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 Command IEDs (15)


Command initiated explosive device from 1582

I'm steadily working my way through more military handbooks from the late 1500s when there appears to have been a lot of revolutionary thought going into military technology and explosive device development in particular. My previous post on a grenade was dated 1578, you may recall that Giambelli's ship explosive device was 1584, and I've written before about a postal device in the city of Pskov in 1581.  I've also written before how "gun-locks" were used as initiating devices for explosives over a 250 year period

On that latter point I've just found a gun lock (in this case a wheel-lock) drawn in a manuscript from Germany, dated 1582. The drawing is here and as you can see the design is very clear.

The wheel-lock was a progenitor of the flintlock which came in a few years later, in about 1600. In a wheel-lock a spring-loaded wheel spins against some pyrites held in the cock.  Here you can see how the gun lock has been removed from a firearm and fastened to a frame. A string is attached to the trigger, led around a pulley and away to the person initiating the device. When the target presents itself, the person pulls the string, which pulls the trigger. On pulling the trigger a spring mechanism spins the steel wheel against the pyrites held in the cock. This causes sparks which ignites the fuse. The fuse leads to a barrel of gunpowder hidden nearby.  In a post a few years ago I have an image showing a multiple IED attacks against a military convoy employing these exact devices, so it's good to corroborate the attack with a contempory IED design.

So, this is another example of how explosive device design appears to have developed rapidly at this peculiar point in history, across Europe. I think it is the publication of these handbooks and manuals of military science that seems to be helping - bu I'm afraid I'm not a good enough historian to identify other causes of this bubble of ideas. Comments from proper historians welcome!



Two IED attacks on police during WW2

Here's the story of two curious IED attacks that occurred during WW2. Different in nature, but with some odd parallels between the two. 

The first attack took place in Tel Aviv, Palestine against the British Palestine Police in 1942.  The target specifcially was members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) investigating the extemist "Lehi" group, aka "The Stern Gang". This was a significantly complex IED plot, what might be termed a "double come-on attack", using 3 IEDs, the latter two electrical command-initiated, targeting the responders to the first explosion. Senior members of the CID had had a number of successes against Lehi in the months prior to the attack. In particular Superintendent Geoffrey Morton and his subordinate Tom Wilkin were well known to the Stern gang.  When Wilkin managed to arrest Lehi's chief of staff for shooting a Jewish member of the Palestine Police, the Lehi leader, Avraham Stern, decided on very focused action against the head of CID (Morton) and his assistant Wilkin.

Superintendent Geoffrey Morton

The plot was complex and multi-stage. A small explosion was made to occur in a roof-top room of a house in Yael St, Tel Aviv, as if it was a premature explosion in a Lehi bomb factory. The CIDs response to such an incident was well known and the Lehi assumed that Morton, as head of CID would attend the scene of the incident, along with Wilkin as he normally did to incidents involving Lehi. A second larger device had been hidden in the roof-top room, connected by a carefully concealed command wire to a waiting operative in a building nearby. Another command-wire initiated device was buried in a flowerbed just outside the house, providing another opportunity to attack responding policemen.

When the first reports of the explosion came in, Morton and Wilkin were involved in another matter so tasked other senior Palestine Police officers to the scene, saying they would follow shortly. Three officers went to the the house in question and went up to the roof top. Deputy Superintendent Shlomo Schiff was the leading officer, and was the senior Jewish officer in the Palestine Police. He had been the target of a Lehi assassination attempt the previous year. He was accompanied by Inspector Nathan Goldman and Inspector E Turton.  As they approached the door of the roof-top room the command wire device was initiated. Allegedly the perpertrator mistook the unifomed police for Morton and Wilkin. Schiff was killed immediately and the other two succumbed to their injuries in following days.  Morton and Wilkin arrived shortly afterwards but the third device was not initiated and was discovered later. It contained 28 sticks of gelignite. In police operations that followed a number of Lehi members were shot during raids. Stern himself was shot dead by Morton after being arrested. In a curious after-story, there was an attempt on Morton's life three months later, another command wire IED on a car he and his family were traveling in. He escaped serious injury but later hidden IEDs were found at the cemetery where supposedly Lehi expceted him to be buried, purportedly to attack mourners. 


The second attack took place in Rome, Italy, in 1944, against the German SS "Bozen" Polizie Regiment. The attack target specifically was a mass column of German speaking Italian police, recruited by the Nazis from northern Italy, who regularly walked the same route on parade through Rome.  Thus the column of marching troops provided a predictable target for the attack by the partisan "Patriotic Action Group" (GAP). The regular march by the column of police, paraded through Rome singing, around the Piazza del Spagna and into the narrow street of Via Rasella. The partisans prepared a large charge consisting of a steel container holding 12 kg of TNT, along with another bag containing more TNT and TNT filled metal tubing. The bomb was hidden in this hand cart.


A forty second burning fuze was lit as the marching troop approached (exactly the same technique as used in the VBIED attack against Napoleon in 1800). 28 of the SS policemen were kileld in the explosion. The incident led to very significant reprisals by the Nazi authorities, includng the dreadful Ardeatine massacre where 335 Italians were executed.


I think there are some interesting points shared by these attacks.  Both were against police forces at least partially recruited or sponsored by other nations.  Both exploited the predictability of their targets, albeit in different ways. In both events the aftermath of the IED attacks led to further nasty tragedies. In war the focus of history is on the front line battles between armies. But Home fronts also provide an environment for IEDs and the police are often the targets but are often forgotten in some history books. Patterns of IED tactics seen today appear as we look further and further back in time. 




Railway attack on British troops - 1948

More on interesting railway attacks. During the years after WW1 up to Israeli Independence, the British forces in Palestine came under repeated attack from both Arab and Jewish Groups. I posted a picture of one (immoral) counter-measures used in 1936 against Arab attacks here.  I've also found some details of Jewish militant devices from both Irgun and Lehi (the latter referred to by the British Army as the Stern gang). 

Probably the most significant of the Lehi attacks was in late February 1948, a few days after the VBIED attack carried out by British Army deserters in Jerusalem, described in an earlier blog here. In this railway attack electrically initiated comand wire IEDs were used to attack the train carrying British troops from Port Said near Cairo to Hiafa. The attack occurred just outside Rehovot.  28 British soldiers died in the attack. The command initiation point was in a nearby orange grove, with a full view of the train as it ran along an embankment.


Interestingly the intensity of the bombing campaign was so high in 1946 that the Britsh military, reducing in size following WW2, were short of EOD operators, and so sought volunteers. This is an interesting quote from one of those volunteerrs

"District asked for two volunteers to attend a Bomb Disposal Course in Jerusalem. I don't know how many fools applied but I was one of the Twelve Apostles that found themselves rather hurriedly in Jerusalem. For our tutor we had a hightly experienced Sapper Major; His opening words to the twelve of us as we sat in the classroom in the Police Depot at Mount Scopus were as follows: 'Gentlemen. I have seen Bomb Disposal service in France, the African campaign, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany, and now here. I am wise and experienced, but here I haven't a bloody clue.' It was like a sentence of death." My Trinity, Eric Howard.




Attacking the Tsar's train with IEDs, 1879

A shorter gap between blog posts than usual, as I am prompted by responses to the last one about a railway IED in 1880.  This one is about a series of three IEDs all targeting the same train, all carrying Tsar Nicholas II on a journey from the Crimea to St Petersburg in November 1879.   The attack also allows me to explore once again the concepts of tactical or operational design, which describes how, why, what and when an IED plot is developed and instigated and the factors which constrain or provide opportunity to the development of a terrorist plan.. It also allows me to dissect in more detail why railway IED attacks have seemed attractive over the years.
The group concerned was the revolutionary group Narodnaya Volya. Read upon them if you have time, elsewhere.  The sub groups concerned with this “triple” plot are in interesting mix of revolutionaries, peasants and engineer/scientists.  In 1879 Narodnya Volya "passed a death sentence” on the Tsar in August 1879 for all the reasons you can read about elsewhere.  It then came to their attention that the Tsar, who used the railways extensively to travel throughout Russia, would be travelling from the Crimea where he had a “summer residence” at Livadia, all the way North to St Petersburg.  They therefore could predict, somewhat, his route.  Here we come to the issue about railways, that when you look at it, is obvious but needs pointing out. Railways are attractive to terrorists because:
  • The railway provides a location, somewhere on its length, where a target will present itself. The terrorist knows that the target will be at any specific point along its length at some point, between point A and B, at some perhaps unknown time. So it's a location where the target “will” present itself with a degree of certainty, and the manner of that presentation (in a railway carriage) is also known. This is a factor a terrorist can exploit.
  • In many circumstances, trains are scheduled by a time table. so again the terrorist has a factor he can exploit to a greater or lesser extent. This may give him options for detonating the device, either by timer, or by a victim-operated (train operated booby trap) switch, or by command, allowing the terrorist to only be present at a firing point for a limited period of time, enhancing his security.
  • The lengths of railways lines (in this case hundreds of miles) ensures that the terrorist has freedom to lay a device, when no-one else is around, perhaps at night or at distance from people. Security measures cannot cover hundreds of miles of railway. so there is a freedom of action for the terrorist to exploit. In essence every dark night and in every remote location the authorties are forced to relinquish control of the railway.
  • The nature of railway lines provides additional factors that the terrorist can exploit. Firstly it is easy bury and hide a device under a rail. secondly the fact that a train is travelling at speed adds to the effect of an explosion which might, perhaps simply rupture the lines - a train will then be derailed, and thus the explosive effects can be added too if needed, so as well as explosive damage there is the kinetic energy release of a train crash. Trains have a large mass, and a high speed, potentially, and these are again factors for the terrorist to exploit in terms of energy utilisation, especially on a bridge or embankment.
  • Some other factors, which might appear trivial but which can be important. The railway line can usually be found easily by the terrorist -"Go to station A and walk up the line a particular distance." The rail system itself is a mode of transport for the terrorist and the IED. Railways are large constructions and a train can usually be seen approaching from a considerable distance, allowing the terrorist some freedoms, and some warnings which can again alert him and allow him to be in a dangerous firing point for a limited period of time. The noise of a train at night also provides this “signal” to a terrorist, which can help them.
In this case, the Narodnaya Volya, as was sometimes their wont, decided on three separate IED attacks on the train as it carried the Tsar from the Crimea, northwards to Moscow and on to St Petersburg at different points in its journey, providing a degree of built-in redundancy in their plot. Interestingly it was known that there had been a plot ten years earlier in 1869 to attack the Tsar’s train in Elizavetgrad with explosives. so the “concept” of such an attack was known to the revolutionaries. In effect they had a template half formed in their mind already.  
The group had a “man on the inside’, employed as a railway-guard near Odessa who was able to provide a degree of information.  This probably included the fact that actually the Tsar’s train traveled in convoy with at least one other train, one carrying his entourage, with the Tsar in the second train (according to some sources there were three trains and he traveled in the third). This ruled out the sort of attack described in my earlier blog post about the attack in UK, which was designed to be initiated by a train, because that would simply hit the first train.  Thus the attacks on the Tsar in the second or third train had to be by command initiation.   Three subgroups were formed, one for each attack. They were supplied with over 200 pounds of dynamite made by their technical expert Nikolai Kibalchich in his apartment on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg. Kibalchich carefully tested the explosives and the other components, using as a power source a Ruhmkorff induction coil - which produces high voltage pulses from a low voltage battery (plenty of good you-tubes on such things)
  1. At a point on the railway near Odessa, Kilbalchich and four others developed the tunnel or trench to run the wires to an explosive charge under the railway taking two weeks to get it into position. Kibalchich brought the explosives he had made himself in a suitcase.  Then, days before the expected attack they got news from the insider that the Tsar wouldn't be travelling on the stretch of track they had expected. So they packed up, recovered the explosives and abandoned this aspect of the plot. 
  2. At a village called Aleksandrovsk, a village between the Crimea and Kharkhov a second group of five rented a house close to the railway line.  With difficulty they dug a shallow trench all the way to the railway embankment, laying an electrical cable.  It seems the circuit was faulty and when the circuit was closed nothing happened, and the Tsar’s train passed over unharmed.
  3. At the third point, on the approaches to Moscow, the terrorists successfully detonated the device, electrically, under the second train, not knowing that for unknown reasons the order had changed and the Tsar was in the first train which was allowed to pass safely. In this case the device exploded under the baggage train. Interestingly in the “follow up” the police raided the house where the device had been initiated from and remarked how well everything had been "properly camouflaged" to ensure a casual visitor wouldn't deduce what was going on. More evidence of very careful planning.

So the attacks all failed in their stated intent. But nonetheless Narodnaya Volya claimed a degree of success in terms of derailing the Tsar’s baggage train, and notably announced their pride in planning such a complex operation with care and great diligence. The group saw the attack as a “modern” attack better than confronting the target with a revolver and little chance of escape. Interestingly not long after in 1881 they succeeded in assassinating the Tsar, in St Petersburg, but not by “sophisticated” command devices, allowing their escape but with a bomb simply thrown at the feet of the Tsar, in effect a suicide bomb. 
There has been some discussion about how the Narodnaya Volya attacks may have ben a preliminary inspiration for other railway attacks that occurred in subsequent decades.  But while it may have been something of an inspiration I think that the experience of the US Civil war, where there were a number of IED attacks on railways, and indeed the IED incident I reported on previously in 1870 as art of the Franco-Prussion war, showed the world the potential vulnerabilities of railways to IEDs, well before the Russian events detailed here. 
To return to the tactical and operational design concept. I think it's useful to look in detail at this triple plot, (which failed) compared to the assassination of of the Tsar two years later, which succeeded. An understanding of the design of these plots, and indeed any plot is best elicited (I propose) by asking the following questions of each incident:
  1.  Why did the attack occur here, at this point?   The answer is rarely simple, and indeed some of the factors may not even be recognised by the terrorist perpetrator themselves. A few years ago doing a study of roadside bombs in Iraq, an activity I was associated with established 27 different factors which affected the choice of firing point , route of command wire and initiation point. 
  2. Why did the attack occur at this time?  Again think beyond just time of day.
  3. Why was this target attacked?
  4. Why was this particular device used? Not just the actual device but why this means of initiation, this size, in this container , etc. sometimes an IED is presented to a perpertrator and they have to use it somehow, at other times the device is designed or at least adapted for a particular mission. Understanding which of these options occurred is a useful insight.  Sometimes it is driven by some of the other factors.
Answering as many of those questions as you can will give insights into the expertise, resources and skills of the perpertrator, and also provide other valuable information or suggest other leads for the investigator.  for the historian too these leads may become fruitful as a result. Comparing the answers regarding these attacks in 1879 and the subsequent successful assassination two years later in intriguing - very different operations, yet counter-intuitively the mission with less detailed planning succeeded. How Narodnaya Volya got from planning meticulously three electrically initiated command devices, over the length of the country (all of which failed in one sense) to a much more ad hoc but successful suicide bombing gives insights that are valuable today, I submit.

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.