StandingWellBack

You can contact me at rogercdavies(atsquiggle)me.com  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.

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Entries in Curious (3)

Friday
Mar022018

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

Friday
Oct192012

Suspicious shrapnel

Interesting report in today's newspapers here, suggesting that this former soldier Ronald Brown had 6 oz of shrapnel in his body since a mine exploded under him in 1944.  With all due respect to the man concerned, now passed away, a genuine veteran who did recieve wounds in 1944, I pretty much doubt that German mines or booby traps had wire staples as fragmentation, or contained "philips" screws... which while invented in the 30's, I doubt were yet components in German munitions.

Saturday
Aug212010

Life and grief

I went to a grim and glum funeral of a good man this week. Like most of us in these circumstances it turned my mind to the meaning of life and the meaning of death and the boundaries between the two.  For a period of his life he had been at the forefront of a battle against terrorism, and had suffered badly and bravely in that battle. In some ways his wounds were still unhealed 16 years later.  He, and the community of his colleagues, men who shared some of his experiences, have their whole lives defined to a greater or lesser degree, both willingly and subconsciously, by their role in that battle. Lives of people who deal with IEDs are defined, to an extent, by their actions during a very small percentage of their allotted span. That’s usually OK, but not always.

There are understandable reasons for lives being defined in this way. It’s partly because it’s the summit of a pyramid of training and preparation for a challenging task.   Its partly because you know most people will never understand what you do, and partly because the community of your colleagues, who do understand what you do, encourage it.  But there are negatives that come with it and I felt uncomfortable this week because this man’s life had become defined by what went wrong at the top of that pyramid and maybe he couldn’t come to terms with his false view that an incident beyond his control was a reflection on himself. I don’t doubt the man’s capability and I often used examples of his specific EOD operations as exemplars to others about the need for thoroughness and meticulous thought when dealing with complex IED attacks.  I wish I had told him that, God I wish I had told him that. 

The shared experiences of brothers in arms are desperately needed in these circumstances. The glances, comments, language, attitude and in-jokes  are a hand rail on a ship in stormy seas.  Burton Dassett felt like Wootton Bassett on Thursday.