StandingWellBack

You can contact me at rogercdavies(atsquiggle)me.com

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.

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Entries in 1880-1890 (9)

Friday
Apr212017

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.  
Wednesday
Sep302015

Victorian era Bomb basket

I'm indebted to John Balding for forwarding me this picture. The image, I think from around the 1880s, shows the contraption used by Colonel Majendie, the British Chief Inspector of Explosives, for transporting IEDs.  The IEDs were taken to the EOD facility on Duck Island in St James's Park, Westminster.   I think it is very possible that Majendie copied it from a similar technique used the the French authorities in Paris.

A nicely sprung vehicle, clearly intended to be pushed by a person, possibly based on a "pram".

 

Tuesday
Sep232014

IED Response Operations 1880 - 1910

For some time now I have been digging slowly and methodically for details of late 19th century techniques for dealing with IEDs, mainly focused on the activities of the London based Colonel Vivian Majendie. As the Chief Inspector of Explosives he had a broad ranging role, including legislation regarding the industrial production and storage of explosives.  But Majendie was also responsible for the response to anarchist and Fenian revolutionary IEDs which were remarkably prevalent at the time.  Remember that the 1890s, for instance, were referred to as “the decade of the bomb” because of the prevalence of explosive devices.

I have mentioned in previous blogs that Majendie constructed a “secret” facility for rendering safe IEDs. His work there was assisted by Dr August Dupre - a German emigre and highly experienced chemist. This facility was surprisingly just a couple of hundred yards from Downing Street on Duck Island at the bottom end of the lake in St James’s Park, opposite Horseguards.
 
There is a story that the bomb defusing facility still existed in mothballs in the 1970s. To preserve it, the wooden building and its contents were recovered by the Royal Engineers to Chatham in Kent. The story goes that some RE quartermaster in the 1980s felt it was messing up his stores so it was destroyed and scrapped. Sigh. In such a way is Ozymandias sometimes forgotten.
 
So for a couple of decades I’ve been interested in what equipment existed there - but Majendie’s OPSEC was pretty good.  I think I know where some official files may be that detail it but time has precluded a visit to those archives yet.
 
But yesterday I turned up a new lead.  Firstly I found a document that detailed some of Majendie’s thoughts on EOD operations. He discussed moving suspect devices in wicker hand carts to one of three locations strategically placed around London. One on Duck Island - close to the heart of government in Whitehall and sufficiently remote in its imediate environment.  One in the “ditch” surrounding the Tower of London, for IEDs found in the financial centre of London, and one in a cutting or quarry in Hyde Park for devices in the commercial district.  It appears that Majendie won approval for the construction of at least two of these (Hyde Park and Duck Island) and that the Duck Island facility was completed first.  But not much of a clue as to what it contained, other than some sort of mechanical contrivance for dealing with the infernal machines. So a bit more digging ensued. Now, I know from other research that Majendie conducted close relations with both the United States and with France. Anarchist IEDs were almost endemic in France at the time. Majendie makes some remark in thre 1880s that he has "adapted the French techniques” and refers to their approach as often blowing the devices up in place - whereas Majendie prefers to move them to his secret facilities to deal with them there.
 
But then I find an associated reference that suggests that Majendie used equipment of the same kind for defusing bombs that the French used at the Municipal Laboratory in Paris.  A clue, then, and a new avenue.
So, I’ve had some success.
 
This is a summary of what I have found.  The French authorities established a Municipal Laboratory for dealing with IEDs in some open ground near Porte de Vincennes in Paris and others at 3 other locations elsewhere in the City.  The facility consisted of some earth banks and a series of wooden huts. I think the facility was set up in the 1880s and certainly was still in existence in 1910. This is an image from 1910.
Within this facility was a range of equipments including x-ray equipment (after it was invented) and a very robust piece of machinery called a “Morane Press".  I think this is that key piece of equipment and I have a hunch (nothing more) that Majendie’s facility on Duck Island was somewhat similar in terms of construction, and Majendie too may have used a Morane press. This is a picture of the "Morane press" taken at he the Paris facility, again somewhat later but the press was still in use in 1910.
I then found a beautiful report from 1906 describing the operational routine of the Paris police at the time. The report describes that the occurrence of suspect IEDs in Paris in 1906 was “not at all an infrequent occurrence”.  Some elements of the report:
  • A “bomb squad’ was based at the laboratory and connected by a telephone to central police headquarters.  The headquarters tasked the unit to respond to a suspect IED. The response is described as being similar to a “fire call”.
  • The lead EOD tech has a fast response vehicle, described as a 16 horsepower “racing bodied" automobile. it is followed by an “automobile bomb van”.
  • Six chemists are assigned to the unit, and one always deploys as the lead operator. They work one week shifts, and five weeks off to “recover from nerves"
  • The lead chemist brings the “bomb van” close to the device, and the operator after inspecting it, lifts it carefully , maintaining its positional attitude and places it in a containment box. Perhaops their procedures had evolved from the 1880s "blow in place" policy.
The photograph below may show the response vehicle and a containment vessel.  I can't be sure because I think the photo was mislabelled as “Paris police headquarters, 1920s” but I found the photo amongst other photos of the explosive laboratory and to my untrained eye the vehicle looks like a 1906 car not a 1920s car. I think the black object on the floor might be a containment vessel. The operators are certainly steely-eyed.
  • The report describes how many IEDs of the time were sensitive to movement which changed its orientation - the initiation mechanism was two liquids which, if the device was tilted, mixed and caused a detonation.
  • The bomb van is described a “heavy (voiture lourde) double phaeton 12 hp automobile, refitted from the regular tourist trade, with a pneumatic spring device for gentle running and 120mm tires” 
  • The "bomb box" or containment vessel is placed over the rear springs, opening by a letdown from behind. It is fitted with shredded wood fibre and into this is placed the IED. 
  • The IED is then moved accordingly to the facility in Porte de Vincennes or one of three other such facilities strategically placed around the City ( note the similarity to Majendie’s plan) . The concept is to move the device very quickly in case it is time-initiated.
  • Once at the facility the device is immediately x-rayed after being placed behind an armoured screen. As noted in earlier posts, the French deployed x-ray equipment for security operations within months of the invention in 1896. 
  • At this stage, depending on the x-ray, the device may be manually rendered safe. The report mentions a specific IED were the hands of the timing clock could be seen to be stationary from analysis of the radiograph, allowing a manual procedure to make the device safe.
  • The report then describes the “hydraulic press”. It is tucked in behind earthen mounds. Here's a picture of what I think is the pump that powered the Morane press.

  • And here are the earthen mounds sorrounding the facility

  • The press is used to dismantle IEDs, and if a detonation is caused, the effects are contained. The press is robust enough to survive. Quite often there are detonations several times a week. The effectiveness of the press is described as 75% - three times out of four a device does not explode but the components are recovered for forensic examination.  That’s not a bad strike rate at all, given the sensitive explosives used and the initiation types.
  • The report also stresses how many of the IEDs are not publicly reported in order to keep the public calm
In summary then I think that the Paris facilities are a remarkable reminder that IEDs are not new, and surges in IED use have been seen before. The facility seems to have been in use for about thirty years, and despite the different techniques of today’s bomb squads, their technology was surprisingly effective.  We can’t be certain that Majendie was using the same strategy and same technology in London in the 1890s but I think there is a high degree of likelihood he was. Like today, there was a willingness to share EOD technology, and technical intelligence, between different national agencies. The Paris police clearly had a sophisticated and well resourced EOD unit operating across their city, with a thought-through strategy focused on:
  • reducing damage to property
  • returning the situation to normality as soon as possible
  • technical intelligence and forensically-focused render-safe procedures. 
Thursday
Dec052013

The IED Technology of Propaganda of the Deed, 1884.

There’s a lot of attention given these days to the dissemination of such things as “Inspire” the extremist jihadi online magazine about how to build bombs and such like. 

The truth is that this, like terrorism itself, is nothing really very new.  In 1884 the anarchist Johann Most published “Revolutionare Kreigswissenshaft”, a self proclaimed scientific handbook for would-be revolutionaries.  Johan Most popularized the concept of “Propaganda of the deed.”

While the modern day jihadist spreads his technology concepts by such things as "youtube", "web forums" and "on-line magazines",  Johann Most used “printing presses” and “bookshops” and "newspapers" to the same effect.

Most and his work are an interesting tale.  Most was born in Germany in 1846, and lived in England for a few years from 1878. Some of those English years were spent “at Her Majesty’s pleasure” in prison.  He was an ardent and open revolutionary. Finally he moved to the USA 1884, and was employed by an explosives manufacturer in New Jersey, building some small degree of technical expertise.  He published his book in 1884 and it is still available today still. I ordered mine openly from Amazon and I think I can justify it to the authorities.  

The context of the situation in 1884 is important to understand.  My American friends will, I hope, forgive me when I say that it was a pretty easy place to build IEDs. A number of US citizens were openly involved in building IEDs for profit and training people to use them.

Here’s one example of a bomb maker from Philadelphia of the same period.  And another here from an earlier blog post on this site. .  I have records of several others including a man in Des Moines in the 1880s who was manufacturing IEDs to be sent to support the Fenian bombing campaign in London. Iowa was a hotbed of anti-British "Fenian"  feeling!   Then in 1886 was the Haymarket bombing in Chicago, which I have written about in an earlier post.

The Haymarket bombs were of a type described by Most in his handbook published two years earlier. There is a link, allegedly with Most promising to send the Haymarket conspirators dynamite. He really pushed the “classic” anarchist IED of a black sphere with a burning fuse projecting from it.

The truth is that Most’s understanding of explosives is nowhere near as good as he thought it was.  Perhaps that too is like modern extremist publications available on-line. The handbook has numerous technical errors but is all the more interesting for that. Clearly I’m not going into those errors here, but it's pretty interesting to see his revolutionary ardour overtake technicalities. I would also add that most copies available are translations and I think there are some peculiar spelling errors and possible technical misunderstandings of the translator. For instance in the copies I have seen, Most describes “Oraini bombs”, which should I think read “Orsini bombs”. Also the translator clearly has no technical background – at one point complaining irritatedly that Most’s phrase “Cloral de pottage” doesn’t appear in any of the University of Arizona’s French Dictionaries. It clearly means Potassium Chlorate to anyone with a smidgen of understanding of the chemistry of explosives.

Most describes the manufacture of the chemical impact fuzing system that was in the IED used to assassinate the Tsar in 1881.

Interestingly Most advises that it is easier to obtain nitro-glycerine or dynamite legally or illegally than it is to manufacture it.   Amusingly, as a revolutionary, Most doesn’t describe it as “theft” but “confiscation”.   But then describing the manufacture of nitro-glycerine he views with disdain some of the safety measures that are normally advised for such projects.   Most’s instructions are not detailed or specific enough and are subject to dangerous misinterpretation, especially , I suspect, the translated versions, translated by a non-chemist who I don't think has much technical understanding.

Most describes a way in which explosives should be used to cause damage to buildings and railway lines, but most of this seems to be a “cut and paste” job from Austrian military handbooks of the time. Again, somewhat like certain extremist sites of today who recycle conventional military handbooks.

Most does occasionally have some very pertinent ideas about such things as disguise of devices.

Most describes the manufacture of a range of explosive charges and also primary explosives and incendiary devices. There is an odd, and somewhat silly section about poisons, but no sillier, I suppose than some of the nonsense on extremist websites today.  I can’t really imagine copper acetate is a serious poison for the serious terrorist.   He also has ideas about operational matters such as organization of an operational terrorist group.

Most takes an interesting view on the question of the right to bear arms, which he equates directly with the right to possess explosives.  He attacks US lawmakers of the era who were trying to make the possession of explosives illegal, which he viewed as a first step along the road of making weapon ownership illegal.  “How then would the American revolutionary be able to shoot the lawmaker?”, he asks indignantly.  Finally, Most describes some very “modern” OPSEC procedures.

So the history of disseminating terrorist technology and tactics goes back an awful long way.  Most was doing exactly what “Inspire” is doing now, just with a different level of media.  You’d be surprised at the similarities.

Friday
Oct052012

The curious death of Louis Lingg

Louis Lingg was a self confessed German anarchist, found guilty of his involvement in the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in 1886 that killed a number of police officers. Lingg was one of a number of agitators charged and found guilty. It appears in retrospect that the charges against the other six conspirators were weak to say the least, but against Lingg I think there was some degree of convincing evidence that he built the IED. Not least because of witnesses who testified that they were given IEDs by Lingg, and further, that IEDs were discovered in Linggs lodgings.

 

 

Here’s two pictures of an IED discovered in Lingg’s apartment.

The Haymarket bomb is thought to have been of a similar spherical design, but slightly smaller in diameter. The devices were lead shperes filled with dynamite, and initiated by a detonator/blasting cap attached to a burning fuze, inserted into the sphere. 

There's an image here of other devices, all generaly filled with dynamite with a burning fuze.

Between the trial and the planned execution two strange things occurred in Linggs prison cell in Cook County jail. 

Firstly during a search of his cell on December 6th four IEDs were discovered hidden under his bed. From the description of the devices they appear to have been pipe bombs.  How the IEDs got into his prison cell is not known, but visitors to the prsioners had plenty of opportunity, reportedly, to hand over gifts.

Secondly, four days later, in the same cell, Lingg died. It’s the circumstances of his death that is intruiging.   His death is described as a suicide, but frankly I think that explanation is unconvincing.  The official story is that Lingg obtained a blasting cap, held it in his teeth and initiated it.  He died in some agony six hours later from his wounds, his jaw having been blown off.  It is believed that the blasting cap was smuggled into the jail by an accomplice, Dyer Lum, who hid it in a cigar.  

 

Here's my doubts and explanation:

Blasting caps can kill of course, but one could not be certain of death by initiating a detonator or blasting cap in one’s mouth.  In a sense this is proven by Lingg’s painful death.  Lingg probably knew that a detonator in his mouth would be an uncertain way of committing suicide.

Lum has been accused of planning to break the anarchists out of jail. Could the pipe bombs discovered 4 days earlier have been part of such a plot? Could this detonator have been associated with an attempt to break out of prison?

Crimping.  Detonators/blasting caps need crimping onto the fuze.  A crimping tool or pliers wouldn’t have been available in Lingg’s cell. Lingg wouldn’t have been the first person in history to resort to using his teeth to crimp a cap onto a fuze. He wouldn’t be the first person, either, for that simple action to go dreadfully wrong.

So, I am not convinced as to the intended suicide.  Was he instead preparing an IED in his cell, perhaps big enough to blow the lock on his cell door in an attempt to escape?  The truth is we will never know.