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 Command IEDs (10)


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.


Prince Rupert's IED

As promised some time ago, here's the story of an attempted IED attack in 1650.

In 1650 the second part of the English Civil War was taking place. A key Royalist commander and former cavalry chief was Prince Rupert. Prince Rupert is a very interesting gentleman, with a keen scientific interest in explosives and invention. With significant experience as a general in the 30 Years War in Europe, his dashing exploits as a cavalry commander in various battles, including Edgehill, and as an extremely ruthless Royalist leader gave him a bogeyman status amongst the Parliamentarians. By 1650 he was commanding a Royalist fleet of vessels, being pursued by a Parliamentarian fleet. 

In 1650, his fleet took refuge in the River Tagus, near Lisbon in Portugal. The opposition fleet also lay at anchor not far off with the Portuguese enforcing some sort of ceasefire between the two fleets while they competed for support from the Portuguese king.  Trade between the merchants of Lisbon and the two fleets was natural, and Prince Rupert tried to take advantage of this.

Prince Rupert designed a large improvised explosive device in a barrel, dressed a member of his crew as a merchant and employed two locals to row a small boat, amongst other trading dinghies, down towards HMS Leopard, the key enemy warship. They entered into a trade to sell the "barrel of oil" with the quartermaster of HMS Leopard, and after agreeing a price the barrel was being hoisted aboard when the Leopard's crew became suspicious. The three man crew were seized and the barrel investigated. It was found that a large explosive filled shell had been placed inside the barrel. A string from the merchant's boat led in through the bunghole, to a pistol. Pulling the string would fire the pistol and ignite quickfuze leading to the shell.  It was clear that the plan was to initiate the device once it had been swing aboard, killing as many of the crew as possible and damaging the ship.

Ten years later, after the war was over Prince Rupert became one of the three founders of the Royal Society. The Royal Society took great interest in research into explosives and related inventions, and Prince Rupert himself published a paper at the Royal Society on an improved recipe for gunpowder in 1662.

Of course, students of modern day terrorism will see the instant parallels with the USS Cole attack in Yemen in October 2000, which again involved perpertators appoaching a warship with an IED, disguised as a local boat in a port.  The investigation after the USS Cole attack noted the following failures:


  • There was no co-ordinated effort to track the movement of small boats in the harbour;
  • The Cole's own small boat, which should have been used to investigate the approach of any suspicious craft, was not ready for launching.

It appears that HMS Leopard was pretty much the same, but luckier.