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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 China (4)


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.

A most unusual IED attack from the Russo-Japanese war

I've found a new source of interesting historical explosive incidents that will fill several blog posts.  But I couldn't resist posting this story straight away. (It's a little apocryphal I admit). Stand-by for more from this source.

During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, a certain Russian officer was an impatient, overbearing martinet. He took particular pleasure in treating his Chinese servants with the utmost of harshness, for the slightest delinquency or indeed for no reason at all.  One of his favoured forms of punishment was to dismiss his servants and as they left kick them roundly around the backside as they left through the door.

 On of his servants became very irritated with this treatment, and one day related the circumstances to a man he met who happened to be a Japanese spy. The spy gave the Chinese servant much sympathy and promised him a solution - a pair of padded breeches which he would supply himself the following day. A rubber hot water bottle was filled with absorbent cotton wool and topped up with nitroglycerine. An initiation system using a percussion cap was fitted alongside such that any blow would cause detonation. The unfortunate Chinese servant was oblivious to this, thinking that he had a fine, but bulky new pair of trousers which would protect him. 

At the next meeting the servant inadvertently spilled a little tea on the officer's uniform. Thereupon the master raged and raged and dismiised the servant in the usual way, but with perhaps a little more preciptation than usual.

One of the officer's legs was blown off, an arm was crushed, four ribs were broken and the Russian was unconscious for a good period of time. When he came to, he found himself a prisoner of the Japanese who had overun the hospital.  The Chinaman, well, he was never seen...




Chinese River IED of 1857

Here's an interesting story about a failed IED attack on a British Naval vessel in 1857. Britain was at war with the city of Canton in China in what was called the "Opium War". Two British naval vessels, the "Niger" and the "Encounter" were patrolling the Pearl River. A couple of months earlier two small boats had exploded next to the Niger, so a strict policy of look-outs and challenges was being enforced to keep small boats at bay.  At 4 am on 7th January 1857, a look-out on the Encounter spotted a man in a small boat sculling towards the ships. He challenged him and on not getting the appropriate response, shot him dead.  A ship's boat was launched and they recovered two large explosive charges, each with over a half a ton of explosives. The charges consisted of sealed wooden barrels weighed down with stone so that they only just floated. Protruding from the barrel was a gunpowder filled tube to a small platform on which glowing embers were placed. The embers were kept seperate from the gunpowder in the tube by a metal tray or slide atached to a piece of string. The render safe procedure used was to splash water onto the embers.  The plan was that the two barrels linked by rope would float down and the rope fastening them together would catch the bow of the Encounter, then pushing the barrels close either side of the ship. Then the boatman would pull the string to pull out the slides on each barrel, causing the glowing embers to ignite the gunpowder. 

Here's a picture of one of the two charges.

The tactical design has great similarities to British IED attacks in 1804 on the French, although the initiation system is somewhat exotc.


Early Chinese Victim-Operated IEDs

I’ve been “following my nose” looking for some early historical uses of victim operated or booby trap IEDs and found an interesting reference to an intriguing Chinese IED of the 14th century.  While there are references to both command and victim operated IEDs in China a century earlier (connected to war against Kubla Khan’s Mongols) there is a Chinese text called the Houlongjing (Fire Dragon Manual) from around 1350 which contains some fascinating detail of booby trap IEDs and their initiation system.

The Huolongjing describes IEDs constructed from iron spheres filled with gunpowder, and within a range of other IEDs describes two of particular note, translated as the “ground thunder explosive” and the “self-trespassing” types.  The text says the following:

These mines are mostly installed at frontier gates and passes. Pieces of bamboo are sawn into sections nine feet in length, all septa of the bamboo being removed, except the last; and it is then bandaged round with fresh cow hide tape. Boiling oil is next poured into the tube and left there before being removed (I’m guessing these measures are to waterproof the container.)   The fuse starts from the bottom of the tube and the explosive (blackpowder) is compressed into it to form an explosive mine. The powder fills up eight tenths of the tube, while lead or iron pellets take up the rest of the space:, then the open end is sealed with wax. . A trench five feet in depth is dug (for the device to be concealed). The fuse is connected to a firing device which ignites when disturbed.

The Houlongjing then describes an initiation mechanism for this device as consisting of a steel wheel, which directed sparks onto the connection of fuses running to the buried explosive charges. That alone is interesting, but a further Chinese document of 1606 adds detail, about a flint connected to the steel wheel and the steel wheel being driven by a weight drive. There appears to have been some sort of pin release caused by the victim stepping on a flexible board, which releases a weight on a string. The string is wrapped around the axle of the steel wheel or wheels , to which a flint is attached. The flint rotates round striking a steel, causing a spark, which initiates the IED.

There’s a connection here to the invention of the wheel-lock mechanism by Leonardo da Vinci in about 1500. I’m pretty certain that as well as being used as the initiation mechanism for muskets, wheel-locks began to be used as IED initiation systems in the late 1500s.  Of course too there is a link between the weight drive of the Chinese IED and the development of weight driven clocks with escapements.  Technology development is interesting when various aspects run in parallel.

There are some detaield diagrams of the initiations systems in the Houlongjing but I confess I can't yet make head nor tail of them.