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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 Mexico (2)



Quite often in my research into historical IEDs, I’m struck by parallels with modern IED threats. Here’s a historical story with exactly that.
There is a common perception that the “first” vehicle bomb or VBIED was the 1920 Wall St bombing In New York. As readers of this blog will know by now, that isn’t even close, with vehicle bombs hundreds of years before that.  These VBIEDs described below were from around 1912/1913.
I see some parallels between the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria and the Mexican Revolution in terms of military activity.  Today there are conflicts between government troops and insurgents, one way or another. One common tactic in Iraq and Syria we are seeing is the government troops defending a FOB in a small town or village and insurgents launching attacks on them quite often preceded by a suicide vehicle bomb. The “shock action” of a large explosion potentially disorientates defenders as other attacks are launched. The attacks often take place in desert countryside down the the communication routes (the roads), and has been seen very frequently in the last couple of years.
There are similarities then, with the Mexican revolution and in particular in the period 1912 and 1913. This was a complex revolution and I don’t intend on getting into the detail of its causes and protagonists - you can read that here if you wish to.
There were various rebel leaders, including Zapata and Orozco who launched guerrilla warfare campaigns that today we might call insurgencies. Both government forces and the rebels moved forces and their supplies quite often by the railroad system - the only practical way of moving volumes of men and material around the country quickly.   Typically the government forces, in pursuit of rebels, would move forces along a railway line to a town which they fortified, moving with the aid of three or four trains that arrived in a given town.  Or the rebel forces did exactly the same.   On a few occasions rebels mounted attacks that were initiated sending their own or captured trains at high speed down the line, which collided with the stationary government trains and caused alarm and confusion.  It didn't take long before the one side or the other spiced up these runaway trains with the addition of a lot of explosives on board.
One example - In the First Battle of Rellano which took place on 24 March 1912, between two opposing sides, one under under command of Pascual Orozco. Government forces arrived in Chihuahua province but their progress was stalled because Orozco had blown up railroad track and bridges with IEDs.   The government forces under General Salas had to repair the bridges and railway lines on order to move. Orozco’s troops were defending the town of Rellano and the government forces were moving up the railway line in trains to attack them.  One of Orozco’s comrades, Emilio Campa, loaded a locomotive with dynamite and sent it at high speed down the track to where government forcers were disembarking from their trains just outside the town.  Despite the fact that the government forces had removed some track (to protect themselves from such eventuality) the VBIED train, traveling at high speed, left the tracks but still collided with the troop train, and exploded killing 60 soldiers and injuring many more.  I haven’t been able to establish any fuzing mechanism.
Such tactics were used in a number of other engagements by the (various) participants and the trains were known either as “loco-locos” (crazy trains) or “maquina loca”, an adaptation of the “maquina infernale” or infernal machine which in those days was used to describe an IED.
Rodolfo Fierro, (an ex railway brake man) who commanded some of Pancho Villa’s forces used this tactic several times, most notably at the Battle of Tierra Blanca in November 1913.  Fierro’s nickname was “the Butcher” a name that apparently was quite apposite.
Here's a picture of the aftermath of one loco-loco.
The aftermath of an exploding train
So these insurgent battles were violent, desert-bound conflicts not too dissimilar from the violent conflicts of Syria and Iraq just now.  Of course the Mexican revolution has been glamourised by Hollywood or spaghetti westerns such as the Wild Bunch, A Fistful of Dynamite and Villa Rides!    Indeed the whole film "A Fistful of Dynamite" concludes with a Loco-loco being used against an Army train.  The hero of the film is James Coburn, playing an Irish explosives expert plying his trade in Latin America (with an awful Irish accent)...and there's another story for the future...




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.