision making, and might even provide help to others in your unit. 

Good luck. Tell me if it is nonsense.  I welcome dialogue eitehr driectly at the email address top right or through the on line comment section.

On a different point, I was talking to a well respected neuro-surgeon about decision making and he recommended two books on the subject - I was gratified that the two books he mentioned were ones I have found very helpful in thinking about this subject. So on the basis of his recommendation, not just mine, here they are:

1. Thinking Fast and Slow, By Daniel Kahneman

2. Sources of Power - How people make decisions, by Gary Klein

Friday
Mar022018

A peculiar Heavy Water journey

This week is the anniversary of Operation Gunnerside, a fantastic SOE operation to destroy the Norwegian Heavy Water plant at Vermork. The wider story of the destruction of Vermork is told here and is well worth a read.  I would also recommend reading this if you have a few minutes, an excellent contextual document with also some fascinating detail. 

The anniversary reminded me that a few years ago I blogged about Mad Jack Howard, the eccentric English aristocrat, adventurer and experimental bomb disposal expert who played a key role in "rescuing" a batch of heavy water from France as the Nazis invaded.  In retracing some of the research for that I found a nice little thread, looking at the journey that the Heavy Water took. It is a tale of secret operations, spies, buccaneering adventurers waving pistols, and peculiar persuasive pragmatism, worthy of a heist movie. So here it is: 

 

  • In early 1940 a group of clever French Physicists (Joliot (husband and wife), von Halban and Kowarski) had recognised the potential of heavy water to perform as a moderator in a nuclear fission reaction. The only place in the world where this heavy water (deuterium oxide) was being produced in any quantity was in Norway by Norsk Hydro. Norsk Hydro was effectively controlled financially by the Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas. At the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 almost the entire world stock of any significance was 185kg, held by the Norwegians.  They had already limited the Germans to buying only a few litres a year, and the French had intelligence that the Nazis were seeking much more. Vitally, the French were able to see the importance of heavy water as a weapon component. Interestingly the Norwegians were not aware of that and made an assesment that the German interest had a use in biological research.
  • With the political situation deteriorating and with excellent forethought the French authorities moved to secure this 185kg, using a combination of bank pressure and the pragmatic, persuasive skills of Lieutenant Jacques Allier of the Deuxieme Bureau. I think the reasons were twofold - to secure it for themselves and also to prevent acquisition by the Nazis.  Allier travelled to Norway under a false passport in his Mother's maiden name, via Stockholm.  The French went to some trouble in preparation designing aluminium metal canisters that were specifically built that could be disguised in suitcases. These were made in Norway. They had to be made from metal without any trace of boron or cadmium and some other trace elements which might cause the heavy water useless.
  • There are some indications that the Nazis were aware of the presence of Allier in Norway and had alerted local agents, even providing them with the name that Allier was travelling under. 
  • In a series of meetings Allier persuaded Norsk Hydro to part with their entire stock - 185kg - of heavy water. Nordsk Hydro provided the stuff at no cost despite Allier being authorised to pay a significant sum - Norsk Hydro were left in no doubt as to the military imperative of the material to France.  The material was poured into the 26 five litre special aluminium containers. In two batches then, the Heavy Water started their journey, on 9 March 1940, both ending up by seperate routes in Oslo, where they were stored in a French safe house which happened to be next door to a German Abwehr owned office.
  • The next day, 10 March 1940 a complex operation took place with Allier and a colleague booked with a cargo on a plane to Amsterdam, but conducted a secret "switch" actually boarding a plane to Scotland. Just as well because the Amsterdam plane was intercepted by the Luftwaffe and forced to land in Hamburg - clearly the German knew something was up.
  • As the plane carrying Allier and the first batch of Heavy Water left the coastline of Norway it too was tailed by another plane - but the adventurous Allier briefed his pilot that they were secret agents and persuaded him to "lose" its tail in the clouds. According to one report the plane climbed so high that Allier passed out due to lack of oxygen.  Eventually it landed near Montrose in Scotland.
  • There is a suggestion that the operation to fly out to Scotland was assisted by MI6 in Oslo. One report sugegsts that the MI6 agent, Frank Foley, helped load the plane at Oslo airport. Indeed when the plane landed (another followed the followng day with the remaining heavy water), there were no customs or immigration procedures applied. 
  • After a night in an Edinburgh hotel with the 26 canisters alongside the beds, the French agents, led by Allier, caught the train to London with the canisters stowed in the overhead luggage racks. As we will see this wasn't their last journey on British train luggage racks...
  • From London Allier took the canisters to France by train and ferry and eventually storing them in a cellar in the College de France in Paris. He was given a receipt, on 16 March 1940.
  • Two months later on 16 May 1940, the Nazis invaded France, and the Heavy Water was loaded in a truck and taken 200 miles south to the vaults of a bank in Clermont Ferrand.
  • Soon after the cans were moved, oddly to a women's prison in Monts Dore, and then to the Central Prison in Riom. It is sort of peculiar that prisons were used on this journey (and not for the last time).
  •  Now, Allier reappered on the scene, with instructions to take th e heavy water to London, via Bordeaux, ahead of the German advance.on 17 June 1940, Allier arrived at Riom prison, but the prison governor was reluctant to release the cans. Allier drew his revolver and the governor was "persuaded".  Some prisoners helped load the cans onto Allier's waiting vehicle. The vehicle with Allier and some scientists aboard arrived at a requisitioned school in Bordeaux at midnight. There they received instructions to take the cargo and load it on a coal ship, the "Broompark" in Bordeaux docks. Arriving there in in the early hours of 18 June 1940 they were met on the gangplank by a strange character - Moustached, short sleeved, arms covered with tattoos, two revolvers in shoulder-holsters and swinging a riding crop. It was "Jack Howard", the Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire. Acting as an unpaid "science attache" he was coordinating the Broompark's journey, loaded with Heavy Water, diamonds, physicists and machine tools. Interestingly, the MI6 agent who had been in Oslo two months earlier, Frank Foley, was also at the docks. Later that same day, 18 June 1940 the Broompark steamed out of Bordeaux. The 26 cans had been lashed to a raft on the deck in the hope of saving them if the ship was sunk - clearly Howard knew the importance of the cans, and had probably been briefed by Frank Foley, who had left to head south over the Pyrenees to Spain.  I have picked up that Howard may have stashed a special part of his cargo ashore on the coast somewhere not far from Bordeaux, but it is pretty vague and its not clear at all. one report says that whatever it was was "collected" in a secret naval operation sometime later. Could be a spoof, maybe with the help of Foley. 
  • On 21 June 1940 the Broompark docked in Falmouth England. It had been spotted by a grman aircraft at one point in the Bay of Biscay but no action had been taken against it. So the heavy water was back in England, and once more was loaded onto a train, the express, to London Paddington, with Jack Howard guarding it, unshaven, fierce and with his twin shoulder-holstered pistols on clear display.
  • Arriving in Londonon 22 June 1940, the Heavy Water was again sentenced to imprisonment, this time in a cell Wormwood Scrubs a legendary London prison.
  • Some time later the Heavy Water was transfered, of all places, to Windsor Castle, home of the Royal Family, were, under the watchful eye of the King's librarian, Owen Morshead, it was stored with the Crown jewels. I kid you not.
  • It is possible that in the next two years the Heavy Water was moved to Cambridge were British research into fission was ongoing, but I can find no specific records.
  • The Heavy Water is next recorded as being delivered to the Anglo-Canadian research effort in Montreal, Canada on 1 May 1943. I do not know its mode of transport across the Atlantic. In 1944 the Heavy Water was moved to the Chalk River Experimental Plant on the Ottawa River.
  • In 1946, the French governmment then requested "Could France have its Heavy Water back please?" This clearly caused something of a panic. A note dated 30 September 1946 noted that the "remaining" material was stored in container "T-7" which was 99.5% pure with respect to Deuterium. It was agreed to ship 100ml back to France which accordingly occurred, being flown by Trans-Canada airlies to Paris. So a small quantity returned "home" to the French.
  • In 1947 Drum T-7 containing the Heavy Water was sent to Trail in British Columbia for re-processing. At this point it appears to have been mixed with other Heavy Water, losing its "French" identity.  
  • In 1948 the French, supported by the British, requested return of the material or equivalent from other sources. After some discussion 32.5 pounds of heavy water was shipped to France, via Harwell in the UK in a stainless steel drum.

This may be, at the end of the day, simply a logistics story, but I feel it is a true adventure, featuring bravery, human character and fortitude, and it is a story which may have changed the world.

For more on Jacques Allier, see here.  Frank Foley was another remarkable man, and a little of his life is detailed here.  He helped 10,000 Jews escape Nazi Germany, was responsible for interrogating Rudolf Hess, and played a key role in the Double Cross deception operation using double agents to persuade the Nazis that the Allies would invade the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.  Some more on "Jack Howard" is here