You can contact me at rogercdavies(atsquiggle)  If you have a comment and the system won't let you post it, ping me using the @ for (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.

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 1900-1910 (12)


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 deal 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 the 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 been 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 ArabiaLawrence 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 pretty 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. 




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. 

Left, Right, Anarchist and Nut Job

The history of IED attacks in the US is full of surprises. The two organizations responsible for the most IED attacks, numerically, in the last 120 years is the Puerto Rican separatists organization the FALN (in the 1970s and 1980s ) with 126 IED attacks that killed 6 people in total, and the Iron Workers Union who between 1906 and 1910 used 111 IEDs to attack industrial targets, then finally the “bombing of the century” as it was called, when it blew up the offices of the Los Angeles Times. The subsequent fire killed 26 people.

I have blogged before about union attacks in the period, clearly industrial relations were very much an issue then, but the volume of attacks is remarkable.  But remember at the time there were other violent attacks on going – the “black hand” extortion gangs in the New York area were very active, as were the early bomb squads in terms of responding to them.  

 The LA Times bombing was the fourth worst bombing (I think) in US history, after the Oklahoma bombing, the Wall Street bombing and the Bath School bombing – tell me if I have that wrong.

The LA Times device consisted of a suitcase of dynamite left on some sort of timer. It was reportedly set to detonate at 4.00 am when no-one was expected to be in the building, but detonated early at 1.07 a.m. The whole case is fraught, even now, with question marks and conspiracy theories.  Indeed even the defendants lawyer the famous Clarence Darrow was caught bribing a juror. The end result of the bombing and the subsequent trial was a considerable set back for the Unions in Los Angeles.

At the same time as the incident at the LA Times, another IED was found on a windowsill at the residence of the owner, General Otis and another targeting another opponinet of the unions. 

So, in terms of perpetrators, the most fatal bombings in US history are the responsibility in each case of domestic terrorists:

  1. Radical right wing extremist (Oklahoma Bombing) 168 killed
  2. Regular nut job (Bath School Bombing) 45 killed
  3. Anarchist extremists(Wall St bombing) 38 Killed
  4. Radical left wing unions (LA Times bombing) 21 killed

Of course the 9/11 attacks killed more, but they weren’t IEDs per se. 


Multiple suicide bomber attacks in 1904 or 1905

This is very intruiging - a second hand report about Japanese troops using multiple suicide bombing as a tactic against the Russians in 1904 or 1905. I've spent a few hours looking for a primary source or even a better secondary source and can't find one - vague references to the tactic but no specifics.  Fascinating in its implications.   Rather than lift the story, here's a straight image from the book, as is.