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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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Fulton and Royal Navy IEDs -1805

Another in the series of posts about historical use of IEDs.  I’ve been slowly gathering material on naval use of IEDs , and have some great stories to tell. In future weeks I’ll write about:

  • Three massive ship borne IEDs of 1673, 1693 and 1694, (used by the British Navy against the French)
  • Floating IEDs designed by Cornelius Drebbel in the 1620s, (used by the British Navy against the French)
  • An attack using an IED on a ship in the Tagus in 1650 (by the British parliamentarian Navy on a British royalist ship)
  • An attack off Boulogne on 1804 using a fascinatingly designed IED on a small catamaran, (used by the British Navy against the French)
  • Adsmiral Benbow's attacks  and Admiral Cochrane’s attacks (on the French in St Malo) using massive IEDs in 1693 and 1809 and their spooky similarity with the Campbeltown attack in the raid on St Nazaire in WW2

For now, I’m again I’m grateful to Leslie Payne for flagging me a source document – a letter from Robert Fulton to the President of the USA in 1810. 

Fulton was an interesting man who worked on a  range of naval engineering matters. Born in the USA in 1765, he experimented with explosives as a child and developed paddle wheels for his father’s fishing boat .   By 1797 he was a well-known inventor in Europe and was building steam boats and a submarine, the Nautilus, for Napoleon Bonaparte.  Some sources suggest he was also making explosive charges for the French Navy

France and England were at war at the time (as usual). In 1804 Fulton switched sides and went to England to offer his inventions there.  He was commissioned by the Prime Minister, William Pitt, to develop a range of Naval weapons including explosive charges.   It is in this period that the attack, described below, occurs.

Fulton then switched allegiances again and went home to the US, to build submarines and torpedoes for use against the British. In 1810 he wrote a letter to the President James Madison on the subject of “The Torpedo War and submarine explosions”.   The letter is interesting on several levels:

  1. It describes a very successful demonstration undertaken by Fulton, where he blew up a ship as a demonstration to the Prime Minister off the cost near deal in Kent in 1805. (Samuel Colt conducted a similar experiment a few decades later for the US Navy in the Potomac near the Navy yards.)
  2. Initially the devices were large (180 pounds of gunpowder) and initiated by clockwork  with an 18 minute delay.
  3. There is a beautiful quote about a sceptical British Naval observer to the trial;   "Twenty minutes before the Dorothea was blown up, Capt Kingston asserted that if a Torpedo were placed under his cabin while he was at dinner, he should feel no concern for the consequence. Occular demonstration is the best proof for all men."
  4. A pithy quote from a British Admiral, Earl St Vincent, who said of the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for Fultons plans  “ Pitt was the greatest fool that ever existed, to encourage a mode of war which they who commanded the seas did not want, and which, if successful, would deprive them of it”
  5. It describes a similar experiment conducted in New York harbour in 1807, but which failed at first because of a design fault in the explosive devices.
  6. A detailed description and diagram of the device. Although the demonstrations used clockwork initiation systems, Fulton designed a lever switch which a passing ship would act on, so causing a cocked gun trigger to fire, initiating the charge.
  7. An “attack torpedo” using a clockwork timer and a harpoon gun to fasten the torpedo to a target.
  8. A detailed description of the attack on the French ships anchored off Boulogne by Capt Siccombe of the Royal Navy and his men in 1805.  In two separate attacks, one led by Capt Siccombe and another by Lt Payne, the “infernal machines” failed to seriously damage the ships, and Fulton conducted a rapid technical evaluation to attempt to understand why.  It appears that the ballast adjustments of the two charges were incorrectly set, so the charges detonated on the surface of the water next to the ships rather than under the keel as intended.
  9. The letter describes the efficacy that a few well armed, fast moving small boats can have on a major naval fleet, if moving at speed and with novel weapons…. (Iran, Persian gulf, Sixth fleet….any premonitions?) and discusses the cost effectiveness of his infernal machines against warships and the asymmetric warfare principles behind it.  He describes how a fleet of small boats could command an area like the Straits of Dover (or the Persian Gulf!)

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References (1)

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  • Response
    Response: Standing Well Back
    01 October 2012 An excellent and thought provoking website by a British bomb expert. We treat IEDs as

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