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 1910-1920 (23)


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. 





Quite often in my research into historical IEDs, I’m struck by parallels with modern IED threats. Here’s a historical story with exactly that.
There is a common perception that the “first” vehicle bomb or VBIED was the 1920 Wall St bombing In New York. As readers of this blog will know by now, that isn’t even close, with vehicle bombs hundreds of years before that.  These VBIEDs described below were from around 1912/1913.
I see some parallels between the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria and the Mexican Revolution in terms of military activity.  Today there are conflicts between government troops and insurgents, one way or another. One common tactic in Iraq and Syria we are seeing is the government troops defending a FOB in a small town or village and insurgents launching attacks on them quite often preceded by a suicide vehicle bomb. The “shock action” of a large explosion potentially disorientates defenders as other attacks are launched. The attacks often take place in desert countryside down the the communication routes (the roads), and has been seen very frequently in the last couple of years.
There are similarities then, with the Mexican revolution and in particular in the period 1912 and 1913. This was a complex revolution and I don’t intend on getting into the detail of its causes and protagonists - you can read that here if you wish to.
There were various rebel leaders, including Zapata and Orozco who launched guerrilla warfare campaigns that today we might call insurgencies. Both government forces and the rebels moved forces and their supplies quite often by the railroad system - the only practical way of moving volumes of men and material around the country quickly.   Typically the government forces, in pursuit of rebels, would move forces along a railway line to a town which they fortified, moving with the aid of three or four trains that arrived in a given town.  Or the rebel forces did exactly the same.   On a few occasions rebels mounted attacks that were initiated sending their own or captured trains at high speed down the line, which collided with the stationary government trains and caused alarm and confusion.  It didn't take long before the one side or the other spiced up these runaway trains with the addition of a lot of explosives on board.
One example - In the First Battle of Rellano which took place on 24 March 1912, between two opposing sides, one under under command of Pascual Orozco. Government forces arrived in Chihuahua province but their progress was stalled because Orozco had blown up railroad track and bridges with IEDs.   The government forces under General Salas had to repair the bridges and railway lines on order to move. Orozco’s troops were defending the town of Rellano and the government forces were moving up the railway line in trains to attack them.  One of Orozco’s comrades, Emilio Campa, loaded a locomotive with dynamite and sent it at high speed down the track to where government forcers were disembarking from their trains just outside the town.  Despite the fact that the government forces had removed some track (to protect themselves from such eventuality) the VBIED train, traveling at high speed, left the tracks but still collided with the troop train, and exploded killing 60 soldiers and injuring many more.  I haven’t been able to establish any fuzing mechanism.
Such tactics were used in a number of other engagements by the (various) participants and the trains were known either as “loco-locos” (crazy trains) or “maquina loca”, an adaptation of the “maquina infernale” or infernal machine which in those days was used to describe an IED.
Rodolfo Fierro, (an ex railway brake man) who commanded some of Pancho Villa’s forces used this tactic several times, most notably at the Battle of Tierra Blanca in November 1913.  Fierro’s nickname was “the Butcher” a name that apparently was quite apposite.
Here's a picture of the aftermath of one loco-loco.
The aftermath of an exploding train
So these insurgent battles were violent, desert-bound conflicts not too dissimilar from the violent conflicts of Syria and Iraq just now.  Of course the Mexican revolution has been glamourised by Hollywood or spaghetti westerns such as the Wild Bunch, A Fistful of Dynamite and Villa Rides!    Indeed the whole film "A Fistful of Dynamite" concludes with a Loco-loco being used against an Army train.  The hero of the film is James Coburn, playing an Irish explosives expert plying his trade in Latin America (with an awful Irish accent)...and there's another story for the future...




Going Around and Coming Around

During World War One there was an extensive IED sabotage campaign run by German agents and diplomats in North America.  I have written in previous posts about some of these bombing incidents. See:
One of the protagonists, or “players” in this great game was a young aristocratic German military officer, serving as diplomat on the staff of the German Embassy in Washington., His name was Kapitan Franz von Papen.  
Von Papen in 1914 (public domain)
Von Papen was a man who clearly enjoyed intrigue. As well has involvement in the German sabotage campaign in 1915, he was also involved in discussions as an intermediary to Irish revolutionaries looking for a  supply weapons for the Easter rising of 1916, and was involved in liaison with Indian nationalists as part of the Hindu German Conspiracy.   In December 1915 he was declared "persona non grata" by the US government because of alleged complicity on the Vanceboro Bridge bombing .   Travel home to Germany was challenging, but Von Papen received a diplomatic document, a Laissaiz Passer, meaning he travelled via Falmouth in England knowing he could not be detained by the British under diplomatic law.  To his horror the laissez passer did not cover his luggage and in front of him on the dockside at Falmouth the British officials opened his bags finding code books and incriminating documents.
Documents were found which detailed the payment of over $3Million to the German agents involved in the sabotage campaign.   Transcripts of the seized documents are available here and make fascinating reading.  His cheque stubs were annotated with signifgcant detail such as “for the purchase of picric acid”  “for dum-dum investigation” and exposed several agents who lived in England but were offering services to the Germans.   Of note is the Germany authorities in Berlin asking him to find out details of how Mexican revolutionaries were blowing up trains in 1914, "in order to form an opinion whether, in the event of a European war, explosions of this kind would have to be reckoned with".
One can magine the apopleptic Prussian officer watching as the British officials simply opened his bags and took the documents out.       Further documents linking Von Papen to the Bombing Campaign in the US were discovered in a Wall Street office he rented. Other documents incriminated the Austria Ambassador who was collecting munition shipping data for the Germans.  One might have thought that Von Papen would have learned his lesson.  But no….  In a later parallel, while serving with the Ottoman Army in Palestine the following year, he left behind a suitcase in a room he was using in Nazareth as the British advanced. In it, papers were found belonging to him incriminated several agents he was running locally.  All in all then, Von Papen's spy-craft was pretty shoddy.              
In 1916, an US indictment was issued against him for plotting to blow up Canada’s Welland Canal, based on the seized documents from Falmouth.  He remained under indictment as he rose in the ranks of the German inter-war political scene, becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1932, at which point the US charges were rescinded.   There is this rather nice quote about Von Papen at the time by the French Ambassador “His appointment to Chancellor of Germany was met by incredulity. He enjoyed the peculiarity of being taken seriously by neither his friends nor his enemies. He  was reputed to be superficial, blundering, untrue, ambitious, vain, crafty and an intriguer.”   He was subsequently easily out-manouvered by the Nazis.  He was then made Ambassador to Austria, in the run up the the Anschluss.
In 1939 he was appointed as Ambassador to Turkey, where the intrigue of the war years suited his inclinations, if not his expertise. The Turks initially objected pointing out that his previous diplomatic activity had involved sabotage in the US and subversion in another (Austria). but he was appointed.  In 1942 a peculiar incident occurred, an act of intrigue against the man with so much experience of it himself.  There are conflicting version of this story but it would appear that the most convincing is this:
The Russian intelligence service , the NKVD, decided to assassinate Von Papen.  After an abortive attempt to incorporate a Czech officer, they found a Yugoslav born communist, now Turkish,  to conduct the mission. The perpetrator was told to shoot Von Papen who regularly strolled along a particular avenue with his wife, then cover their escape by triggering a "smoke bomb”.  But with NKVD subterfuge the smoke bomb wasn't a smoke bomb at all, but contained a large amount of high explosive. The perpetrator fired one shot at Von Papen, which missed then immediately triggered the smoke bomb’ which exploded blowing the shooter to pieces.  His penis was found in a tree and a distinctive wart on the skin near an eyebrow was also recovered from the scene.   The NKVD had also , allegedly planted documentation in the device packaging suggesting the perpetrators was from the German Embassy itself. Another version suggests that this was “reported” by TASS as disinformation.   Then idea was that the assassination would occur and the perpetrator would be blown to bits to reduce the risk of the incident being compromised as an NKVD operation. 
Von Papen and his wife survived the attack, shaken but largely unharmed. For what it is worth Von Papen suspected the British. The Russian embassy hinted that the Americans “knew” it was the gestapo who were responsible.  The turks arrested the "station chief” of the NKVD (officially listed as an “archivist”)  at the Russian embassy . This occurred amongst diplomatic uproar as the Turks surrounded the Russian embassy for two weeks demanding he be handed over.   Two other emigre Yugoslav communists (from the Muslim community) were also arrested.  These latter two confessed that the Soviets had ordered the assassination.   They claimed that the Russians had given the perpetrator, Omer Tokat, a revolver and the supposed smoke bomb. all defendants were found guilty. Things got complicated in subsequent appeals (too complex to explain in a short blog).
After the war Von Papen was convicted at the Nuremberg trials , released in 1949 and died 20 years after that.   



Title of this magazine article is interesting...

My old friend Panjandrum saw a military history magazine in a newsagent's today and took this image of Page 35.

Given the title of the article in the magazine, this blog's title, and this piece from this blog in 2012, that's a fine coincidence!  

For what it is worth I'm pretty sure that Garland didn't serve in the Boer War as the magazine articles suggests, but I have no doubt the concept of initiation system came from there. 



Mystery Sabotage Device, 1918

This post is a bit of a puzzle, that I may need some help with. I’ve blogged before about the German sabotage campaign on the east Coast of America in 1915 here:                                                                                      
And indeed I’ve built up a bit of a presentation on German sabotage in 1915-1917 which I may get round to posting here.  In brief summary, German agents either operating out of the German Embassy or operating undercover developed a systematic and effective sabotage campaign to disrupt munitions and other cargoes being shipped to the European Allies of France, Russia and Great Britain, before the US entered the war.   There is documentation that certainly 35 ships were firebombed, and an additional 39 suffered suspicious fires.   Many sabotage events were downplayed or not reported so the number could be significantly higher.  A number of munitions factories in the US attacked. Five US Navy warships suffered fire damage, and the USS Oklahoma and USS New York, two new battleships under construction were almost completely destroyed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
Most of the cargo ships sabotaged in 1915 were attacked with small incendiary devices, the size of a cigar. These contained sulphuric acid in one small compartments separated from picric acid or potassium chlorate, by a copper disc.. The copper disc was dissolved over time (usually several days) and then the sulphuric acid was in contact with the other compound causing a violent ignition.  Typically a number of these “cigars" were secreted in the cargoes in a ships hold by stevedores of German or Irish extraction in US East Coast ports. Some devices were made aboard German ships, interned in US ports when the British blockaded them.  One in particular, the “SS Friedrich der Grosse” of the NordDeutschland Lloyd line was docked in New York and German agents ferried the devices from the ship to the dock workers to hide on board munitions and cargo ships.  Other cigars or “pills” as they saboteurs described them, were made in the laboratory of the designer, Dr Scheele at 1133 Clinton Street, Hoboken, New Jersey.
The “cigars" were to a design develped by a German sympathiser, Dr Scheele, and are reported to have been about 4 inches long. Once initiated they ejected white hot flames from both ends.                                                                
Now, there appears to have been more than one design.  In a diagram produced by another saboteur, Frederick Hermann, the construction of the incendiary appears a little more complex, than simply two compartments in a lead pipe separated by a copper disc.  It is hard to interpret the diagram below but I note that the compound to which the acid mixes is described as chlorate and sugar, which will make a difference to its explosive effect, depending on relative qunatities of the mixture. The diagram appears (I think) to show an upper reservoir of sulphuric acid, a “neck” halfway down labled “c” (for copper, presumably a copper plug and not a disc), and below that the chlorate with sugar. Wax probably closed both ends.
It should be noted that to work effectively the cigar needs to be positioned vertically, to allow the acid to dissolve the copper and then fall into the chlorate-sugar mix.  Only a proportion of the devices functioned and some were recovered by French and British governments in ports in Europe.  In 1915 this activity was being led by two officers from the German embassy , Karl Boy-Ed, and Kapitan Franz von Papen. Later in 1915 a secret agent of the German Navy Franz von Rinteln was sent to encouage the sabotage campaign.    In a range of investigations led by the head of the NYPD bomb squad, Thomas Tunney, who was seconded to Military Intelligence, the German sabotage cells were largely disrupted. By 1917 the US had entered the war,  Rinteln was captured and imprisoned in England and the others had been arrested, expelled or in the case of Dr Scheele, escaped to Havana.                                                                                                                                        
Given that history  it was intriguing to find a report on the Australian War Memorial blog about an incendiary device recovered from a  ship in 1918, possibly in Liverpool, from a ship arriving from the US. By 1918 most of the German sabotage cells had been rounded up, also the design of the incendiary device is somewhat different.                                                                                                                                                        
These images are included on the AWM blog and I'm grateful for their kind permission to reproduce them here.
Working from the photographs alone, it appears that the knurled steel “head" appears to have two openings in it, closed by bolts.  I would have perhaps expected only one, to simply fill with acid.   The main body appears to be copper and the strange shaped base appears to be aluminium (?), corroded by a galvanic reaction.  The base is an odd design.  This device, bigger than the earlier cigars would have been more difficult to smuggle aboard and its dimensions would have made it more difficult to conceal in a cargo. The description accompanying the images suggest that rather than acid eating through a reservoir wall in this case the acid ate through a wire which retained a spring action to an initiator…. that’s a quite different initiation mechanism.  This device would have taken more skill to construct and the threaded and knurled head, the apparent 3 sections of copper pipe and a neat fitting of the copper pipe to the aluminium  base indicates a higher level of engineering….  Something about the base design rings a bell, but I can’t put my finger on it.  The design of the base must have a reason and there must be a reason for it to have been different from the copper…but I cant work that out. Any suggestion gratefully received.                                                                                                                                                                               
The blog from the AWM also has set me off on a new thread. The device appears to have been forwarded to the Australian section of the British “Munitions Inventions Department” in Esher, for examination. The Munitions Inventions Department had been set up earlier in the war to coordinate the wide range of scientific and military engineering developments required by the Alles to win the war.  It was really the forerunner of later government defence research departments.  Teams of ingenious, pragmatic and capable engineers had been co-opted into developing a wide range of innovative weaponry. By all accounts the Australians were masters of such craft and contributed significantly to a wide range of innovative munitions.  I’ve started some research on that and will no doubt blog about some of the wilder and more intertesting inventions in the future.