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 Garland (6)


Attacking Railway Lines with IEDs using Firearm Initiation Systems

I think I have a final piece of the jigsaw here, that links the IEDs used by Lawrence of Arabia, with IEDs used by Jack Hindon in the Boer War and now, the final piece, with a specific IED designed in the US Civil War.  

My intent here is to show how a specific IED design, improvised from commonly available battlefield materials, that used the weight of a target train on a gun lock trigger mechanism to explode a charge, seems to have begun in 1864, and that design, or very close approximations of it were then seen in the Boer War decades later, and again in WW1 more than ten years after that.  It is of course possible that the design was independently invented - but my supposition is that it was not, and the concept was known by those who deal with explosives in one form or another. The attack mode proved useful in what we would call today "guerilla warfare", often associated with a firearms firing on the resulting shocked and disorientated survivors.

In bringing these together in a historical sequence I am in part repeating earlier blog posts. In uncovering the details I worked backwards but now I'm laying this out in sequential historical sequence, covering a period from the early 1860s to WW1.  I'm specifically looking here at attacks on railways where the weight of the train causes a trigger on a gun "lock" to be initiated - components of firearms were of course used in other sorts of IEDs over many centuries and I have blogged about that here, but that's outside the scope of this post.

1. US Civil War. Union IEDs designed to attack Confederate trains.  As I have blogged before IEDs (then called "torpedoes") were used extensively by both sides in the US Civil War, with perhaps the Confederates making most application of them. After the end of hostilities the Chief Engineer of the US Army, Brigadier General Delafield collated numerous reports on various Torpedos used in the conflict and put them into a historical context, examining the efficacy and appropriateness of use.  I find it intruiging that Delafield, in the decade prior to the US Civil War was one of the US Army's observers in the Crimean War which saw extensive use by the Russians of IEDs.  In the collated reports is a letter written to Brigadier General Delafield by 1st Lieut Charles R Suter, Chief Engineer in the "Department of the South, Hilton Head, South Carolina, on 26 October, 1864. The letter reads as follows:

By direction of Major General Foster, I have this day forwarded by Adams Express, a box containing a railroad torpedo, tools and drawings showing its use.

This torpedo was devised by Charles F Smith, 3d U.S.C.T.

We have not yet been able to try them on the enemy's railroads, but they have been thoroughly tested in experiments. The magazine holds 20 to 30 pounds of powder, and this is sufficient to blow a car off the track besides utterly destroying it. Two magazines can be used with one lock and by regulating the length of the powder train, any car of the passing train may be blown up.  The accompanying tools are simple and light. The idea of the inventor was, to send small parties of men, 3 or 4 in each, with these torpedoes and return. Each magazine is a load for a man. Another man can carry the lock and another the tools.

The manner of laying these torpedoes is as follows: -

The spikes are drawn from three consecutive ties on one side.  A hole is then dug, and the lock placed as indicated in the drawing. The rail is then sprung up and iron wedges placed on the adjacent ties to keep the rail from springing the lock by its own weight. When thus secured, the lock is cocked and capped, and the box closed. The magazine is then buried in the proper place, and the connection made. By using a little care in excavating and carrying off the superfluous earth to some little distance, the existence of the torpedo would never be suspected. The bottom of the arched rail should just touch the lever. Any shock by the bending down the rail pulls the trigger and explodes the torpedo.

In our experiments, a torpedo of 18 pounds was exploded by giving a car sufficient impetus to run over it. The car was entirely destroyed, and rails, ties and fragments of the car were thrown in every direction. One rail was projected 40 feet. 

These torpedoes can probably be used with success in some of the larger armies. Their greatest efficiency lies in destroying the locomotive, which cannot be replaced, whereas a torn up track can easily be relaid.  the magazine should be tarred before being used.

I am, General,

very respectfully,

Your obd't serv't


1st Lieut, U S Engineers & Chief Eng'r D.S.

Here's the accompanying diagram:



The diagram shows a "lock" from a firearm, with a lever engaging the trigger system. This has been "pre-packaged" is a small box with the initiation mechanism causing a fuze to be lit. The fuze is then connected to two containers ("magazines") placed under adjacent sleeper ties.

Despite much research I cannot find a report of a "gun-lock" initiated railway IED in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, five years after the end of the US Civil War.  But railway IEDs were used, initiated by the weight of a train on the fuze removed from an artillery shell and was the subject of my last blog post here

2. The Boer War.  Gunlock initiated IEDs were used by the Boers against British Trains in the Boer war in 1901.  Here's a diagram of the adapated Martini-Henry gun lock. The similarities of the US Civil war design of 1865 are clear.

Pictures of actual gunlocks from these devices are at this page 

3. WW1 - Lawrence of Arabia and Bimbashi Garland's attacks on Turkish trains in ArabiaLawrence of Arabia's campaign against the Ottoman Turks in the Arabian peninsula in WW1 often attacked the railway lines running south. The IEDs that Lawrence used were pretty much identical to the Boer devices, but had been developed by his ordnance specialist "Bimbashi Garland" and former Ordnance Corps laboratory technician who had been co-opted in the Arab Bureau because of his interest in archaeology.  I have no doubt that Garland was aware of the Boer methodology and simply used the same technique. Details are here

In summary then I think it is clear that the use of a gunlock placed under a railway line to initiate an explosive charge began in 1865, with the invention by Charles Smith, for the Union Army.  This technique somehow found its way to ther Boers in 1901, and then was copied again by Garland and Lawrence of Arabia in 1917. 




Attacking Railway Lines with IEDs - 1870

Readers of this blog will know I have written on a number of occasions about the use of IEDs against railway lines.  In one of the “threads" I have followed, I worked backwards from the use of such devices by Lawrence of Arabia in WW1, established that they had been developed and used in Arabia , by “Bimbashi” Garland, Lawrence’s explosive mentor, a former Ordnance Corps Laboratory technician, and traced the design of these devices back to the Boer War where they were used by Boer guerrillas led by Jack Hindon against the British. Devices under railway lines were also used by Russian Narodnaya Volya terrorists in 1879 and in many attacks since then.    In digging around the provenance of the Boer devices I found a vague reference to the experience of a Boer who had fought in the Franco-Prussian War 30 years earlier, that the Boer's utlised.  Here’s a list of previous posts on the matter in the order I wrote them.
I have been digging around reports on the Franco-Prussian war for some time, hampered by my sadly limited language skills, looking for something that might indicate where the Boers had gained their experience of blowing up trains using a pressure switch activated by the weight of a train. At last I have found something that fits and it’s pretty interesting. In 1870 a young Royal Engineer officer, Lt Fraser, was observing the events of the Franco-Prussian war, a habit that many armies followed in the 19th century. Lt Fraser wrote a paper, published, in the Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Vol XX in 1872. The paper is entitled  "Account of a Torpedo used for the Destruction of a Railway Train on the 26th of October, 1870.”  As a reminder the word "torpedo" was used at the time to describe a much wider variety of explosive devices and munitions than is applied today.  
Here is a brief extract from a third party source, as I await a hard copy of the publication in the post which I hope will contain more detail:
Learning that a Prussian troop train was to pass through Lanois (on the line between Reims and Mons) on October 26, 1870, they resolved to effect its destruction. How they operated is told by Lieutenant Fraser, R. E., who arrived on the spot shortly afterwards, and heard the story from some of the men engaged on the work. 
Any obstruction placed on the line would have been seen. Hence a different course had to be adopted. Selecting a spot where the line ran along a 12-ft. high embankment, to which a well-wooded slope came down on one side, the franc tireurs took up a pair of rails, removed the sleepers, cut a deep trench across the line, laid some pieces of iron at the bottom of the trench, placed on the iron a box containing thirty kilos (2 qrs. 10 lbs.) of powder, and fixed into the lid of the box a French field shell in such a way that, when the rail was replaced over the box, the head of the fuse would be just below the lower flange of the rail. In restoring the line again in order that there should be nothing to attract attention, the franc tireurs omitted one sleeper so that the weight of the locomotive should in passing press the rail down on to the head of the fuse. The party—some seventy-five strong—then withdrew to the shelter of the woods to await developments.   

In due time the train of forty coaches approached at the ordinary speed, the driver not suspecting any danger. When the engine reached the spot where the "torpedo" had been placed, an explosion occurred which tore up a mass of earth, rails and sleepers, threw the engine and several carriages down the embankment, and wrecked the train. Those of the Prussian troops who got clear from the wreckage were shot down by the franc tireurs under the protection of their cover. The number of the enemy thus disposed of was said to be about 400.
I think there is a clear link to the device I report in the my previous blogs about the depressing rail activating a pressure sensitive switch albeit in this case an artillery fuse, and not the trigger of a rifle breech as seen in the Boer War and used by Garland and Lawrence in Arabia.  The device too has a link to the earlier pressure sensitive devices, using artillery shells with contact fuses adapted to initiate on pressure used by General Raines in the American civil war in 1862.



Title of this magazine article is interesting...

My old friend Panjandrum saw a military history magazine in a newsagent's today and took this image of Page 35.

Given the title of the article in the magazine, this blog's title, and this piece from this blog in 2012, that's a fine coincidence!  

For what it is worth I'm pretty sure that Garland didn't serve in the Boer War as the magazine articles suggests, but I have no doubt the concept of initiation system came from there. 



IED triggers

In two earlier posts I wrote about how Lawrence of Arabia and Bimbashi Garland used rifle trigger mechanisms to blow up Turkish trains in World War 1, and that they appeared to have been copying an earlier design used by the Boers and Jack Hindon against British trains in the Boer war in 1901.  To remind you here's the diagram again.

I'm grateful that Dennis Walters in South Africa, who is writing a book on the Boer attacks on trains, has forwarded to me photos taken in the Royal Engineer Museum in Chatham, Kent, of a recovered trigger mechanism found under a railway in the Orange Free State on 20th June 1901.   I'll pass on details of Dennis's book when it is published, but in the meantime, here are the photos:


Garland's first IED attack

I continue to be interested by the story of Herbert Garland detailed in this blog a couple of weeks ago.   I have found some more details here (the primary source being Garland’s own reports held in the UK National Archives) of Garland’s adventures.  Garland had a very dry sense of humour and his reports are full of droll phrases.

Some examples:

Garland went to the town of Yanbu in what is now Eastern Arabia to help the Arab revolutionaries defend it against the Turks.  The defences were short of firepower, but Garland found an ancient Turkish cannon at the fort but as it “was apt to fire astern instead of forward we relied on its warlike appearance to help us scare off the Turks”

Here’s his own words describing  the first IED attack on the railway at Toweira station, I think on the night of 20 February 1917. After a week’s camel ride to the attack point, Garland argued over the tactics for the IED attack with his Arab guide. The guide wanted him to place the device and then scarper, but garland wanted to watch the explosion from a nearby hill. As Garland says “The approach of the train five minutes after starting work settled the matter.”

The trains rarely ran at night which was the cause for surprise. Garland, hearing the shriek of a whistle followed by the squeal of wheels was startled. He scrabbled for the three 5 pound cartons of dynamite which he jammed into the hole under the track he had started excavating.   He pulled from under his black Arab cloak the action of the old Martini Henry rifle. Its barrel had been sawn off and the trigger guard removed so that all that was left was an oblong of brown steel from which the trigger protruded, exposed.  This he loaded with a round of ammunition.. Turning the mechanism upside down, so the trigger was uppermost he wedged it under the rail, bullet pointing into the explosive, trigger brushing the rail above.  The lights of the engine were now close, barely two hundred yards away, travelling at, he guessed, 25 mph.  He got up and ran “ I wished I had devoted more time to physical training in my youth,” he says. His Arab robe swirled around his legs, as if determined to trip him up. Beneath his bare feet, the stony ground felt like ”carving knives, bayonets and tin tacks”.

As the locomotive’s front wheels passed over the device , nothing happened, but a split second later the heavier driving wheels of the train flexed the track enough to pull the trigger.  The explosion threw the train from the track, followed by the carriages behind it as they fell down a stony embankment with a “clanking, whirling and rushing” noise.   It was “the first time that the Turks have had a train wrecked” he reported. Some commentators have said it was the first ever act of sabotage committed by the British Army behind enemy lines.  I’m not sure of that – its an interesting thought – if any reader of this blog can think of an earlier sabotage attack by the British, please let me know.

 I’m truly fascinated that Garland was copying, in part, the IED design used by the Boers some 15 years earlier.  I’ve blogged an image of that Boer device before – but here it is for ease.  Somewhat different but very similar in many ways.



I’m intrigued as to how Garland learned about and decided to copy the Boer IED.  The concept of using a bullet fired from a gun as an initiation mechanism was not that unusual - indeed some of the fenian devices of the 1880s used a similar principle.

In looking closely at the role of the Arab Bureau, of which Garland and Lawrence were part a couple of interesting things come out:

Firstly, while I admire Garland’s efforts immensely, of course I’m torn because essentially he was planting IEDs and I’m normally interested in defeating IEDs and view with contempt those who plant them so there is a dichotomy there that I’m struggling with.

If you were to think of modern day night vision images of local terrorists  planting roadside IEDs being planted next to a road in Iraq or Afghanistan there is very little difference between that and the descriptive image Garland gives of himself scuttling away from the railway track near Toweira in 1917.

Separately I’m intrigued as to the parallels with the Arab Bureau and modern day “special forces operations” in terms of working within a country aiding revolution, identifying future leaders amongst a revolution, encouraging the right people, discouraging the “wrong” people, and enduring battle alongside indigenous forces.   Garland and indeed Lawrence didn’t regard themselves “special forces” and were essentially amateur, but there is no doubt that the paradigm they developed by the seat of their pants is identical to certain SOF principles being developed (again) today.

Next I'm going to hunt out details of Garland's grenade launcher.