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.


EOD Equipment 1573 and 1971

I have finally found a picture of a wheeled EOD shield from 1971 - courtesy of RLC Museum. Compare these two largely similar tools, the first from 1573, and the second from 1971 - 402 years apart. I believe the shield was used operationaly in Hong Kong in the sixties, and quickly went out of service after limited use in Ulster in the early seventies.

circa 1573circa 1971

My earlier post on the subject of historical ROV's is here. 




Shopping for IED Components, Then and Now

Modern terrorism today, where it occurs in the West, frequently revolves around terrorists obtaining innocuous materials from which they make explosives and IEDs.  Over recent years Police in the UK and elsewhere have engaged with pharmacies, chemist shops, fertiliser suppliers and others seeking support from the proprietors to report suspicious acquisition of explosives or other items for IED components. On occasion in the last few years legislation has been discussed which might limit the availability of such things as acetone, peroxide and sulphuric acid.  These modern concerns are sensible and a useful “flag” set to trigger - on occasions, in the last few years, successful police operations have interdicted terrorist attacks by being alerted when a terrorist attempted to buy components or precursors for an IED.
Readers of this blog will know that I have a theme of seeking older patterns for what we regard as modern characteristics of terrorist use of IEDs, and there are useful antecedents here.  I have being studying the court transcripts of historical trials and there is a nice example here:
In the 1880s and 1890s, terrorist IEDs were quite common in major European cities like London and Paris. This meant that the public were aware of the threat, suspicious of certain activity, and police operations were significant, as was their engagement with suppliers of material that might be of use to those with evil intent.
In 1894, two Italian anarchists, Guiseppe Farnara and Francis Polti were prosecuted for possession of explosives with intent to endanger life and property. The two had been attempting to make IEDs with pipe work purchased from engineering companies , to be filled with explosives manufactured from supplies purchased from chemists.  The two Italians had tried to purchase iron piping from an engineering firm run by a Mr Cohen at 240 Blackfriars Road in London. One of the managers who worked for Mr Cohen, Thomas Smith, was suspicious of the Italians and the purpose for which they were acquiring the pipe. He persuaded the Italians to return to the shop at a future date when he would have the piping and end caps ready for them.  Mr Smith then reported his suspicions to the local police station, and a team of police officers subsequently “staked out” the premises waiting for the Italians to return. Smith was also able to elicit that the suspects were having other pipework supplied by another company, Millers, of 44 Lancaster Street Borough Road. The police were able to follow that line of investigation too. So, Cohen’s establishment was staked out and Smith was given clear instructions on how to engage in a dialogue with the terrorists.  The terrorists were put under a major surveillance operation , involving quite a number of police and followed around London. I’m intrigued as to what we would regard as a highly proficient surveillance operation, comparable to today’s surveillance operations - for example, a police sergeant described how a terrorist, carrying the IED components from Cohen's, was followed on to an omnibus. a total of four police officers, part of the surveillance team, operating undercover, were also aboard that same bus. One sat in the seat immediately behind the suspect. After leaving the bus, the suspect apparently carried out anti-surveillance drills, looking for tails. At this point he was arrested. Subsequent investigation of the suspect's living accommodation found explosive recipes and IED manufacturing instructions along with other chemicals including a bottle of Sulphuric Acid. The instructions were disguised as a recipe for “polenta”, and appear to be a chlorate explosive of some kind which would be initiated by the addition of acid.
The terrorists had approached Taylor’s drug company of 66 High Holborn and bought two pounds of Sulphuric Acid in a bottle. 
In the trial the government explosive chemist, Dr DuPre gave expert evidence to the manufacture of the explosives. Col Majendie, the Chief Inspector of Explosives and the nearest equivalent to the head of the bomb squad also gave evidence. Interestingly the court transcript is deliberately vague, I think, when describing the initiation system, and the “polenta”  explosive.
My view is that the device would have been designed to be thrown, and initiated when the device hits a target, so in effect was a very large impact grenade, such as the device used to assasinate the Tsar a few years earlier. But something more sophisticated is possible. Readers might wish to refer to some early blog posts about similar devices. 
I’m also intrigued by the use of the word “polenta” to describe a yellow chlorate based mix or compound, which seems to have similarities to these Irish chlorate based explosives that were encountered in the 1920s.
From this one case we can see that a population who were aware of IED threats in 1894 were able to report suspicious acquisition of components and that the police were able to act on those tips and plan subsequent detailed surveillance operations. 



Bomb Disposal at the Movies


The Horse's Head and the Horse's Hoof - VBIED Investigation in 1800 and 1920

I have posted before about the vehicle bomb attack in the failed attempt to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris in 1800, details here.  I have now uncovered some fascinating details about the subsequent investigation. This was an extremely high profile incident and initially focus was placed on "The Jacobins", a political opposition to Bonaparte, or indeed the British. But I have found in the memoirs of a French dignitary details of a more thorough investigation headed by Fouche (who I have written about elsewhere).

The device used was in a container placed on a horse-drawn cart in the Rue St Nicaise.  The horse that was harnessed to the bomb vehicle had been killed on the spot, but apparently was "not in the least disfigured". Fouche, the Prefect of Police, ordered that parts of the dead horse including its head be taken to all the horse dealers in Paris to see if they recognised it.  One of them indeed recognised the horse, and was able to direct the police to a specific house.  The woman who "kept the door" identified the occupants who were affiliated withn a particular group  (the "Chouans" - a group of "Royalists" and not the Jacobins).  She was also able to detail how the leader of the group had worked on something placed in a "water-carrier's barrel" over a period of six weeks. 

The leader of the group, a man called St Regent, was still in the vicinity of the bomb when it detonated, and was thrown against a post, breaking his ribs. he "was obliged to resort to a surgeon", and the surgeon betrayed him to the police.  He and an accomplice were guillotined.

In one of those fascinating parallels that I encounter occasionaly on standingwellback, the VBIED attack on Wall St, New York City, in September 1920 also featured the remains of a horse as part of the investigation.

In this attack, 120 years after the Paris attack, outside the bank of JP Morgan, a horse drawn cart also exploded. In this explosion, however, the horse wasn't left intact and was blown to bits, not least because the device contained dynamite rather than the gunpowder used in the 1800 device.. The investigators were able to recover one of the hooves and took it to blacksmiths across the city.  The blacksmith was eventually identified a month later but by then the investigative trail had run dry.

We sometimes assume that modern day bomb investigators are a new breed of professionals in a new industry. while me way not see many horse drawn vehicle bombs these days, the modes of investigation go an awful long way back.



Attacking Railway Lines with IEDs using Firearm Initiation Systems

I think I have a final piece of the jigsaw here, that links the IEDs used by Lawrence of Arabia, with IEDs used by Jack Hindon in the Boer War and now, the final piece, with a specific IED designed in the US Civil War.  

My intent here is to show how a specific IED design, improvised from commonly available battlefield materials, that used the weight of a target train on a gun lock trigger mechanism to explode a charge, seems to have begun in 1864, and that design, or very close approximations of it were then seen in the Boer War decades later, and again in WW1 more than ten years after that.  It is of course possible that the design was independently invented - but my supposition is that it was not, and the concept was known by those who dealy with explosives in one form or another. The attack mode proved useful in what we would call today "guerilla warfare", often associated with a firearms firing on the resulting shocked and disorientated survivors.

In bringing these together in a historical sequence I am in part repeating earlier blog posts. In uncovering the details I worked backwards but now I'm laying this out in sequential historical sequence, covering a period from the early 1860s to WW1.  I'm specifically looking here at attacks on railways where the weight of the train causes a trigger on a gun "lock" to be initiated - components of firearms were of course used in other sorts of IEDs over many centuries and I have blogged about that here, but that's outside the scope of this post.

1. US Civil War. Union IEDs designed to attack Confederate trains.  As I have blogged before IEDs (then called "torpedoes") were used extensively by both sides in the US Civil War, with perhaps the Confederates making most application of them. After the end of hostilities the Chief Engineer of ther US Army, Brigadier General Delafield collated numerous reports on various Torpedos used in the conflict and put them into a historical context, examining the efficacy and appropriateness of use.  I find it intruiging that Delafield, in the decade prior to the US Civil War was one of the US Army's observers in the Crimean War which saw extensive use by the Russians of IEDs.  In the collated reports is a letter written to Brigadier General Delafield by 1st Lieut Charles R Suter, Chief Engineer in the "Department of the South, Hilton Head, South Carolina, on 26 October, 1864. The letter reads as follows:

By direction of Major General Foster, I have this day forwarded by Adams Express, a box containing a railroad torpedo, tools and drawings showing its use.

This torpedo was devised by Charles F Smith, 3d U.S.C.T.

We have not yet been able to try them on the enemy's railroads, but they have ben thoroughly tested in experiments. The magazine holds 20 to 30 pounds of powder, and this is sufficient to blow a car off the track besides utterly destroying it. Two magazines can be used with one lock and by regulating the length of the powder train, any car of the passing train may be blown up.  The accompanying tools are simple and light. The idea of the inventor was, to send small parties of men, 3 or 4 in each, with these torpedoes and return. Each magazine is a load for a man. Another man can carry the lock and another the tools.

The manner of laying these torpedoes is as follows: -

The spikes are drawn from three consecutive ties on one side.  A hole is then dug, and the lock placed as indicated in the drawing. The rail is then sprung up and iron wedges placed on the adjacent ties to keep the rail from springing the lock by its own weight. When thus secured, the lock is cocked and capped, and the box closed. The magazine is then buried in the proper place, and the connection made. By using a little care in excavating and carrying off the superfluous earth to some little distance, the existence of the torpedo would never be suspected. The bottom of the arched rail should just touch the lever. Any shock by the bending down the rail pulls the trigger and explodes the torpedo.

In our experiments, a torpedo of 18 pounds was exploded by giving a car sufficient impetus to run over it. The car was entirely destroyed, and rails, ties and fragments of the car were thrown in every direction. One rail was projected 40 feet. 

These torpedoes can probably be used with success in some of the larger armies. Their greatest efficiency lies in destroying the locomotive, which cannot be replaced, whereas a torn up track can easily be relaid.  the magazine should be tarred before being used.

I am, General,

very respectfully,

Your obd't serv't


1st Lieut, U S Engineers & Chief Eng'r D.S.

Here's the accompanying diagram



The diagram shows a "lock" from a firearm, with a lever engaging the trigger system. This has been "pre-packaged" is a small box with the initiation mechanism causing a fuze to be lit. The fuze is then connected to two containers ("magazines") placed under adjacent sleeper ties.

Despite much research I cannot find a report of a "gun-lock" initiated railway IED in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, five years after the end of the US Civil War.  But railway IEDs were used, initiated by the weight of a train on the fuze removed from an artillery shell and was the subject of my last blog post here

2. The Boer War.  Gunlock initiated IEDs were used by the Boers against British Trains in the Boer war in 1901.  Here's a diagram of the adapated Martini-Henry gun lock. The similarities of the US Civil war design of 1865 are clear.

Pictures of actual gunlocks from these devices are at this page 

 3. WW1 - Lawrence of Arabia and Bimbashi Garland's attacks on Turkish trains in Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia's campaign against the Ottoman Turks in the Arabian peninsula in WW1 often attacked the railway lines running south. The IEDs that Lawrence used were pfretty much identical to the Boer devices, but had been developed by his ordnance specialist "Bimbashi Garland" and former Ordnance Corps laboratory technician who had been co-opted in the Arab Bureau because of his interest in archaeology.  I have no doubt that Garland was aware of the Boer methodology and simply used the same technique. Details are here

In summary then I think it is clear that the use of a gunlock placed under a railway line to initiate an explosive charge began in 1865, with the invention by Charles Smith, for the Union Army.  This technique somehow found its way to ther Boers in 1901 , and then was copied again by Garland and Lawrence of Arabia in 1917.