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 Duck Island (4)


Bomb Alleys

I now have an ulterior purpose in this blog.  I’m considering writing a book on "the history of explosive devices” and doing so in a perhaps unusual way. I propose to write the book in three parts, each part describing a geographic journey.   I have probably 70% of the research done and readers of this blog will recognise parts of the content.
Part 1 describes a walk of perhaps a mile and a half. The walk starts at Westminster Abbey in London and finishes in a church just up the road in Trafalgar Square.  This journey highlights the fact that explosive devices have targeted the centre of government and power over a 500 year period, and also highlights early bomb squad responses.  
Part 2 describes a sea journey along the coast of Europe, beginning in St Petersburg and ending in Lisbon, Portugal.   It highlights how war and revolution has driven the development of explosive device design and tactics.
Part 3 is a car journey in the United States, starting in Connecticut and ending in Florida, highlighting the surprising thread of explosive device use throughout the history of the USA. 
On each case a short chapter will detail the events on the route with a map to provide the theme of a geographical context. I welcome your comments as to whether you might find this interesting or not and of course any incidents on these journeys I have omitted.
Part 1 - A walk from Westminster to Trafalgar Square
This section of the book describes a walk past the sites of various historic incidents and significant places in the history of explosive devices, showing how perceived or actual centres of power have often been the target of explosive devices.  In summary the walk goes like this:
  1. Westminster Abbey. Suffragette Bomb, 1914
  2. The Houses of Parliament discussing the following attacks  The Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes et al 1605   Fenian Bombs in Westminster Hall and the House of Commons, 1885 Westminster Hall  IRA Bomb, 1974  Westminster Palace Yard, assassination of Airey Neave with under car boobytrap, 1979
  3. Whitehall, Fenian bombing 1883
  4. Duck Island Bomb Disposal facility, St James’s Park , established 1894.
  5. Downing street, IRA Mortar attack 1991
  6. Admiralty Building off Horse Guards Parade Square, a peculiar bomb at the same time as Fenian attacks but probably different perpetrators. 1885
  7. Palace of Whitehall, Bomb attack attempt to assassinate Oliver Cromwell (device defused), possibly inspired by the Royalist Prince Rupert 1657
  8. Adjacent to Old War Office Building - launch site of the IRA mortar attack on Downing St. 1991
  9. Old Scotland Yard Police headquarters, Fenian Bomb attack 1884
  10. Nelson's Column. IED consisting of 16 sticks of dynamite defused, 1884
  11. Church of St Martin in the Fields, Suffragette bomb attack 1914
Themes - repetition of attack targets, security measures, Church, State and the Law as targets. Characters discussed Col Majendie, Dr DuPre, Prince Rupert.
Part 2 - A sea voyage from St Petersburg to Lisbon along the Northern European coastline.
This journey highlights how war and revolution has inspired the development of explosive devices
  1. St Petersburg. The assassination of the Tsar by suicide bomb, perpetrated by Russian revolutionaries Narodnaya Volya 1881
    • St Petersburg 1887 - another attempted assassination of the Tsar, by Lenin’s elder brother.
    • St Petersburg. The tsar established a research department to research underwater mines in 1839 - led by Professor Jacobi, later joined bi Immanuel Nobel. 
  2. Baltic sea. The development and deployment of the sea mine using the Jacobi fuse (invented by Alfred Nobel’s father) - the story includes two British admirals blown up in separate incidents in the same day as they investigated recovered Russian sea mines as part of  Weapons Technical Intelligence operation. 1854
  3. Wismar, Germany, Swedish concealed IEDs on ships 1645
  4. Kiel. Siemens deployed an electrically initiated sea mine system to protect the port of Kiel, saving it from being bombarded by the Danish fleet 1848
  5. Copenhagen - Congreve's rockets, and Danish Harbour defence mines
  6. Bremerhaven, Timed explosive device used in attempted insurance fraud by Alexander Keith , the so called crime of the century, 1875
  7. Antwerp  timer initiated Dutch explosive ship (the “Hoop”) device killing more people than any other explosive device ever 1584
  8. Zeebrugge, explosive filled submarine used by the British to attack the Germans in Zeebrugge, 1918
  9. Dunkirk, Dutch Ship bomb, 1588
  10. Hop over the channel to Sandwich for Fulton and the Dorothea, sunk as a demonstration using timed waterborne IEDs, 1805
  11. Boulogne. Operation Lucid, ship IEDs, 1940 (plan did not take place, despite 4 attempts).   Fulton attack 1804 
  12. Dieppe, Admiral Benbow's Ship bomb attack on the French  1694
  13. Spithead, Portsmouth Colonel Pasley , Wreck of the Royal George used electrical initiation to clear a wrecked ship explosively. 1839
  14. Portsmouth Dockyards arson devices, John the Painter, 1776, part of the American revolution
  15. St Malo, Admiral Benbow’s exploding ship, Vesuvius, 1693.  Fulton’s ourrigger IEDs, captured by the French 1805
  16. French Atlantic coast, St Nazaire, Operation Chariot and the explosive ship HMS Campbeltown, 1942
  17. Basque Roads ship bomb attack by Captain (later admiral) Cochrane 1809
  18. Lisbon and Prince Rupert’s royalist bomb attack on the parliamentarian ship the  Leopard in the English Civil War 1650
Themes.  Suicide bombing, Bombs on ships, Timers and initiation, creating terror, concealing devices,The English channel as a battleground, war and revolution providing encouragement to inventors. WTI investigations.  Characters discussed - Jacobi, Nobel (father and son), Giambelli, Pasley, Peter the Painter, Cochrane, Benbow, Fulton and Prince Rupert again.
Part 3. A car journey through the USA
Here I'll highlight the surprising thread of explosive device use weaving through the history of the USA
  1. Connecticut Birthplace of Bushnell and Colt and where early experiments on under water explosion took place. Niantic Bay “torpedo” attack on HMS Cerberus 1777, part of American Revolution.
  2. Millstone Point, CT, Trojan Horse ship IED used against the British, 1812.
  3. New York, centre of global IED activity 1890-1921
    1. Bushnell’s Turtle attack on HMS Eagle 1776
    2. Thomas Tunney, Bomb Squad commander 1905- 1919
    3. Owen Eagen, EOD expert New York, 1895-1920
    4. Fenian bomb schools - Professor Mezzeroff 1880s
    5. Mafia black hand bombings early 20th C
    6. Galleanist attacks New York 1914 onwards, Wall St Bomb 1920
    7. Black Tom explosion 1916 by German saboteurs
    8. Other German sabotage attacks on shipping etc.
    9. Ramzi Yousef 1996
  4. Philadelphia Battle of the kegs, IEDs in barrels designed by Bushnell used against the British 1776, Philadelphia Benjamin Franklin, 1751 Electrical initiation of gunpowder Galleanists attacks 1918, Bomb factory 1883 
  5. Washingtion - Senate bombings 1915,  1983
  6. Virginia, City Point , Fredericksburg railway IEDs,  Raines’s Williamsburg IEDs 1862
  7. Wilmington North Carolina, ship bomb , USS Louisiana 1864 Sinking of the USS Cairo by improvised anti-ship mine 1862
  8. North Central Florida Captain (later Brigadier General) Gabriel Raines set up a victim operaterd IEds to catch Seminole Indians near an Army base. 1839
Themes.  Explosive devices being used at key points in US history. Revolution, Civil war, war and crime. German sabotage campaign. Port defences in comparison to European efforts. Other parallels with attacks in parts 1 and 2 Characters discussed.  Bushnell, Franklin, Colt, Thomas Tunney, Owen Eagen, Brigadier General Raines, Ramzi Yousef.
Feedback welcomed!

1894 Bomb Disposal Techniques

I have blogged before at an IED disposal system and associated organisation set up in Paris, France in the late part of the 19th century.  In my earlier blogs I have discussed the “containment vehicle” used to transport suspect IEDs to one of four disposal sites set up around Paris, and the use of hydraulic presses to dismantle IEDs once taken thefre.

I have recovered a little more detail about both, in some reports written by Colonel Majendie, the British explosives expert, who visited Paris in early 1894 and considered the techniques being used , adapting some for use in London.

Firstly the vehicle and containment system, originally material posted here.   Here now is Majendie’s description:

The bomb is deposited on a quantity of wood shavings or similar elastic material in the body of the phaeton….At one time the idea was entertained of constructing a bomb proof cart for this purpose - or at any rate a cart by which by mans of iron shields would prevent the lateral dispersion of fragments should the bomb unfortunately explode in transit. But the idea was abandoned in view of the fact that infernal machines in some cases contained very large charges of explosives (e.g the machine which exploded at the Rue de Clichy contained between 50 and 60 lbs), and of the considerations, 1st. that the cart which would resist the explosion of such a charge would be proportionally inconvenient to bring into action, besides attracting much attention… and that in the event of a bomb containing a charge in excess of what the cart was calculated to resist exploding therein, the iron and stout structure of the cart itself would probably seriously aggravate the effect. 

Majendie goes on to discuss that the presses available at each of the four disposal sites (which are pictured i the earlier post referenced above) which often succeeded in dismantling the IEDs without them exploding, but on occasion when an explosion did occur, its effect was usually "greatly diminished” by cracking of the outer shell.  Interestingly Majendie also reported three other techniques used during EOD operations:
a. Sometimes small dynamite charges were used to open the container of a bomb.

b. The French also used a mechanical device with three movable arms, or “holders” into which IEDs of different sizes can be fixed and lowered into a bath of mercury. Some devices were sealed with the use of solder and by immersing that part in mercury, for about 24 hours, caused the tin in the solder to dissolve breaking any soldered seal.

c. if the team attending the site of an incident felt it too dangerous to move they would “blow in place”. Majendie disagreed with this approach and recommended a degree of risk to avoid inadvertently seconding and supplementing the anarchist’s intentions.

As a result of the visit, Majendie developed the small, light handcart for transporting devices, that I showed in an earlier post here. The first of London’s disposal facilities was set up in 1894 on Duck Island , with others planned at Hyde Park, the Tower of London and in some circumstances a facility at Woolwich.   Later, in 1895, a truck was provided for transporting devices to the disposal facility by the War Office.  Two years later in 1896, the French authorities were using the first X-ray imaging systems to examine suspect IEDs.



Victorian era Bomb basket

I'm indebted to John Balding for forwarding me this picture. The image, I think from around the 1880s, shows the contraption used by Colonel Majendie, the British Chief Inspector of Explosives, for transporting IEDs.  The IEDs were taken to the EOD facility on Duck Island in St James's Park, Westminster.   I think it is very possible that Majendie copied it from a similar technique used the the French authorities in Paris.

A nicely sprung vehicle, clearly intended to be pushed by a person, possibly based on a "pram".



IED Response Operations 1880 - 1910

For some time now I have been digging slowly and methodically for details of late 19th century techniques for dealing with IEDs, mainly focused on the activities of the London based Colonel Vivian Majendie. As the Chief Inspector of Explosives he had a broad ranging role, including legislation regarding the industrial production and storage of explosives.  But Majendie was also responsible for the response to anarchist and Fenian revolutionary IEDs which were remarkably prevalent at the time.  Remember that the 1890s, for instance, were referred to as “the decade of the bomb” because of the prevalence of explosive devices.

I have mentioned in previous blogs that Majendie constructed a “secret” facility for rendering safe IEDs. His work there was assisted by Dr August Dupre - a German emigre and highly experienced chemist. This facility was surprisingly just a couple of hundred yards from Downing Street on Duck Island at the bottom end of the lake in St James’s Park, opposite Horseguards.
There is a story that the bomb defusing facility still existed in mothballs in the 1970s. To preserve it, the wooden building and its contents were recovered by the Royal Engineers to Chatham in Kent. The story goes that some RE quartermaster in the 1980s felt it was messing up his stores so it was destroyed and scrapped. Sigh. In such a way is Ozymandias sometimes forgotten.
So for a couple of decades I’ve been interested in what equipment existed there - but Majendie’s OPSEC was pretty good.  I think I know where some official files may be that detail it but time has precluded a visit to those archives yet.
But yesterday I turned up a new lead.  Firstly I found a document that detailed some of Majendie’s thoughts on EOD operations. He discussed moving suspect devices in wicker hand carts to one of three locations strategically placed around London. One on Duck Island - close to the heart of government in Whitehall and sufficiently remote in its imediate environment.  One in the “ditch” surrounding the Tower of London, for IEDs found in the financial centre of London, and one in a cutting or quarry in Hyde Park for devices in the commercial district.  It appears that Majendie won approval for the construction of at least two of these (Hyde Park and Duck Island) and that the Duck Island facility was completed first.  But not much of a clue as to what it contained, other than some sort of mechanical contrivance for dealing with the infernal machines. So a bit more digging ensued. Now, I know from other research that Majendie conducted close relations with both the United States and with France. Anarchist IEDs were almost endemic in France at the time. Majendie makes some remark in thre 1880s that he has "adapted the French techniques” and refers to their approach as often blowing the devices up in place - whereas Majendie prefers to move them to his secret facilities to deal with them there.
But then I find an associated reference that suggests that Majendie used equipment of the same kind for defusing bombs that the French used at the Municipal Laboratory in Paris.  A clue, then, and a new avenue.
So, I’ve had some success.
This is a summary of what I have found.  The French authorities established a Municipal Laboratory for dealing with IEDs in some open ground near Porte de Vincennes in Paris and others at 3 other locations elsewhere in the City.  The facility consisted of some earth banks and a series of wooden huts. I think the facility was set up in the 1880s and certainly was still in existence in 1910. This is an image from 1910.
Within this facility was a range of equipments including x-ray equipment (after it was invented) and a very robust piece of machinery called a “Morane Press".  I think this is that key piece of equipment and I have a hunch (nothing more) that Majendie’s facility on Duck Island was somewhat similar in terms of construction, and Majendie too may have used a Morane press. This is a picture of the "Morane press" taken at he the Paris facility, again somewhat later but the press was still in use in 1910.
I then found a beautiful report from 1906 describing the operational routine of the Paris police at the time. The report describes that the occurrence of suspect IEDs in Paris in 1906 was “not at all an infrequent occurrence”.  Some elements of the report:
  • A “bomb squad’ was based at the laboratory and connected by a telephone to central police headquarters.  The headquarters tasked the unit to respond to a suspect IED. The response is described as being similar to a “fire call”.
  • The lead EOD tech has a fast response vehicle, described as a 16 horsepower “racing bodied" automobile. it is followed by an “automobile bomb van”.
  • Six chemists are assigned to the unit, and one always deploys as the lead operator. They work one week shifts, and five weeks off to “recover from nerves"
  • The lead chemist brings the “bomb van” close to the device, and the operator after inspecting it, lifts it carefully , maintaining its positional attitude and places it in a containment box. Perhaops their procedures had evolved from the 1880s "blow in place" policy.
The photograph below may show the response vehicle and a containment vessel.  I can't be sure because I think the photo was mislabelled as “Paris police headquarters, 1920s” but I found the photo amongst other photos of the explosive laboratory and to my untrained eye the vehicle looks like a 1906 car not a 1920s car. I think the black object on the floor might be a containment vessel. The operators are certainly steely-eyed.
  • The report describes how many IEDs of the time were sensitive to movement which changed its orientation - the initiation mechanism was two liquids which, if the device was tilted, mixed and caused a detonation.
  • The bomb van is described a “heavy (voiture lourde) double phaeton 12 hp automobile, refitted from the regular tourist trade, with a pneumatic spring device for gentle running and 120mm tires” 
  • The "bomb box" or containment vessel is placed over the rear springs, opening by a letdown from behind. It is fitted with shredded wood fibre and into this is placed the IED. 
  • The IED is then moved accordingly to the facility in Porte de Vincennes or one of three other such facilities strategically placed around the City ( note the similarity to Majendie’s plan) . The concept is to move the device very quickly in case it is time-initiated.
  • Once at the facility the device is immediately x-rayed after being placed behind an armoured screen. As noted in earlier posts, the French deployed x-ray equipment for security operations within months of the invention in 1896. 
  • At this stage, depending on the x-ray, the device may be manually rendered safe. The report mentions a specific IED were the hands of the timing clock could be seen to be stationary from analysis of the radiograph, allowing a manual procedure to make the device safe.
  • The report then describes the “hydraulic press”. It is tucked in behind earthen mounds. Here's a picture of what I think is the pump that powered the Morane press.

  • And here are the earthen mounds sorrounding the facility

  • The press is used to dismantle IEDs, and if a detonation is caused, the effects are contained. The press is robust enough to survive. Quite often there are detonations several times a week. The effectiveness of the press is described as 75% - three times out of four a device does not explode but the components are recovered for forensic examination.  That’s not a bad strike rate at all, given the sensitive explosives used and the initiation types.
  • The report also stresses how many of the IEDs are not publicly reported in order to keep the public calm
In summary then I think that the Paris facilities are a remarkable reminder that IEDs are not new, and surges in IED use have been seen before. The facility seems to have been in use for about thirty years, and despite the different techniques of today’s bomb squads, their technology was surprisingly effective.  We can’t be certain that Majendie was using the same strategy and same technology in London in the 1890s but I think there is a high degree of likelihood he was. Like today, there was a willingness to share EOD technology, and technical intelligence, between different national agencies. The Paris police clearly had a sophisticated and well resourced EOD unit operating across their city, with a thought-through strategy focused on:
  • reducing damage to property
  • returning the situation to normality as soon as possible
  • technical intelligence and forensically-focused render-safe procedures.