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 1940-1950 (12)


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.  

Techniques of Bomb Disposal 1942

Interesting film from 1942 showing Sapper EOD operations against air dropped munitions that end up buried deep. At the six minute point and 11 minute point you will hear the word "Wedges". (hohoho!)  Instructional in nature, but you gotta love the brass band accompaniment at the beginning.   Also, if I'm allowed to make a poor joke, I see that the Royal Engineer Officer's remedy for an unconscious sapper, poisoned by Carbon Monoxide is to turn him on to his front and massage his bottom (24.45).  Good to see that technique existed so long ago... 

BFI Film archive - 1942 Bomb Disposal



US-UK EOD Lineage

Last night I enjoyed the inaugural US-UK EOD gala dinner, raising money for EOD related charities on both sides of the Atlantic. US Ambassador Matthew Barzun gave a great speech. The theme of the night was the shared challenges of the EOD community and the transatlantic bond that is so powerful between the EOD communities. I related this story to the audience which perhaps deserves wider understanding:

In 1933 a young American man, named Draper Kauffman, graduated from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. He was the son of an Admiral. Despite his father's position, at the time the US Navy was shrinking because of the economy and he wasn't offered a commission because of poor eyesight. Instead, this adventurous young man left to seek employment in Europe for a shipping company.  When war broke out in 1939, being a determined and ethically driven individual, he joined the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps and was captured by the Germans as they invaded France in 1940. He was released and went to England (after being awarded, I think, the Croix de Guerre by the French) where he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and trained in bomb disposal, serving during the Blitz in London.

Draper Kauffman in RNVR Uniform with a German Mine

In 1941 he returned to the US and obtained a US Naval Reserve commission.  When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the US entered the war, there was a problem with an unexploded Japanese 500-pound bomb just outside the doors of an ammunition storage compound in Fort Scofield, Hawaii. The US Army in Hawaii requested advice from Washington, who in turn asked Great Britain. The response was a little brief - “Try Lt Kauffman, we trained him, he’s experienced and he works for you now!”.   Kauffman was sent to Pearl Harbor. There he won the Navy Cross for his EOD efforts defusing the first Japanese bomb for subsequent techncial study. Kauffman returned to Washington and because of this experience he was asked to urgently establish an EOD Training School.  His first action was to request 4 British EOD instructors which the UK managed to provide despite the huge pressures on that profession at the time, where the life expectancy during the Blitz had been a lttle over two weeks.

He later earned a second Navy Cross in the Pacific theater in Saipan leading his team in a daylight reconnaissance of fortified enemy beaches under heavy fire. He retired as an Admiral having set up the US Navy Underwater Demolition teams. That's a military career that is impossible to match.

When I related that story, my friend Ken Falke shouted "Go Navy!". My only reply, of course, was "Go Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve!".

Both communities, British and American, are proud to follow the footsteps of Draper Kauffman.
Rear Admiral Kauffman USN




Russian Partisan EOD search, 1942

I've found an interesting book, "The Partisan's Companion", a guerilla warfare manual produced by Russia in 1942. There's a small section on EOD search for German mines and booby traps which is interesting.

Remember the fascists use mines widely and employ them with cunning and trickery. Quite often they leave various lures in plain sight and conenct them to mines. You should be careful and wary of them.

Do not enter a house which has been left by the Germans until you have inspected the ground around it, The stair steps of the porch, doors, windows, floor boards and various household objects - all of them could be connected to mines.  Any attempt to move them or even a simple touch could produce and explosion.   Use long rope and a grapnel to open the door of such a house.

After entering the house - thoroughly inspect it. First, do a visual inspection, looking for the revealing signs of mines: fresh spots in the wall's plaster, evidence of disturbing the bricks in the walls or stove, fresh scratches on the floor. Also check the electrical wires - see if there are any devices connected to them. If you find suspicious areas- check them more thoroughly.

Try to avoid all kinds of twine, rope and wire in the forest, on the roads and in the houses. They could be linked to mines. Be careful around places which show some disturbance to their uniformity.For example: small lumps of dirt on grass warn you about digging at that site. Be careful not to pick up a rifle or other weapon left behind by the Germans, especially if it is in a highly visible spot. Remember that the Germans sometimes even put mines on the corpses of their soldiers and officers.

The manual then goes on to describe an interesting technique for finding buried clockwork timed mechanisms attached to mines, using a "water stethoscope".  A water bottle is filled almost to within a few centimeters from the top, and a glass tube inserted through the stopper. Put a rubber hose onto the outside of the tube. Then plant the bottle in the ground, with the surface of the water in the bottle level with the ground. Place the end of the hose to your ear and if there is a buried clockwork device nearby you will hear it. 

That sounds like an interesting technique - I'll have to give it a try. 



Warsaw IEDs

I’ve been researching the improvised explosives used by the Polish resistance in WW2.  One can’t but help notice some parallels between the Warsaw uprising and the ongoing tragedies in Syria - the devastation of Warsaw looks pretty similar to that being seen in Aleppo and other Syrian cities.  The Nazi destruction of the ghetto is scarily similar to the Assad regime’s destruction of areas of Syrian cities.  Compare the effect of the use of the seige mortar “Thor” (Karl-Gerat) against the Warsaw ghetto with the user of barrel bombs in Aleppo.   
Here's two interesting images - the black and white one shows a Warsaw resistance fighter examing a "blind" Karl-Gerat munition. The colour image below it shows a Syrian resistance fighter with a "blind" barrel bomb. I'm not suggesting the munitions are identical, but in terms of explosive effect they will have been pretty similar, and it's spooky how similar the images are, some 70 years apart.
Consider the similarity of effects:

There are other similarities too - the Polish resistance had a very significant production of ingenious improvised weapons - and some of their techniques appear similar too to those seen in Poland. Look at this image of a spring-loaded Molotov cocktail projector - I’ve seen similar from Syria
The boundaries between improvised weapons and production weapons can get a bit vague here - for example its is thought that tens of thousands of Sidolowka and Filipinka grandes were produced by the resistance.
These improvised grenades had a variety of fills, but most commonly “cheddite”, a chlorate/nitrobenzene mix I have discussed in earlier posts (used by many including Irish revolutionaries circa 1920.) Not much difference in design , of course with the Irish grenades seen here...with the same explosive fill.  All aspects of the grenade including the fuse and the detionators were produced by the Polish resistance. Largely they obtained the potassium chlorate component of the explosive by theft from the Germans.
An improvised Filipinka grenade. The Cyrillic marking is an attempt by the Polish resistance to obfuscate indigenous manufacture
Improvised Sidolowka grenade.
The Polish resistance also made significant use of command wires devices and other IEDs to attack trains and other targets.    Here’s a picture of the explosive unit of the Warsaw resistance on route to attacks the Warsaw telephone exchange on 18th/20th August 1944 with a command wire initiated device.

Hundreds of German military trains were attacked with IEDs too. During one six month period the British SOE assessed that the Polish resistance ahd wrecked 1,268 railway engines and damaged 3,318 carriages. This report describes the operationally sophisticated use of multiple IEDs along a railway line:
An ordinary railway mine, which exploded when the first train passed over it would cause an interruption in traffic for only about four hours. At one time we were anxious to interrupt traffic on the main Warsaw-Malkinia sector of the Eastern front for a minimum period of 10 days. Our experts solved the problem, and the resulting interruption lasted as long as two weeks.  It was done by specially devised mines which could be automatically blown up. A chain of these mines was laid across the tracks. The first, which was placed in the middle of the chain, went off as the first train was passing over it. Two more placed on the tracks on either side of the first when the rescue train arrived from one side or the other. The remaining mines on both sides of the wrecked trains exploded successively when the repair trains arived from both directions. Result: Ten miles of track effectively mined. After ther first train has been blown up four repair and relief trains sent in to deal with it had been effectively destroyed.

Other sophisticated IEDs were also created by the Poles. I have found one report that 18 Luftwaffe aircraft were destoyed by the use of an explosive device in an elongated cylinder which was hidden in the rear of German aircraft and initiated on a reduction of atmospheric pressure once the aircraft reached a certain height.