You can contact me at rogercdavies(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.


Entries in 1890-1900 (7)


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. 



1894 Bomb Disposal Techniques

I have blogged before at an IED disposal system and associated organisation set up in Paris, France in the late part of the 19th century.  In my earlier blogs I have discussed the “containment vehicle” used to transport suspect IEDs to one of four disposal sites set up around Paris, and the use of hydraulic presses to dismantle IEDs once taken thefre.

I have recovered a little more detail about both, in some reports written by Colonel Majendie, the British explosives expert, who visited Paris in early 1894 and considered the techniques being used , adapting some for use in London.

Firstly the vehicle and containment system, originally material posted here.   Here now is Majendie’s description:

The bomb is deposited on a quantity of wood shavings or similar elastic material in the body of the phaeton….At one time the idea was entertained of constructing a bomb proof cart for this purpose - or at any rate a cart by which by mans of iron shields would prevent the lateral dispersion of fragments should the bomb unfortunately explode in transit. But the idea was abandoned in view of the fact that infernal machines in some cases contained very large charges of explosives (e.g the machine which exploded at the Rue de Clichy contained between 50 and 60 lbs), and of the considerations, 1st. that the cart which would resist the explosion of such a charge would be proportionally inconvenient to bring into action, besides attracting much attention… and that in the event of a bomb containing a charge in excess of what the cart was calculated to resist exploding therein, the iron and stout structure of the cart itself would probably seriously aggravate the effect. 

Majendie goes on to discuss that the presses available at each of the four disposal sites (which are pictured i the earlier post referenced above) which often succeeded in dismantling the IEDs without them exploding, but on occasion when an explosion did occur, its effect was usually "greatly diminished” by cracking of the outer shell.  Interestingly Majendie also reported three other techniques used during EOD operations:
a. Sometimes small dynamite charges were used to open the container of a bomb.

b. The French also used a mechanical device with three movable arms, or “holders” into which IEDs of different sizes can be fixed and lowered into a bath of mercury. Some devices were sealed with the use of solder and by immersing that part in mercury, for about 24 hours, caused the tin in the solder to dissolve breaking any soldered seal.

c. if the team attending the site of an incident felt it too dangerous to move they would “blow in place”. Majendie disagreed with this approach and recommended a degree of risk to avoid inadvertently seconding and supplementing the anarchist’s intentions.

As a result of the visit, Majendie developed the small, light handcart for transporting devices, that I showed in an earlier post here. The first of London’s disposal facilities was set up in 1894 on Duck Island , with others planned at Hyde Park, the Tower of London and in some circumstances a facility at Woolwich.   Later, in 1895, a truck was provided for transporting devices to the disposal facility by the War Office.  Two years later in 1896, the French authorities were using the first X-ray imaging systems to examine suspect IEDs.



Improvised Artillery

The image above shows a small artillery piece. The artillery piece is actually improvised and how it got put together, how the ammunition was provided for it and how it was used is a story worth telling.                          
In 1899 the Boxer Rebellion erupted in China. This was a violent anti-foreign, nationalist uprising. In June 1900 large numbers of Boxer fighters converged in Peking. Many foreigners sought refuge in an area known as the Legation quarter, where a number of foreign legations had their headquarters and residences. The Chinese government response was at best ineffectual and at worst complicit, eventually declaring war on the foreign powers.   The Legation quarter, remarkably was then under siege for 55 days, occupied by the foreign legations working together in defence and by a number of Christian Chinese. There were about 473 foreign civilians, 409 soldiers from eight countries, ( Japan, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, France, Italy, USA and Austria-Hungary) and  about 3,000 Chinese Christians present in the blockaded area. The foreign powers, represented by an Eight nation alliance shared responsibility for the defence of a makeshift perimeter and waited for relief columns.                                                                                                                                          
From a “Standingwellback” perspective the siege had some interesting aspects - electrically initiated (improvised?) mines were placed in the major navigable river to prevent European ships from accessing Peking by a water network. I’m hunting out details of these.  The Boxers also tunnelled extensively under the legations and a number of extremely large IEDs were initiated, killing hundreds.                                                                    
For the defence of the legation area, the defending legations had a number of small arms and a very small number of heavier weapons.  These heavier weapons included the following:
  1. The U.S. Marines brought an 1895 model Colt machine gun. Its firing system used a lever action device not unlike that of the Winchester and similar rifles but mechanized to fire 450 rounds per minute. The Marines’ Colt machine gun was mounted on wheels as if it was a miniature cannon. If these guns were not raised or mounted in some way, their gas-powered firing mechanisms gouged holes in the ground, spraying the gunners with dirt. This trait gave the gun its nickname of the Potato Digger.
  2. Another machine gun, a Maxim, came with the Austrian troops. 
  3. The British legation had a Nordenfelt four-barreled, rapid-firing, 1-pounder gun. The Swedish-designed piece was originally made for naval use and was capable of piercing the boilers of attacking torpedo boats. The Nordenfelt was prone to jam after every four shots,
  4. The Italians brought another 1-pounder gun.
  5. The Russian contingent had a large quantity of 9 pounder shells, but had omitted to bring a 9 pounder gun. 
Considerable ingenuity was required to maximise the defensive firepower.  When the Italian one-pounder piece ran low on shells, Gunner’s Mate Joseph Mitchell of the USS Newark manufactured new ammunition. Pails full of spent enemy bullets were gathered up and handed to Mitchell. Using discarded shell casings and improvised propellant, he melted the bullets to make new projectiles.                                                                                                                     
At one point an ancient muzzle-loading bronze cannon barrel was recovered (some reports say it was dug up, others that it was found in a junk shop). Now, Gunners can be an inventive bunch, (some of my best friends, etc) and Mitchell, the US gunner, worked out that they could fire improvised grapeshot from this old bronze cannon. Things were that desperate.  Then someone realised that the bore was the same diameter as the “useless" Russian 9-pounder ammunition.   The barrel was roped to a stout roof-beam and wheels from an Italian gun carriage.  The 9 pounder rounds were taken apart, the propellant stuffed down the muzzle with the projectile rammed on top, it became a remarkable effective weapon and perhaps crucial the defence.                 Loading the International Gun                                                   
Chinese solders and Boxer forces built barricades and advanced them foot by foot, encircling the legations ever tighter.  Weapons fire from the Chinese was often constant - artillery, small arms, firecrackers and bricks lobbed over walls. The defenders returned fire with what they could. So here we had a barrel found by the British, on an Italian carriage, fired by American gunners, with Russian shells. So while some called the improvised artillery “Old Betsy “ or “the Dowager Empress” it became best known as the International Gun. It played a crucial role in maintaining the defences.   It remains today in the US Marine Corps Museum, I believe.  I’ll have to zip down to Quantico on my next US trip to see it.

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. 

Early equipment for X-raying IEDs

The use of emerging technology to counter IEDs appears to be a theme of the moment.  But like many of the themes in countering IEDs, this is another that is not new. In 1895 Rontgen developed our understanding of what are now called X-rays and made public his findings on 28 December 1895. This technology was seized upon with alacrity for a number of purposes, including medical applications and non-destructive testing. There was much discussion about the use of "Rontgen images" in court as forensic evidence. But one of the other applications, implemented in early 1896 in Paris, barely more than weeks after the publication of Rontgen's studies, was the use of both portable and permanent systems to x-ray suspect packages and other contraband. At that time there was a signifcant threat of IEDs used by anarchists, revolutionaries and criminals.

I have posted before some of the x-ray images of IEDs at the time, here. But now I have found some images of the systems themselves.

The Paris Bureau de Post seems to have had a permanent system emplaced in an office in Paris for examining suspicious items of post by about June 1896, image below:

And the Bureau de Doaunes appeared to have two portable systems operating, one at Gard du Nord (below) at about the same time.  Thus, within just a few months the technology was being commercailly exploited in C-IED roles.

I think nowadays you wouldn't get quite so many people crowded around the operation. By comparison modern systems such as AS&Es excellent MiniZ technology still uses the X-ray concept (but in the much safer backscatter application)  - but it's doing exactly the same job as the systems above, it's just a lot smaller and more portable. Take a look at the guy on the right in the image above and the guy on the right in the video below - spookily similar!