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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 Majendie (5)


Shopping for IED Components, Then and Now

Modern terrorism today, where it occurs in the West, frequently revolves around terrorists obtaining innocuous materials from which they make explosives and IEDs.  Over recent years Police in the UK and elsewhere have engaged with pharmacies, chemist shops, fertiliser suppliers and others seeking support from the proprietors to report suspicious acquisition of explosives or other items for IED components. On occasion in the last few years legislation has been discussed which might limit the availability of such things as acetone, peroxide and sulphuric acid.  These modern concerns are sensible and a useful “flag” set to trigger - on occasions, in the last few years, successful police operations have interdicted terrorist attacks by being alerted when a terrorist attempted to buy components or precursors for an IED.
Readers of this blog will know that I have a theme of seeking older patterns for what we regard as modern characteristics of terrorist use of IEDs, and there are useful antecedents here.  I have being studying the court transcripts of historical trials and there is a nice example here:
In the 1880s and 1890s, terrorist IEDs were quite common in major European cities like London and Paris. This meant that the public were aware of the threat, suspicious of certain activity, and police operations were significant, as was their engagement with suppliers of material that might be of use to those with evil intent.
In 1894, two Italian anarchists, Guiseppe Farnara and Francis Polti were prosecuted for possession of explosives with intent to endanger life and property. The two had been attempting to make IEDs with pipe work purchased from engineering companies , to be filled with explosives manufactured from supplies purchased from chemists.  The two Italians had tried to purchase iron piping from an engineering firm run by a Mr Cohen at 240 Blackfriars Road in London. One of the managers who worked for Mr Cohen, Thomas Smith, was suspicious of the Italians and the purpose for which they were acquiring the pipe. He persuaded the Italians to return to the shop at a future date when he would have the piping and end caps ready for them.  Mr Smith then reported his suspicions to the local police station, and a team of police officers subsequently “staked out” the premises waiting for the Italians to return. Smith was also able to elicit that the suspects were having other pipework supplied by another company, Millers, of 44 Lancaster Street Borough Road. The police were able to follow that line of investigation too. So, Cohen’s establishment was staked out and Smith was given clear instructions on how to engage in a dialogue with the terrorists.  The terrorists were put under a major surveillance operation , involving quite a number of police and followed around London. I’m intrigued as to what we would regard as a highly proficient surveillance operation, comparable to today’s surveillance operations - for example, a police sergeant described how a terrorist, carrying the IED components from Cohen's, was followed on to an omnibus. a total of four police officers, part of the surveillance team, operating undercover, were also aboard that same bus. One sat in the seat immediately behind the suspect. After leaving the bus, the suspect apparently carried out anti-surveillance drills, looking for tails. At this point he was arrested. Subsequent investigation of the suspect's living accommodation found explosive recipes and IED manufacturing instructions along with other chemicals including a bottle of Sulphuric Acid. The instructions were disguised as a recipe for “polenta”, and appear to be a chlorate explosive of some kind which would be initiated by the addition of acid.
The terrorists had approached Taylor’s drug company of 66 High Holborn and bought two pounds of Sulphuric Acid in a bottle. 
In the trial the government explosive chemist, Dr DuPre gave expert evidence to the manufacture of the explosives. Col Majendie, the Chief Inspector of Explosives and the nearest equivalent to the head of the bomb squad also gave evidence. Interestingly the court transcript is deliberately vague, I think, when describing the initiation system, and the “polenta”  explosive.
My view is that the device would have been designed to be thrown, and initiated when the device hits a target, so in effect was a very large impact grenade, such as the device used to assasinate the Tsar a few years earlier. But something more sophisticated is possible. Readers might wish to refer to some early blog posts about similar devices. 
I’m also intrigued by the use of the word “polenta” to describe a yellow chlorate based mix or compound, which seems to have similarities to these Irish chlorate based explosives that were encountered in the 1920s.
From this one case we can see that a population who were aware of IED threats in 1894 were able to report suspicious acquisition of components and that the police were able to act on those tips and plan subsequent detailed surveillance operations. 



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. 

The Tsar and the suicide bomber

I have been promising for some time a blog post about the 1881 assassination of the Tsar by suicide bomber in St Petersburg, the site of which I visited a few month ago.  I think that this incident is particularly interesting for the following reasons:

  1. It was a suicide bombing by any definition and thus invites comparisons with modern suicide terrorism
  2. It seems to have sparked and inspired the revolutionaries of the time, demonstrating what was possible – for the next 25 years revolutionaries around the world sought to repeat the impact of the incident
  3. The design was enabled by the development of dynamite in the late 1860s and it would appear by Russian military experience of fusing from the sea mines I discussed last week

The late 1870s and early 1880s were politically a time of great drama. In Russia Anarchists and Nihilists were active and some sought the use of violence to achieve their goals in the light of poor harvests and industrial recession.  The Nihilists objected to the status quo of the ruling class and the capitalist control of the economy and in that at least there are some very modern echoes. One particular group, the Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) decided to target the Tsar.  One of this group’s early attempts to assassinate the Tsar was in Moscow in 1879  - the terrorists dug a tunnel from a house and planted three large command initiated IEDs under the railway on a track (by digging a tunnel under a road from a nearby house) that the Tsar was predicted to use. The attack failed as did an attempt a year later when explosives were planted in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg by an employee Stephan Khalturin who was able smuggle the explosives in bit by bit. The picture below shoes the aftermath.

I can’t find details of the construct of this device but I believe it was a timed IED. The Tsar delayed a reception dinner thus missing the explosion, but many people were killed or badly wounded in the incident. Amongst the dead were all the members of the Finnish Guard in a room below the intended victims.

In an early example of an “attack the Network” C-IED effort the Russian secret police, the Okrhana, was established in the light of the failed bomb attacks (along with the rise of left wing revolutionary groups) and they were the archetypal “secret police", running double agents, agents provocateurs, surveillance and interception of communications. They also operated internationally.

On the 13 March the Tsar once again overruled the advice of his security staff and took his carriage on a well known and predictable route through St Petersburg from Michaelovsky Palace to the Winter Palace. Once again this is a story of terrorists exploiting the known and predictable routes of their target. An armed Cossack sat with the coach-driver and another six Cossacks followed on horseback. Behind them came a group of police officers in sledges.

All along the route he was watched by members of Narodnaya Volya, who had carefully planned a triple IED attack. On a street corner near the Catherine Canal a woman terrorist gave the signal to two of the conspirators to throw their bombs at the Tsar's carriage. The bombs missed the carriage and instead landed amongst the Cossacks. The Tsar was unhurt but insisted on getting out of the carriage to check the condition of the injured men. While he was standing with the wounded Cossacks another terrorist, Elnikoff, stepped forward with a shout and threw his bomb on the ground between himself and the Tsar.

Alexander was mortally wounded and the explosion was so great that Elnikoff also died from the bomb blast.  The device used is quite interesting – he is a contempory description and an image.


 The infernal machine used by Elnikoff was about 7 1/2, inches in height. Metal tubes (bb) filled with chlorate of potash, and enclosing glass tubes (cc) filled with sulphuric acid (commonly called oil of vitriol), intersect the cylinder. Around the glass tubes are rings of iron (dd) closely attached as weights. The construction is such that, no matter how the bomb falls, one of the glass tubes is sure to break. The chlorate of potash in that case, combining with the sulphuric acid, ignites at once, and the flames communicate over the fuse (ff) with the piston (c), filled with fulminate of silver. The concussion thus caused explodes the dynamite or "black jelly" (a) with which the cylinder is closely packed.

You will note some similarities, in principle, with parts of the initiating system from the Russian sea mines of the Crimean war that I posted last week.

In all, I think that this terrorist attack is one of the most significant in history - the first "suicide bombing" to gain international attention, and certainly an attack that inspired revolutionaries the world over.  My friend Greg Woolgar, who is about to publish a much needed book on the Victorian Bomb disposal expert and first proponent of IED exploitation and technical inteligence, Colonel Majendie, tells me that the good colonel visited St Petersburg in ther aftermath to seek intelligence on the device.