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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.


Entries in 1600-1700 (18)


Meester's Ship IEDs of 1695.

I've written a few times before about ship IEDs, which typically are massive devices sailed into an enemy port and then exploded after the crew flee. You can see my earlier posts on the subject by following the "Ship IED" link in the right hand column to this page. The earliest I have is 1584 and the "Hoop" used against the Spanish in Antwerp, and the latest is HMS Campbelltown used against the Germans in St Nazaire in WW2.  In one of my earlier posts I mentioned in passing that such devices were used by the Royal Navy against Dunkirk in the 1690s. I have used a number of sources and there are some odd date discrepancies. The main attack on Dunkirk appears to have been on 1 August 1695 but I think there were other attacks at least one other using a "machine vessel".

I have now found more details of these ship born IEDs used against Dieppe and Dunkirk in 1694 and 1695. The explosive component was designed and built by a Dutchman, Willem Meesters, who was contracted by the Ordnance Board in 1690 to provide the devices and convert a number of small ships. Meesters, favoured by the King, was appointed by the Board Of Ordnance to be "Storekeeper of the Ordnance" in the Tower of London in 1691. The attack on Dunkirk in 1695 was a complete failure and there was much recrimination between those involved and some of the blame was apportioned to Meesters. He was accused of "Cowardice and Misconduct" by the commanding admiral.  The attack on Dunkirk, as did other attacks in that era on St Malo and other targets used a range of special ships. and it is important to understand the differences:

a. "Bomb Ships" are not ships designbed to explode, they carry large mortars and bomb the target from close to shore

b. "Fire Ships" are disposable ships, which are set fire to and drift into enemy shipping, causing confusion, smoke obscuration and hopefully set fire to ships they collide with.

c. "Machine ships" are the ones we are interested in, with "infernal machines" which explode. They may be disguised as fire ships.

The technical detail of Meester's "machine ships" is described in his proposal to the Ordnance Board.  He proposed to use a watertight metal box fitted with a clockwork mechanism which acted on a flintlock as the initiator for other explosives. Around this box were packed barrels of gunpowder, scrap metal and "fireworks". Some of his vessels were designed to explode with great violence and others simply to provide smoke screens.

Meester's design, in general principle, is identical to both that of the "Hoop" in 1585, and the Campbeltown in 1942 - a mechanical time fuze set to initaite a massive improvised charge in a ship. I still find it fascinating that this neer identical history of ship IEDs stretches so long over the centuries.

In May 1692, Meesters was authorised to purchase a number of vessels in which his 'machines' could be fitted. He bought, at first, seven vessels and some months were spent fitting them out for his purpose. All the ships were former Dutch merchant vessels. These were renamed, and by 1694 were based in Portsmouth, each with a crew of 10. A number of these were paid off and not used but the ones deployed operationally which exploded were:

1. Abram's Offering, a 55ft vessel under Commander Edward Cole. this ship was recorded as "expended" during the Dunkirk attack in "September 1696". 

2. Saint Nicholas, a 70ft vessel under Commander Roert Dunbar. This was exploded in an attack on Dieppe in July 1694.

Then a series of smaller vessels were bought each with a crew of 4. These were never used.

In 1695 four larger vessels were purchased and all were exploded in an attack on Dunkirk in August 1695. I have only the names of these vessels - Ephraim, Happy Return, Mayflower and the Wiliam and Elizabeth.  All four of these "machine vessels" were set too early and didn't get close enough to shore and caused no damage to the Dunkirk targets when they exploded. The admirals were not happy, Meesters was arrested, made to demonstrate another device, which itself failed. But he seemed to retain the patronage of the King, and remained in his official position at the Tower of London until 1701.

Despite the attack being a failure, I have found a treasury record that he was paid (three years later), the large sum of £3222 for provision of these machine ships for the attack on Dunkirk.


IEDs from 1630

At the moment I'm working on some early seventeenth century pyrotechnic and military manuals again, to re-visit the development of military rockets. (Not everything you have heard about Congreve as an inventor is true!). But in doing so I came across some interesting early IED designs that I had in my archive but deserve a post in their own right. Here's an interesting IED. Key here is the use of improvised shrapnel and the "spikes" which both add to shrapnel and make the device tricky to move.

and this - an explosive charge on a cart, so an early VBIED or vehicle bomb.  As I have done frequently before, this further discredits the idea that the Wall St Bomb of 1920 was the game changer in terms of the concept of a vehicle bomb use. These images are from a book published in 1630, 290 years earlier.  I have listed several other early vehicle bombs here and here . There were also ships (vehicles) and trains pre-dating 1920.




Westminster - an Explosive Past in a 100m Radius

The recent murder of people on Westminster Bridge and the stabbing to death of a policeman at the gates of the Houses of Parliament New Palace Yard have highlighted that the British centre of government and state power has a natural attraction to terrorists.  In my blogs I often look at threads in history of terrorism.  One can find, occasionally, interesting threads in the warp and weft of time, and usually I follow technical threads as far as I can.  But Westminster provides another thread, at right angles, the thread of geography, in a history of explosives and munitions. Bear with me as I recount the explosive history of Westminster - some of which you will know and others you won’t. I have underlined certain specific locations in order to make the point about repeated locations. Westminster is a surprisingly compact place and most of the incidents listed below occurred within about 100m of each other.   For context here's a plan of the explosive incidents in the Houses of Parliament, just about all within a circus of 100m radius:
Locations and Dates - Westminster
1605.   The Gunpowder Plot.  Of course you will know that the Gunpowder Plot targeted Parliament itself, and there is little new I can repeat here. But one aspect is interesting in the light of very modern accusation of “fake news” and “false flag” operations. There has been a school of thought over the ages since soon after the plot itself, that the Gunpowder Plot was a false flag conspiracy dreamt up by loyal royalists to discredit the Catholic opposition. The suggestion is that Sir Robert Cecil, the Royal Chancellor, coordinated a "false flag" operation for political motives, to persuade the public and the King himself that harsh measures were needed to keep persecuting Roman Catholics in England. There is also a suggestion that the gunpowder recovered from the 36 barrels discovered in the Westminster Undercroft had deteriorated so much that it may not have exploded anyway.  In another interesting parallel with today, and attitudes towards Muslims after the recent Westminster attack, King James himself, speaking to both Houses of Parliament five days later made clear that he believed that the plot had been the work of only a few Catholics, not of the English Catholics as a whole. By modern terminology the device was a large timed IED, the timing component being burning fuze.


A report from a few years after the PlotThe Conspirators

1885.     Dynamite Saturday - As part of a dynamite campaign Irish American “Fenian" terrorists planned and executed ”Dynamite Saturday" detonating a number of devices across London. One device exploded as it was being moved by policemen in Westminster Hall.

PCs Cole and Cox are blown up in Westminster Hall

PC William Cole was a London Police officer on duty in the Houses of Parliament on 24 January 1885. He was notified by a visitor, a Mr Green, about a smoking black bag on the steps between the St Mary Undercroft chapel and Westminster Hall, both within the Palace of Westminster. The bag was on the third step of the staircase that lead to the main part of Westminster Hall.  Bravely, Cole picked up the smoking bag and ran up the stairs of Westminster Hall with the intent of moving the bag outside into New Palace Yard. He was preceded by Mr Green who shouted “Dynamite!” to clear the way.  But before he could reach the door,  the bombfuze began to burn his hand, causing him to drop the bag - a second later the bag fully exploded. Cole and his colleague PC Cox, were injured, their clothes largely blown off them  and they lay, blackened in the crater caused by the bomb.  Mr Green was injured in his eyes and his two female companions were “bereft of their upper garments".  Other police and the Deputy Segeant at Arm's wife, Lady Horatia, rushed to attend to the injured. Cole was unconscious, and Cox was "rolling about, talking incoherently and hitting out with his fists although two constables held him down.’  Both officers were described in the politically incorrect language of the time as “black as n*****s”.  Seconds later, another bomb exploded in the empty House of Commons.   In one of those interesting pieces of history (given my interest in the Government’s Inspector of Explosives of the time, Colonel Majendie), Lady Horatia, the wife of the Deputy Sergeant was coopted by the police in the aftermath to help control access to the Hall. Imagine the scene,  the redoubtable Victorian lady assuming the role of gate guardian to a terrorist bomb incident. A short, bearded foreign gentleman approaches and demands access in a German accent, to inspect the scene. Lady Horatia is having none of it and physically blocks his path , firmly instructing a footman to “put him out”, ejecting him from the Hall.  It was in fact Dr August DuPre, the German born Chemist who was Col Majendie’s most important technical assistant and official Home Office consulting chemist who played a key and official role in investigating explosive crime.   PC Cole (later promoted to Sergeant) regained consciousness the next day, and was awarded the Albert Medal for his bravery, which was presented to him on the exact site of the explosion.  Mr Green suffered permanent injury to his sight but was not compensated despite the efforts of the Deputy Sergeant at Arms (probably prompted by the fierce Lady Horatia). Interestingly the body of PC Keith Palmer who was fatally stabbed in 2017 was kept overnight in St Mary Undercroft before his funeral.   My assessment of the device based on an interpretation of the reports and the fact that a James Cunningham was seen lighting a  fuze on a similar bomb that same day at the Tower of London was that the device was a timed IED, with less than 2.5kg of explosives, with burning fuze being the timing element. James Cunningham and an accomplice, Harry Burton, were sentenced to life imprisonment for their role in the bombings. Interestingly this bombing changed the ambivalent feeling of the USA towards the Fenians. Prior to this UK governmental efforts to encourage the US to constrain Fenian activity had fallen on deaf ears, but with an attack on parliament, wheels began to turn.


1939-1945. Although not terrorist attacks, the Houses of Parliament were subject to explosive attack frequently in WW2.   It was hit by German bombs on 12 occasions (nine exploded, 3 were defused) and the House of Commons was destroyed in a subsequent fire after an incendiary bomb attack - one of numerous incendiary bomb attacks.  The buildings were hit three times by our own anti-aircraft guns, one hitting Big Ben. Here’s a Pathe film of the aftermath of one attack.    Particular damage was caused by an explosive bomb on St Stephen’s Cloister on 8 December 1940, and the incendiary attack that destroyed the House of Commons and damaged the roof of Westminster Hall occurred on 10 and 11 May 1941. Three people were killed in all the attacks.

Bomb damage St Stephens Cloister, 1940

1974.  During the construction of the Underground carpark beneath New Palace Yard, the IRA was able to exploit the poor control over a large number of casual workers employed on the contract to place a bomb in a ladies toilet adjacent to Westminster Hall.  It exploded at 8am on 17 June, igniting a gas main causing considerable damage (photo).

1974, Westminster Hall Bombing

The IRA claimed it contained 20 lbs of explosive. That might be an exaggeration.  The device was probably on a  mechanical timer and laid the previous evening, I suspect. The authorities in Westminster have deliberately not removed all the black soot and sign of burning from one corner of Westminster Hall, where is remains to remind those present of the threat to democracy

1979.  The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) planted a bomb on the car of MP Airey Neave. the device exploded as Neave drove his car out of the underground car park in New Palace Yard. Neave died shortly afterwards. the device probably contained less than 2kg of explosive and was probably initiated by a ball bearing tilt switch. It is possible that the device was placed on the car before it entered Parliament buildings

Neave Assassination

From this list I have excluded a number of nearby incidents, including:

1. A Fenian bombing of the underground between Westminster Bridge station and Charing Cross station in 1882.

2. A suffragette bomb planted in Westminster Abbey in 1914.

3. An IRA mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991.

There are also a number of unsuccessful plots (other than 1605) relating to Westminster which I’m still gathering data on - the strangest is a post WW2 plot to drop bombs contained in adapted fire extinguishers on Parliament by an extreme militant zionist from a charted plane flown from France. More later on that!
Of course the nature of the target of these incidents attracts attention because of the political focus of power from the geography of the target. If I may be allowed a slightly political comment, following the stabbing of PC Keith Palmer and the associated murders on Westminster Bridge some commentators expressed the opinion that London was running scared from terrorism, and that the terrorists were winning. The silly phrase “London has fallen” was used by some of the alt-right to describe the incident, and people talked of Londoners being fearful and terrorised. I don't believe that to be true.  With the possible excerption of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, none of the other incidents ever caused anyone to suggest that terrorists could defeat our democracy and culture even though they penetrated the buildings of Parliament themselves. In 400 years, attackers have penetrated parliament many times and British culture and democracy remains. The perpertrator of the attack in 2017, armed with his mothers kitchen knife was shot before he entered the building and we can now forget his name.  

Intriguingly Similar Designs of Improvised Munitions Over Decades

One of the most notable improvised weapons in the last 15 years has perhaps been the “IRAM”.  This “Improvised Rocket Assisted Munition” appeared in 2004 in Iraq, using the rocket motor of a 107mm rocket with a “bolted on” over-calibre warhead. This is a relatively short-range munition with more target effect than a standard 107mm, but quite difficult to range and target.  The IRAM munition came in various designs. Here’s one variant:
IRAMs 2004


Such munitions appear to be being used now by Syrian government forces and others in Syria. See this report from the excellent Brown Moses/Bellingcat website from 2013:  Sometimes the users seem to have not fired these from 107mm tubes (with the overcalibre warhead “left out the front”) but from tubes with a greater diameter. See: .  In this variant the rocket motor is "under-calibre", in effect.
When the IRAM appeared in 2004 it was commonly thought to be a new type of improvised munition. But as readers of this blog might already suspect, it wasn't new at all - the concept was used in the early part of the Vietnam war. Here's the image of Viet Cong overcaliber warhead that was fitted to a 107mm rocket, just as they are today. The image provider suggests that the warhead was cast iron, but the welds in what is probably rolled mild steel are clearly present.  These early Viet Cong "IRAMs" were fitted with what were described as WW2 Japanese impact fuzes. 
Viet Cong over-calibre warhead for 107mm rocketJapanese WW2 impact fuze on Viet Cong warhead
Now here’s another interesting thing - probably coincidental. The design of the Viet Cong over-calibre warhead is remarkably similar to a Provsional IRA mortar bomb warhead. This image is from a de-fuzed Mk 12 mortar bomb taken in 1991.  The IRA warhead was of course not on a rocket but on a mortar, but the design structure of the mild steel welded warhead looks remarkably similar to the Viet Cong warhead, does it not and is of an almost identical construction. The Mk 12 mortar of course is a horzontally fired anti-armour weapon with a copper cone liner, but the outer form of the warhead is remarkably similar.  
PIRA Mk 12 Mortar bomb with identical shaped warhead
Keen readers of this blog will recall too that Irish revolutionaries were firing rockets horizontally at the British Military as early as 1803, using a rocket designed in 1696. 




Command-initiated IED described in 1650

I'm steadily working through a book that was published in Latin in 1650, "The Great Art of Artillery" by Kazimierz Siemienowicz.  The book was translated into French, then from there into English in 1729 and of course that's the version I'm studying. The breadth of subjects covered is remarkable, including physics, chemistry, mathematics, explosive processing, explosive storage and other related things.  There's a lot about artillery and some interesting rocket technology related to my earlier post about the English rocket experimenter Robert Anderson who was making his rockets in 1696. I have an interesting blog post "cooking" on the technical similarities of rocket design from these two engineers, working in different countries 46 years apart. And readers of this blog will recall that the revolutionaries in Dublin in 1803 used Anderson's rocket manufacturing instructions and it is very possible that one of the revolutionary Irishmen went to Woolwich in subequent years to assist Congreve in the manufacture of his rockets. Give me a few weeks to bottom out that detail and assess the apparent links, but this 1650 document is pretty remarkable in its technical detail, with multi-stage rockets being explicitly manufactured. 

As well as covering artillery and rocketry, amongst the book are also numerous references to improvised explosive devices. For example there's reference to a large barrel or cylinder shaped IED used in the Seige of St Andrews in 1546 that killed 321 and injured hundreds of beseigers. Ths large barrel containing "powder, stones and Iron bolts" was rolled down amongst the enemy.  I'm trying to find a cross or supporting reference for that, as that's pretty early in my historical time line of IEDs. Siemienowiz quotes his reference to the St Andrews device as being written by an Italian in a book called "Precepts in the Modern Art of War" that must have been published prior to 1650. Unfortunately the name of the Italian author is not clear and varies between translations and I have yet to unearth it. 

Here's another example from Siemienowicz referring to command initiated improvised devices using the flintlock mechanism I have described in some recent posts - remember this was written in about 1650.  This text below is from a 1729 translation: