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 German Sabotage (5)


Going Around and Coming Around

During World War One there was an extensive IED sabotage campaign run by German agents and diplomats in North America.  I have written in previous posts about some of these bombing incidents. See:
One of the protagonists, or “players” in this great game was a young aristocratic German military officer, serving as diplomat on the staff of the German Embassy in Washington., His name was Kapitan Franz von Papen.  
Von Papen in 1914 (public domain)
Von Papen was a man who clearly enjoyed intrigue. As well has involvement in the German sabotage campaign in 1915, he was also involved in discussions as an intermediary to Irish revolutionaries looking for a  supply weapons for the Easter rising of 1916, and was involved in liaison with Indian nationalists as part of the Hindu German Conspiracy.   In December 1915 he was declared "persona non grata" by the US government because of alleged complicity on the Vanceboro Bridge bombing .   Travel home to Germany was challenging, but Von Papen received a diplomatic document, a Laissaiz Passer, meaning he travelled via Falmouth in England knowing he could not be detained by the British under diplomatic law.  To his horror the laissez passer did not cover his luggage and in front of him on the dockside at Falmouth the British officials opened his bags finding code books and incriminating documents.
Documents were found which detailed the payment of over $3Million to the German agents involved in the sabotage campaign.   Transcripts of the seized documents are available here and make fascinating reading.  His cheque stubs were annotated with signifgcant detail such as “for the purchase of picric acid”  “for dum-dum investigation” and exposed several agents who lived in England but were offering services to the Germans.   Of note is the Germany authorities in Berlin asking him to find out details of how Mexican revolutionaries were blowing up trains in 1914, "in order to form an opinion whether, in the event of a European war, explosions of this kind would have to be reckoned with".
One can magine the apopleptic Prussian officer watching as the British officials simply opened his bags and took the documents out.       Further documents linking Von Papen to the Bombing Campaign in the US were discovered in a Wall Street office he rented. Other documents incriminated the Austria Ambassador who was collecting munition shipping data for the Germans.  One might have thought that Von Papen would have learned his lesson.  But no….  In a later parallel, while serving with the Ottoman Army in Palestine the following year, he left behind a suitcase in a room he was using in Nazareth as the British advanced. In it, papers were found belonging to him incriminated several agents he was running locally.  All in all then, Von Papen's spy-craft was pretty shoddy.              
In 1916, an US indictment was issued against him for plotting to blow up Canada’s Welland Canal, based on the seized documents from Falmouth.  He remained under indictment as he rose in the ranks of the German inter-war political scene, becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1932, at which point the US charges were rescinded.   There is this rather nice quote about Von Papen at the time by the French Ambassador “His appointment to Chancellor of Germany was met by incredulity. He enjoyed the peculiarity of being taken seriously by neither his friends nor his enemies. He  was reputed to be superficial, blundering, untrue, ambitious, vain, crafty and an intriguer.”   He was subsequently easily out-manouvered by the Nazis.  He was then made Ambassador to Austria, in the run up the the Anschluss.
In 1939 he was appointed as Ambassador to Turkey, where the intrigue of the war years suited his inclinations, if not his expertise. The Turks initially objected pointing out that his previous diplomatic activity had involved sabotage in the US and subversion in another (Austria). but he was appointed.  In 1942 a peculiar incident occurred, an act of intrigue against the man with so much experience of it himself.  There are conflicting version of this story but it would appear that the most convincing is this:
The Russian intelligence service , the NKVD, decided to assassinate Von Papen.  After an abortive attempt to incorporate a Czech officer, they found a Yugoslav born communist, now Turkish,  to conduct the mission. The perpetrator was told to shoot Von Papen who regularly strolled along a particular avenue with his wife, then cover their escape by triggering a "smoke bomb”.  But with NKVD subterfuge the smoke bomb wasn't a smoke bomb at all, but contained a large amount of high explosive. The perpetrator fired one shot at Von Papen, which missed then immediately triggered the smoke bomb’ which exploded blowing the shooter to pieces.  His penis was found in a tree and a distinctive wart on the skin near an eyebrow was also recovered from the scene.   The NKVD had also , allegedly planted documentation in the device packaging suggesting the perpetrators was from the German Embassy itself. Another version suggests that this was “reported” by TASS as disinformation.   Then idea was that the assassination would occur and the perpetrator would be blown to bits to reduce the risk of the incident being compromised as an NKVD operation. 
Von Papen and his wife survived the attack, shaken but largely unharmed. For what it is worth Von Papen suspected the British. The Russian embassy hinted that the Americans “knew” it was the gestapo who were responsible.  The turks arrested the "station chief” of the NKVD (officially listed as an “archivist”)  at the Russian embassy . This occurred amongst diplomatic uproar as the Turks surrounded the Russian embassy for two weeks demanding he be handed over.   Two other emigre Yugoslav communists (from the Muslim community) were also arrested.  These latter two confessed that the Soviets had ordered the assassination.   They claimed that the Russians had given the perpetrator, Omer Tokat, a revolver and the supposed smoke bomb. all defendants were found guilty. Things got complicated in subsequent appeals (too complex to explain in a short blog).
After the war Von Papen was convicted at the Nuremberg trials , released in 1949 and died 20 years after that.   



Mystery Sabotage Device, 1918

This post is a bit of a puzzle, that I may need some help with. I’ve blogged before about the German sabotage campaign on the east Coast of America in 1915 here:                                                                                      
And indeed I’ve built up a bit of a presentation on German sabotage in 1915-1917 which I may get round to posting here.  In brief summary, German agents either operating out of the German Embassy or operating undercover developed a systematic and effective sabotage campaign to disrupt munitions and other cargoes being shipped to the European Allies of France, Russia and Great Britain, before the US entered the war.   There is documentation that certainly 35 ships were firebombed, and an additional 39 suffered suspicious fires.   Many sabotage events were downplayed or not reported so the number could be significantly higher.  A number of munitions factories in the US attacked. Five US Navy warships suffered fire damage, and the USS Oklahoma and USS New York, two new battleships under construction were almost completely destroyed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
Most of the cargo ships sabotaged in 1915 were attacked with small incendiary devices, the size of a cigar. These contained sulphuric acid in one small compartments separated from picric acid or potassium chlorate, by a copper disc.. The copper disc was dissolved over time (usually several days) and then the sulphuric acid was in contact with the other compound causing a violent ignition.  Typically a number of these “cigars" were secreted in the cargoes in a ships hold by stevedores of German or Irish extraction in US East Coast ports. Some devices were made aboard German ships, interned in US ports when the British blockaded them.  One in particular, the “SS Friedrich der Grosse” of the NordDeutschland Lloyd line was docked in New York and German agents ferried the devices from the ship to the dock workers to hide on board munitions and cargo ships.  Other cigars or “pills” as they saboteurs described them, were made in the laboratory of the designer, Dr Scheele at 1133 Clinton Street, Hoboken, New Jersey.
The “cigars" were to a design develped by a German sympathiser, Dr Scheele, and are reported to have been about 4 inches long. Once initiated they ejected white hot flames from both ends.                                                                
Now, there appears to have been more than one design.  In a diagram produced by another saboteur, Frederick Hermann, the construction of the incendiary appears a little more complex, than simply two compartments in a lead pipe separated by a copper disc.  It is hard to interpret the diagram below but I note that the compound to which the acid mixes is described as chlorate and sugar, which will make a difference to its explosive effect, depending on relative qunatities of the mixture. The diagram appears (I think) to show an upper reservoir of sulphuric acid, a “neck” halfway down labled “c” (for copper, presumably a copper plug and not a disc), and below that the chlorate with sugar. Wax probably closed both ends.
It should be noted that to work effectively the cigar needs to be positioned vertically, to allow the acid to dissolve the copper and then fall into the chlorate-sugar mix.  Only a proportion of the devices functioned and some were recovered by French and British governments in ports in Europe.  In 1915 this activity was being led by two officers from the German embassy , Karl Boy-Ed, and Kapitan Franz von Papen. Later in 1915 a secret agent of the German Navy Franz von Rinteln was sent to encouage the sabotage campaign.    In a range of investigations led by the head of the NYPD bomb squad, Thomas Tunney, who was seconded to Military Intelligence, the German sabotage cells were largely disrupted. By 1917 the US had entered the war,  Rinteln was captured and imprisoned in England and the others had been arrested, expelled or in the case of Dr Scheele, escaped to Havana.                                                                                                                                        
Given that history  it was intriguing to find a report on the Australian War Memorial blog about an incendiary device recovered from a  ship in 1918, possibly in Liverpool, from a ship arriving from the US. By 1918 most of the German sabotage cells had been rounded up, also the design of the incendiary device is somewhat different.                                                                                                                                                        
These images are included on the AWM blog and I'm grateful for their kind permission to reproduce them here.
Working from the photographs alone, it appears that the knurled steel “head" appears to have two openings in it, closed by bolts.  I would have perhaps expected only one, to simply fill with acid.   The main body appears to be copper and the strange shaped base appears to be aluminium (?), corroded by a galvanic reaction.  The base is an odd design.  This device, bigger than the earlier cigars would have been more difficult to smuggle aboard and its dimensions would have made it more difficult to conceal in a cargo. The description accompanying the images suggest that rather than acid eating through a reservoir wall in this case the acid ate through a wire which retained a spring action to an initiator…. that’s a quite different initiation mechanism.  This device would have taken more skill to construct and the threaded and knurled head, the apparent 3 sections of copper pipe and a neat fitting of the copper pipe to the aluminium  base indicates a higher level of engineering….  Something about the base design rings a bell, but I can’t put my finger on it.  The design of the base must have a reason and there must be a reason for it to have been different from the copper…but I cant work that out. Any suggestion gratefully received.                                                                                                                                                                               
The blog from the AWM also has set me off on a new thread. The device appears to have been forwarded to the Australian section of the British “Munitions Inventions Department” in Esher, for examination. The Munitions Inventions Department had been set up earlier in the war to coordinate the wide range of scientific and military engineering developments required by the Alles to win the war.  It was really the forerunner of later government defence research departments.  Teams of ingenious, pragmatic and capable engineers had been co-opted into developing a wide range of innovative weaponry. By all accounts the Australians were masters of such craft and contributed significantly to a wide range of innovative munitions.  I’ve started some research on that and will no doubt blog about some of the wilder and more intertesting inventions in the future.



Kurt Jahnke: the legendary German saboteur

I’ve blogged before about the German sabotage campaign just before the US entered World War 1.    I’ve been digging slowly through much new material with regard to Kurt Jahnke.  Jahnke was one of the key German saboteurs operating in the USA before and during the First World War and along with his close colleague Lothar Witzke and a more distant colleague, Franz Rintelen, they played key roles in the extensive and, in my opinion, largely underestimated or unrecognized, IED campaign and associated disruptive activities in the period. This disruptive campaign involved extensive use of IEDs, biological warfare attacks (anthrax and glanders attacks on US soil), arson, encouraging labor disputes, encouraging Mexico’s entry into the war against the US, etc I’m building extensive files on this campaign, bit by bit.

There’s enough for a couple of books, and frankly I’m a bit overwhelmed and the material demands much more beyond a short blog.  For those of you who haven’t heard of him, here’s a very brief potted history of Jahnke:

  • 1888 Born Gnesen in West Prussia
  • ? Enlisted in the German Navy
  • ? worked in Peking as a member of the International Customs service, possibly as a German Agent
  • 1909 Emigrated to the USA
  • ? Enlisted in the US Marines and served in San Francisco, Pearl Harbor and the Philippines
  • ? Discharged for medical reasons (malaria?)
  • 1912 Posted to the German Consulate in San Francisco as a diplomatic official
  • 1912 onwards – developed connections with China whilst in the San Francisco post
  • 1916. Almost certainly involved in the Black Tom explosion, New Jersey
  • 1916 Strongly suspected of fomenting and encouraging labor strikes in San Francisco
  • 1916 Claimed to be responsible for sinking 14 allied munitions ships
  • 1917 Almost certainly responsible for the Mare Island munitions depot explosion near San Francisco.
  • 1917 Involved in other bombings on the US east Coast
  • 1917 After declaration of war, operated from Mexico with numerous plots
  • 1923 Undertook sabotage attacks against occupying French forces in the Ruhr, Germany
  • 1920’s Possibly involved with official, but secret German collaboration with Russian forces
  • 1920’s Possibly recruited as a Russian agent
  • 1934 Formed the Jahnke Buro , a semi-official intelligence agency, aka “Abteilung Pfeffer” Possibly responsible for handling of a German agent in the US embassy
  • 1939 By this date Jahnke’s “Abteilung Pfeffer” was under direct control of Rudolf Hess.
  • 1941 – After Hess’s flight to Britain he “retired” . Some reports suggest he was fired in 1940
  • 1943? – Tempted out of retirement by Walter Schellenberg, head of the Nazi’s foreign intelligence department to return to intelligence activities.  Suggestions he opened a dialogue with Allied intelligence agencies in 1944
  • 1945 – Fled to Switzerland
  • 1945 – Returned to Germany, arrested and tortured by Russian SMERSH
  • 1945- Killed by SMERSH or perhaps not till 1950… or perhaps not at all… suggestions that he worked for one Russian intelligence agency but was arrested by another in a  turf war. Suspected by everyone of being a double agent of one sort or another.

As one might expect with such a full and complex life, establishing the truth is nigh on impossible.  Certainly Jahnke at times claimed responsibility for things he probably hadn't done, such as the sinking of the USS San Diego, which he claimed responsibility for to the Rusiians interrogating him. Other things about Jahnke worth considering, which I’m digging at:

  1. Could he have played a part in the 1916 "Preparedness Day bombing" in San Francisco
  2. If so, could he be involved in the 1921 Wall St bombing (there’s a possible connection)
  3. Details of his sabotage attacks on the Ruhr in 1921
  4. Details of the explosive devices he employed
  5. Details of the China connections
  6. Details of US and UK operations in Mexico to counter his activities (quite a bunch of stories there) 

There's lots more to come.


Mystery bombings

Fritz Joubert Duquesne was an inveterate anti-British spy who apparently used a number of IEDs to destroy British vessels sailing from South America in WW2.    Duquesne’s spying career started when as a British soldier serving in his home country during the 2nd Boer War, be was horrified at the British treatment of women and children.  His sister had been killed and his mother was dying in a British Concentration camp.

Duquesne then lived in the USA and became a German spy in 1914. He was sent to Brazil as "Frederick Fredericks" under the disguise of “doing scientific research on rubber plants.” From his base in Rio de Janeiro, he allegedly planted time bombs disguised as cases of mineral samples on British ships; he was credited with sinking “22 ships”. Among them, allegedly, were the Salvador; the Pembrokeshire; and the Tennyson and the “liner” Liger. One of his bombs allegedly started a fire on the Vauban

I have been trying to find reference to the explosives planted on the British ships – little other than a reference to “infernal machines” in a press report. At the time numerous German saboteur plots were operating from N America (see earlier posts).

However, in investigating this I have found some discrepancies. For instance the SS Tennyson, was not sunk – it was still operating from Brazil in 1922. I can find no record of the “Liger" or a fire on the Vauban. The S.S. Pembrokeshire was “hulked” in 1913. Very curious. Was this a British misinformation campaign?    

Here’s a press report of the time giving some details

Duquesne once again operated for the Germans in WW2, running the “Duquesne spy ring” which was broken by the FBI.


Massive Explosion in New Jersey

....In 1916

Following the blog posts about Tunney and Eagan, a number of correspondents have asked for more detail about the German saboteur campaign in the US of the period. I’ve recently undertaken an analysis of this campaign (and one other from history) to compare current C-IED “Attack the Network” strategies with previous C-IED Attack the Network efforts.  The German saboteur campaign is fascinating not only for the parallels with modern terrorism and the lessons learned and since forgotten, but some very interesting operational aspects from both the enemy and friendly forces.

This campaign by German saboteurs saw a number of cells operating in the New York and New Jersey areas attack 47 factories, 43 ships and a number of docks and railway facilities over about a 2 year period from 1915- 1917. They used both explosive IEDs and incendiaries.  Many German ships were being blockaded in US ports by the British and the sailors provided ample human resources for the German authorities efforts to prevent the industrial might of the US from providing munitions for the French, British and Russians fighting Imperial Germany, before the US entered the war in 1917.

There were many interesting attacks which I will blog in the future. The biggest was an arson attack on the Black Tom munition loading facility on the New Jersey shoreline, right opposite The Statue of Liberty.  Incendiaries were set by German agents and there is strong evidence to suggest that some local watchman were paid to turn a blind eye, at the very least. Some time later the fire took hold and caused a detonation of 1000 tons of explosives. The Statue of Liberty was damaged, windows were broken across Manhattan and the explosion heard as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland. According to one source it was measured at 5.5 on the Richter scale. Remarkably few people were killed however.




After the war a reparations committee sat for many years and argued whether the Black Tom explosion was sabotage or not.  Eventually in 1939 the German government agreed to pay reparations – but WW2 intervened and a $50 million reparation was finally paid in 1979.

A memorial stone at the scene, within sight of lower Manhattan records the incident calling it “One of the worst acts of terrorism in American history”.

After the war the response to the German Saboteur threat was assessed in retrospect (leading eventually to the formation of the FBI under Hoover), and I rather like this quote from the former New York Police Commissioner, Tunney's former boss:

"The lessons to America are clear as day. We must not again be caught napping with no adequate national intelligence organization. The several Federal bureaus should be welded together into one, and that one should be eternally and comprehensively vigilant."

Arthur Woods, former Police Commissioner NYPD 1919