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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 Command IEDs (11)


IEDs in Belfast - 1922

Ian Jones has passed me details of IEDs in Ulster in 1922. Ian is a real EOD history guru and I recommend his excellent books

In 1922 Ireland was still being fought over and Irish republican bomb attacks were still relatively frequent (see my earlier posts such as this

Belfast was no different and a range of IEDs were encountered. There are details below of some interesting devices.  But note that the military response to these was by the Royal Engineers, not the RAOC who later became responsible in the province for such activity.  In a report published in the Royal Engineer Journal, which I cannot reproduce here for copyright reasons,  Captain EW T Graham-Carter reports a series of incidents that his Unit responded to. 

1. An attempted bombing of a telephone junction box in Arthur Square in the centre of Belfast, two IRA men disguised and equipped as telephone repair men opened a manhole cover and left a times device behind. A Sapper Unit was requested to deal with the device. The manhole was filled with water by the Fire Brigade (!) and after three hours the package was removed. The device, wrapped in sacking, consisted of a wooden box with a slider switch on the outside. The timing device was an adapted alarm clock. (There are pictures in the journal). The device failed because the alarm clock had not been wound up. The main charge was an unidentifed home made explosive or incendiary material (possibly sodium chlorate and sulphur). The initiators were interesting - two glass tubes sealed with insulating tape with two copper electrodes immersed in magnesium flash powder. Subsequent experiments were able to cause the main charge mix to explode. 

2. A series of other devcies are interesting because like many modern devices in the Middle East they utilised artillery shells, in this case 18pdr, but filled with home-made explosive. These were left in a number of "picture-houses" (cinemas), but on a number of occasions failed to function and were recovered by the Royal Engineers.

3. Other devices were designed to be hidden by or in roads. One found near Armagh consisted of hollow concrete blocks, 9in X 9in X 9in, with the addition of scrap metal as improvised shrapnel. It held 5lbs of explsoive and was initiated electrically by a command wire of 300 yards in length. 

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Apart from the Sappers that is. 


Command-initiated IED described in 1650

I'm steadily working through a book that was published in Latin in 1650, "The Great Art of Artillery" by Kazimierz Siemienowicz.  The book was translated into French, then from there into English in 1729 and of course that's the version I'm studying. The breadth of subjects covered is remarkable, including physics, chemistry, mathematics, explosive processing, explosive storage and other related things.  There's a lot about artillery and some interesting rocket technology related to my earlier post about the English rocket experimenter Robert Anderson who was making his rockets in 1696. I have an interesting blog post "cooking" on the technical similarities of rocket design from these two engineers, working in different countries 46 years apart. And readers of this blog will recall that the revolutionaries in Dublin in 1803 used Anderson's rocket manufacturing instructions and it is very possible that one of the revolutionary Irishmen went to Woolwich in subequent years to assist Congreve in the manufacture of his rockets. Give me a few weeks to bottom out that detail and assess the apparent links, but this 1650 document is pretty remarkable in its technical detail, with multi-stage rockets being explicitly manufactured. 

As well as covering artillery and rocketry, amongst the book are also numerous references to improvised explosive devices. For example there's reference to a large barrel or cylinder shaped IED used in the Seige of St Andrews in 1546 that killed 321 and injured hundreds of beseigers. Ths large barrel containing "powder, stones and Iron bolts" was rolled down amongst the enemy.  I'm trying to find a cross or supporting reference for that, as that's pretty early in my historical time line of IEDs. Siemienowiz quotes his reference to the St Andrews device as being written by an Italian in a book called "Precepts in the Modern Art of War" that must have been published prior to 1650. Unfortunately the name of the Italian author is not clear and varies between translations and I have yet to unearth it. 

Here's another example from Siemienowicz referring to command initiated improvised devices using the flintlock mechanism I have described in some recent posts - remember this was written in about 1650.  This text below is from a 1729 translation:




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. 


Augmented reality and explosive initiation - an historical mystery

There is much focus today on "augmented reality” technology and a fair proportion of this is in the defence world. Systems like the Google Glass project and a number of others can be used or adapted to add visible data and tactical information and analysis to a soldier, overlaying that data on what he is seeing. Very hi-tec. So I was surprised when during some research I came across the details of a genuine Augmented Reality technology being used for a defence fire control system in the 1860s over a 150 years ago.

During the 1860's a room-sized camera obscura was used to conduct military research in Belgium. The system was set up to project a "live view" of the River Scheldt in which an electrically initiated underwater mine had been placed. That view was projected onto a large table. The operator of the camera obscura marked the position of the submerged mine on the viewing table, in effect as a data overlay with the image. An enemy ship passing over the mine could therefore be seen and as it approached and when in the optimal position, the mine could be exploded by remote control. The experiment was repeated in Venice in 1866 by Austrian engineers who then held the city, with more elaborate steps to pinpoint the location of the mine, and in this case a series of mines.  As a small boat laid each mine, the operator recorded that position and marked it on the image table.  The boat then did a full circle, I’m guessing 20ft around each mine position, and the operator recorded that circle on the viewing table, in effect becoming a specific kill zone, for each individualy activated mine, presumably numbered,  overlaid on the live image.  This ingenious arrangement was never tested in action.
Doing some more digging on this subject I have found oblique references to the connection with Samuel Colt the American inventor. Colt did indeed develop systems for initiating observed river mines in the 1830s, and this poor diagram, dated 1836 labeled "Submarine Batary first thorts 1836”, drawn by Colt, seems to indicate a reflecting lens which might project an image onto some form of viewing screen. To me that looks like a version of a camera obscura.
This second diragam, an overhead diagram, might be interpreted as a viewing position with a lens in the building at the very top, which projected a view of the scene over a set of terminals for initiation.
This third diagram, again by Colt begins to make sense, perhaps. Note the large lens in the upper right, I think reflecting the camera obscura image onto the actual reflective control panel.  Thus the image is projected onto the swiches. I think….
Colt was incredibly secretive about his inventions, but I think there is a very good possibility Colt had invented something similar to (and possibly more sophisticated than) the 1866 Austrian camera obscura system, but 30 years earlier, or at least had the concept in his head. Due to Colt’s obsessive secrecy I can't be quite sure.  It is possible that as well as protecting the commercial rights to the system with this secrecy, Colt was also very aware that the observation towers housing the “camera” had to be placed on prominent, well visible, high ground - making them potential targets for the dastardly British fleets which his systems were designed to combat. There were plenty of good reasons to keep the observation system secret.  So it is intruiging to wonder how a system, somewhat similar ended up on the River Schelde some years later.
It would be interesting to replicate Colt’s augmented reality fire control system of 1836, wouldn't it? 



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.