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 France (8)


The Horse's Head and the Horse's Hoof - VBIED Investigation in 1800 and 1920

I have posted before about the vehicle bomb attack in the failed attempt to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris in 1800, details here.  I have now uncovered some fascinating details about the subsequent investigation. This was an extremely high profile incident and initially focus was placed on "The Jacobins", a political opposition to Bonaparte, or indeed the British. But I have found in the memoirs of a French dignitary details of a more thorough investigation headed by Fouche (who I have written about elsewhere).

The device used was in a container placed on a horse-drawn cart in the Rue St Nicaise.  The horse that was harnessed to the bomb vehicle had been killed on the spot, but apparently was "not in the least disfigured". Fouche, the Prefect of Police, ordered that parts of the dead horse including its head be taken to all the horse dealers in Paris to see if they recognised it.  One of them indeed recognised the horse, and was able to direct the police to a specific house.  The woman who "kept the door" identified the occupants who were affiliated within a particular group  (the "Chouans" - a group of "Royalists" and not the Jacobins).  She was also able to detail how the leader of the group had worked on something placed in a "water-carrier's barrel" over a period of six weeks. 

The leader of the group, a man called St Regent, was still in the vicinity of the bomb when it detonated, and was thrown against a post, breaking his ribs. He "was obliged to resort to a surgeon", and the surgeon betrayed him to the police.  He and an accomplice were guillotined.

In one of those fascinating parallels that I encounter occasionaly on standingwellback, the VBIED attack on Wall St, New York City, in September 1920 also featured the remains of a horse as part of the investigation.

In this attack, 120 years after the Paris attack, outside the bank of JP Morgan, a horse drawn cart also exploded. In this explosion, however, the horse wasn't left intact and was blown to bits, not least because the device contained dynamite rather than the gunpowder used in the 1800 device. The investigators were able to recover one of the hooves and took it to blacksmiths across the city.  The blacksmith was eventually identified a month later but by then the investigative trail had run dry.

We sometimes assume that modern day bomb investigators are a new breed of professionals in a new industry. while me way not see many horse drawn vehicle bombs these days, the modes of investigation go an awful long way back.



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.



Explosion at C-IED Lab, Paris, 1938

In a previous blog I detailed the French C-IED facility that existed at the Municipal Laboratory in Port de Vincennes, Paris.  This facility started around 1880, and my earlier post detailed its operations in 1911.

A sister facility existed in the French suburb of Villejuif in 1938.  At that time there was a terrorist campaign of bombings by an anti-communist fascist group called the “Cagoulards”, some of them “false flag” attempts to blame communist groups.  The French authorities mounted a series of security operations.  In 1938 large quantities of improvised grenades were recovered in one such operation.  As was the normal drill these were recovered to a laboratory for examination, some 3000 in all (some sources say 5000). The large quantity resulted in the need to move them to a larger storage facility in Versailles  The French military were tasked to assist the police in the loading of these grenades onto appropriate transport (two military trucks) at the Pyrotechnical Laboratory in Villejuif.  For reasons not understood, (but probably caused by someone dropping one of the delicate improvised grenades into a box of others) there was a large explosion and 14 people were killed including the M. Schmitz the head of the explosives investigations unit at the laboratory.  Three of the five explosive laboratory buildings were destroyed.

Here’s a video of the aftermath.


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. 

Early equipment for X-raying IEDs

The use of emerging technology to counter IEDs appears to be a theme of the moment.  But like many of the themes in countering IEDs, this is another that is not new. In 1895 Rontgen developed our understanding of what are now called X-rays and made public his findings on 28 December 1895. This technology was seized upon with alacrity for a number of purposes, including medical applications and non-destructive testing. There was much discussion about the use of "Rontgen images" in court as forensic evidence. But one of the other applications, implemented in early 1896 in Paris, barely more than weeks after the publication of Rontgen's studies, was the use of both portable and permanent systems to x-ray suspect packages and other contraband. At that time there was a signifcant threat of IEDs used by anarchists, revolutionaries and criminals.

I have posted before some of the x-ray images of IEDs at the time, here. But now I have found some images of the systems themselves.

The Paris Bureau de Post seems to have had a permanent system emplaced in an office in Paris for examining suspicious items of post by about June 1896, image below:

And the Bureau de Doaunes appeared to have two portable systems operating, one at Gard du Nord (below) at about the same time.  Thus, within just a few months the technology was being commercailly exploited in C-IED roles.

I think nowadays you wouldn't get quite so many people crowded around the operation. By comparison modern systems such as AS&Es excellent MiniZ technology still uses the X-ray concept (but in the much safer backscatter application)  - but it's doing exactly the same job as the systems above, it's just a lot smaller and more portable. Take a look at the guy on the right in the image above and the guy on the right in the video below - spookily similar!