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 1940-1950 (15)


A peculiar Heavy Water journey

This week is the anniversary of Operation Gunnerside, a fantastic SOE operation to destroy the Norwegian Heavy Water plant at Vermork. The wider story of the destruction of Vermork is told here and is well worth a read.  I would also recommend reading this if you have a few minutes, an excellent contextual document with also some fascinating detail. 

The anniversary reminded me that a few years ago I blogged about Mad Jack Howard, the eccentric English aristocrat, adventurer and experimental bomb disposal expert who played a key role in "rescuing" a batch of heavy water from France as the Nazis invaded.  In retracing some of the research for that I found a nice little thread, looking at the journey that the Heavy Water took. It is a tale of secret operations, spies, buccaneering adventurers waving pistols, and peculiar persuasive pragmatism, worthy of a heist movie. So here it is: 


  • In early 1940 a group of clever French Physicists (Joliot (husband and wife), von Halban and Kowarski) had recognised the potential of heavy water to perform as a moderator in a nuclear fission reaction. The only place in the world where this heavy water (deuterium oxide) was being produced in any quantity was in Norway by Norsk Hydro. Norsk Hydro was effectively controlled financially by the Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas. At the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 almost the entire world stock of any significance was 185kg, held by the Norwegians.  They had already limited the Germans to buying only a few litres a year, and the French had intelligence that the Nazis were seeking much more. Vitally, the French were able to see the importance of heavy water as a weapon component. Interestingly the Norwegians were not aware of that and made an assesment that the German interest had a use in biological research.
  • With the political situation deteriorating and with excellent forethought the French authorities moved to secure this 185kg, using a combination of bank pressure and the pragmatic, persuasive skills of Lieutenant Jacques Allier of the Deuxieme Bureau. I think the reasons were twofold - to secure it for themselves and also to prevent acquisition by the Nazis.  Allier travelled to Norway under a false passport in his Mother's maiden name, via Stockholm.  The French went to some trouble in preparation designing aluminium metal canisters that were specifically built that could be disguised in suitcases. These were made in Norway. They had to be made from metal without any trace of boron or cadmium and some other trace elements which might cause the heavy water useless.
  • There are some indications that the Nazis were aware of the presence of Allier in Norway and had alerted local agents, even providing them with the name that Allier was travelling under. 
  • In a series of meetings Allier persuaded Norsk Hydro to part with their entire stock - 185kg - of heavy water. Nordsk Hydro provided the stuff at no cost despite Allier being authorised to pay a significant sum - Norsk Hydro were left in no doubt as to the military imperative of the material to France.  The material was poured into the 26 five litre special aluminium containers. In two batches then, the Heavy Water started their journey, on 9 March 1940, both ending up by seperate routes in Oslo, where they were stored in a French safe house which happened to be next door to a German Abwehr owned office.
  • The next day, 10 March 1940 a complex operation took place with Allier and a colleague booked with a cargo on a plane to Amsterdam, but conducted a secret "switch" actually boarding a plane to Scotland. Just as well because the Amsterdam plane was intercepted by the Luftwaffe and forced to land in Hamburg - clearly the German knew something was up.
  • As the plane carrying Allier and the first batch of Heavy Water left the coastline of Norway it too was tailed by another plane - but the adventurous Allier briefed his pilot that they were secret agents and persuaded him to "lose" its tail in the clouds. According to one report the plane climbed so high that Allier passed out due to lack of oxygen.  Eventually it landed near Montrose in Scotland.
  • There is a suggestion that the operation to fly out to Scotland was assisted by MI6 in Oslo. One report sugegsts that the MI6 agent, Frank Foley, helped load the plane at Oslo airport. Indeed when the plane landed (another followed the followng day with the remaining heavy water), there were no customs or immigration procedures applied. 
  • After a night in an Edinburgh hotel with the 26 canisters alongside the beds, the French agents, led by Allier, caught the train to London with the canisters stowed in the overhead luggage racks. As we will see this wasn't their last journey on British train luggage racks...
  • From London Allier took the canisters to France by train and ferry and eventually storing them in a cellar in the College de France in Paris. He was given a receipt, on 16 March 1940.
  • Two months later on 16 May 1940, the Nazis invaded France, and the Heavy Water was loaded in a truck and taken 200 miles south to the vaults of a bank in Clermont Ferrand.
  • Soon after the cans were moved, oddly to a women's prison in Monts Dore, and then to the Central Prison in Riom. It is sort of peculiar that prisons were used on this journey (and not for the last time).
  •  Now, Allier reappered on the scene, with instructions to take th e heavy water to London, via Bordeaux, ahead of the German advance.on 17 June 1940, Allier arrived at Riom prison, but the prison governor was reluctant to release the cans. Allier drew his revolver and the governor was "persuaded".  Some prisoners helped load the cans onto Allier's waiting vehicle. The vehicle with Allier and some scientists aboard arrived at a requisitioned school in Bordeaux at midnight. There they received instructions to take the cargo and load it on a coal ship, the "Broompark" in Bordeaux docks. Arriving there in in the early hours of 18 June 1940 they were met on the gangplank by a strange character - Moustached, short sleeved, arms covered with tattoos, two revolvers in shoulder-holsters and swinging a riding crop. It was "Jack Howard", the Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire. Acting as an unpaid "science attache" he was coordinating the Broompark's journey, loaded with Heavy Water, diamonds, physicists and machine tools. Interestingly, the MI6 agent who had been in Oslo two months earlier, Frank Foley, was also at the docks. Later that same day, 18 June 1940 the Broompark steamed out of Bordeaux. The 26 cans had been lashed to a raft on the deck in the hope of saving them if the ship was sunk - clearly Howard knew the importance of the cans, and had probably been briefed by Frank Foley, who had left to head south over the Pyrenees to Spain.  I have picked up that Howard may have stashed a special part of his cargo ashore on the coast somewhere not far from Bordeaux, but it is pretty vague and its not clear at all. one report says that whatever it was was "collected" in a secret naval operation sometime later. Could be a spoof, maybe with the help of Foley. 
  • On 21 June 1940 the Broompark docked in Falmouth England. It had been spotted by a grman aircraft at one point in the Bay of Biscay but no action had been taken against it. So the heavy water was back in England, and once more was loaded onto a train, the express, to London Paddington, with Jack Howard guarding it, unshaven, fierce and with his twin shoulder-holstered pistols on clear display.
  • Arriving in Londonon 22 June 1940, the Heavy Water was again sentenced to imprisonment, this time in a cell Wormwood Scrubs a legendary London prison.
  • Some time later the Heavy Water was transfered, of all places, to Windsor Castle, home of the Royal Family, were, under the watchful eye of the King's librarian, Owen Morshead, it was stored with the Crown jewels. I kid you not.
  • It is possible that in the next two years the Heavy Water was moved to Cambridge were British research into fission was ongoing, but I can find no specific records.
  • The Heavy Water is next recorded as being delivered to the Anglo-Canadian research effort in Montreal, Canada on 1 May 1943. I do not know its mode of transport across the Atlantic. In 1944 the Heavy Water was moved to the Chalk River Experimental Plant on the Ottawa River.
  • In 1946, the French governmment then requested "Could France have its Heavy Water back please?" This clearly caused something of a panic. A note dated 30 September 1946 noted that the "remaining" material was stored in container "T-7" which was 99.5% pure with respect to Deuterium. It was agreed to ship 100ml back to France which accordingly occurred, being flown by Trans-Canada airlies to Paris. So a small quantity returned "home" to the French.
  • In 1947 Drum T-7 containing the Heavy Water was sent to Trail in British Columbia for re-processing. At this point it appears to have been mixed with other Heavy Water, losing its "French" identity.  
  • In 1948 the French, supported by the British, requested return of the material or equivalent from other sources. After some discussion 32.5 pounds of heavy water was shipped to France, via Harwell in the UK in a stainless steel drum.

This may be, at the end of the day, simply a logistics story, but I feel it is a true adventure, featuring bravery, human character and fortitude, and it is a story which may have changed the world.

For more on Jacques Allier, see here.  Frank Foley was another remarkable man, and a little of his life is detailed here.  He helped 10,000 Jews escape Nazi Germany, was responsible for interrogating Rudolf Hess, and played a key role in the Double Cross deception operation using double agents to persuade the Nazis that the Allies would invade the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.  Some more on "Jack Howard" is here


More railway IED attacks from history

I have built an exceptional trove of IED attacks on railways, which I'll blog further about in coming days and weeks. These include:

1. A fascinating and unsolved IED attack on a railway line near Watford, in 1880, using an unusual booby trap switch.

2. A further campaign against the Ottoman train system in Salonika in the early 1900s.  So the Ottoman train system was subject to IED attacks in Salonika (now Greece) in the 1900s, in Arabia in WW1 (Lawrence etc) and in the Dardanelles campaign, WW1 (from submarines). 

3. Attacks on the railway system in the Arab revolt in Palestine, pre WW2.  Of interest the British forces in Palestine applied an unusual,and in today's terms, immoral technique for preventing booby trapped rail IEDs -see the photo below, which shows an improvised armoured rail car behind two Arab hostages.


Also from Palestine, but this immedaitely post WW2, and prior to the establishment of Israel. the railway lines were attacked extensively by the Irgun/Stern gang.  These groups posed a significant IED problem for the British Forces, which I'll write about in coming days - a largely forgotten story, with some challenging EOD situations and challenging IEDs.  This device below uses a bell push which is depressed by a bracket fastened to a sleeper.  I found this image in an official British Royal Engineer publication from 1946 describing Irgun devices.   Note that the device contained a hidden anti-handling switch in addition to the bell push. (Details of that not shown, for security reasons).



The US Navy Sub that destroyed a train, with an IED

I've written a few blogs in the past about IEDs placed under train tracks, that the weight of the train triggers. As a reminder:


  • In the US Civil War, in 1864, the Union Army designed an IED (a "rail torpedo") that initiated when a train ran over a rail , pressing down on a gun trigger that caused the device to function.
  • Another IED design was used in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, with the rail pressing on an artillery fuse to initiate the charge.
  • In the Boer War, in 1901, Jack Hindon used devices under railways to attack British trains, using an upturned Martini Henry gun lock, with the rail bending under weight to press on the trigger which initiated an explosive charge.
  • In WW1, ordnance specialist "Bimbashi" Garland designed and deployed similar devices, again using an upturned gun trigger, and used by Lawrence of Arabia to great effect against the Ottoman Turk trains in Arabia.


I'm glad to say I've now found a similar device, with a great story, from WW2.   The use of the IED was effectively the ONLY US ground combat operation on the Japanese homeland in the entire war. (Noting that the attack took place in southern Sakhalin, which was considered a Japanese home island at the time) .

Late in the war, US Navy submarines begain to patrol very aggressively close to the Japanese mainland. One of the subs was the USS Barb, skippered by Commander Eugene Fluckley. The patrol in question started on 8 June 1945 and involved a variety of attacks including, unusually, firing rockets at Japanese targets from the deck of the surfaced submarine. After noting considerable Japanese railway activity on a railway line near the shore, a plan was developed to blow up a train by putting a team ashore at Karafuto from the submarine.

An improvised device was carefully designed.  As far as I can make out it was as follows:


  • The main charge was a 55lb super-Torpex "scuttling charge" held in reserve on the submarine for scuttling the sub in an emergency. The blasting caps used must have been the ones meant to be used with this charge.
  • Power was provided by two dry cell batteries.
  • The switch was a microswitch removed from some electronic equipment on board.
  • The batteries and circuitry were mounted inside an oil-can to protect it from the elements. Included was a "test circuit" to ensure safety.


The crew made careful calculations to estimate the deflection of the railway line  (7/10", which was adjusted on the operation itself to 1/4") and made an improvised gauge to help the setting of the switch. They also made improvised shovels to help bury the charge under the rails. An eight man team was put ashore in inflatable boats and made their way (with one or two adventures) towards the track.

The charge was succesfully initiated by a 16 carriage train and all the saboteur group escaped unharmed. Commder Fluckley ended the war as the most decorated officer in the Navy. 




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