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 Non-EOD interesting stuff (22)


A peculiar Heavy Water journey

This week is the anniversary of Operation Gunnerside, a fantastic SOE operation to destroy the Norwegian Heavy Water plant at Vermork. The wider story of the destruction of Vermork is told here and is well worth a read.  I would also recommend reading this if you have a few minutes, an excellent contextual document with also some fascinating detail. 

The anniversary reminded me that a few years ago I blogged about Mad Jack Howard, the eccentric English aristocrat, adventurer and experimental bomb disposal expert who played a key role in "rescuing" a batch of heavy water from France as the Nazis invaded.  In retracing some of the research for that I found a nice little thread, looking at the journey that the Heavy Water took. It is a tale of secret operations, spies, buccaneering adventurers waving pistols, and peculiar persuasive pragmatism, worthy of a heist movie. So here it is: 


  • In early 1940 a group of clever French Physicists (Joliot (husband and wife), von Halban and Kowarski) had recognised the potential of heavy water to perform as a moderator in a nuclear fission reaction. The only place in the world where this heavy water (deuterium oxide) was being produced in any quantity was in Norway by Norsk Hydro. Norsk Hydro was effectively controlled financially by the Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas. At the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 almost the entire world stock of any significance was 185kg, held by the Norwegians.  They had already limited the Germans to buying only a few litres a year, and the French had intelligence that the Nazis were seeking much more. Vitally, the French were able to see the importance of heavy water as a weapon component. Interestingly the Norwegians were not aware of that and made an assesment that the German interest had a use in biological research.
  • With the political situation deteriorating and with excellent forethought the French authorities moved to secure this 185kg, using a combination of bank pressure and the pragmatic, persuasive skills of Lieutenant Jacques Allier of the Deuxieme Bureau. I think the reasons were twofold - to secure it for themselves and also to prevent acquisition by the Nazis.  Allier travelled to Norway under a false passport in his Mother's maiden name, via Stockholm.  The French went to some trouble in preparation designing aluminium metal canisters that were specifically built that could be disguised in suitcases. These were made in Norway. They had to be made from metal without any trace of boron or cadmium and some other trace elements which might cause the heavy water useless.
  • There are some indications that the Nazis were aware of the presence of Allier in Norway and had alerted local agents, even providing them with the name that Allier was travelling under. 
  • In a series of meetings Allier persuaded Norsk Hydro to part with their entire stock - 185kg - of heavy water. Nordsk Hydro provided the stuff at no cost despite Allier being authorised to pay a significant sum - Norsk Hydro were left in no doubt as to the military imperative of the material to France.  The material was poured into the 26 five litre special aluminium containers. In two batches then, the Heavy Water started their journey, on 9 March 1940, both ending up by seperate routes in Oslo, where they were stored in a French safe house which happened to be next door to a German Abwehr owned office.
  • The next day, 10 March 1940 a complex operation took place with Allier and a colleague booked with a cargo on a plane to Amsterdam, but conducted a secret "switch" actually boarding a plane to Scotland. Just as well because the Amsterdam plane was intercepted by the Luftwaffe and forced to land in Hamburg - clearly the German knew something was up.
  • As the plane carrying Allier and the first batch of Heavy Water left the coastline of Norway it too was tailed by another plane - but the adventurous Allier briefed his pilot that they were secret agents and persuaded him to "lose" its tail in the clouds. According to one report the plane climbed so high that Allier passed out due to lack of oxygen.  Eventually it landed near Montrose in Scotland.
  • There is a suggestion that the operation to fly out to Scotland was assisted by MI6 in Oslo. One report sugegsts that the MI6 agent, Frank Foley, helped load the plane at Oslo airport. Indeed when the plane landed (another followed the followng day with the remaining heavy water), there were no customs or immigration procedures applied. 
  • After a night in an Edinburgh hotel with the 26 canisters alongside the beds, the French agents, led by Allier, caught the train to London with the canisters stowed in the overhead luggage racks. As we will see this wasn't their last journey on British train luggage racks...
  • From London Allier took the canisters to France by train and ferry and eventually storing them in a cellar in the College de France in Paris. He was given a receipt, on 16 March 1940.
  • Two months later on 16 May 1940, the Nazis invaded France, and the Heavy Water was loaded in a truck and taken 200 miles south to the vaults of a bank in Clermont Ferrand.
  • Soon after the cans were moved, oddly to a women's prison in Monts Dore, and then to the Central Prison in Riom. It is sort of peculiar that prisons were used on this journey (and not for the last time).
  •  Now, Allier reappered on the scene, with instructions to take th e heavy water to London, via Bordeaux, ahead of the German advance.on 17 June 1940, Allier arrived at Riom prison, but the prison governor was reluctant to release the cans. Allier drew his revolver and the governor was "persuaded".  Some prisoners helped load the cans onto Allier's waiting vehicle. The vehicle with Allier and some scientists aboard arrived at a requisitioned school in Bordeaux at midnight. There they received instructions to take the cargo and load it on a coal ship, the "Broompark" in Bordeaux docks. Arriving there in in the early hours of 18 June 1940 they were met on the gangplank by a strange character - Moustached, short sleeved, arms covered with tattoos, two revolvers in shoulder-holsters and swinging a riding crop. It was "Jack Howard", the Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire. Acting as an unpaid "science attache" he was coordinating the Broompark's journey, loaded with Heavy Water, diamonds, physicists and machine tools. Interestingly, the MI6 agent who had been in Oslo two months earlier, Frank Foley, was also at the docks. Later that same day, 18 June 1940 the Broompark steamed out of Bordeaux. The 26 cans had been lashed to a raft on the deck in the hope of saving them if the ship was sunk - clearly Howard knew the importance of the cans, and had probably been briefed by Frank Foley, who had left to head south over the Pyrenees to Spain.  I have picked up that Howard may have stashed a special part of his cargo ashore on the coast somewhere not far from Bordeaux, but it is pretty vague and its not clear at all. one report says that whatever it was was "collected" in a secret naval operation sometime later. Could be a spoof, maybe with the help of Foley. 
  • On 21 June 1940 the Broompark docked in Falmouth England. It had been spotted by a grman aircraft at one point in the Bay of Biscay but no action had been taken against it. So the heavy water was back in England, and once more was loaded onto a train, the express, to London Paddington, with Jack Howard guarding it, unshaven, fierce and with his twin shoulder-holstered pistols on clear display.
  • Arriving in Londonon 22 June 1940, the Heavy Water was again sentenced to imprisonment, this time in a cell Wormwood Scrubs a legendary London prison.
  • Some time later the Heavy Water was transfered, of all places, to Windsor Castle, home of the Royal Family, were, under the watchful eye of the King's librarian, Owen Morshead, it was stored with the Crown jewels. I kid you not.
  • It is possible that in the next two years the Heavy Water was moved to Cambridge were British research into fission was ongoing, but I can find no specific records.
  • The Heavy Water is next recorded as being delivered to the Anglo-Canadian research effort in Montreal, Canada on 1 May 1943. I do not know its mode of transport across the Atlantic. In 1944 the Heavy Water was moved to the Chalk River Experimental Plant on the Ottawa River.
  • In 1946, the French governmment then requested "Could France have its Heavy Water back please?" This clearly caused something of a panic. A note dated 30 September 1946 noted that the "remaining" material was stored in container "T-7" which was 99.5% pure with respect to Deuterium. It was agreed to ship 100ml back to France which accordingly occurred, being flown by Trans-Canada airlies to Paris. So a small quantity returned "home" to the French.
  • In 1947 Drum T-7 containing the Heavy Water was sent to Trail in British Columbia for re-processing. At this point it appears to have been mixed with other Heavy Water, losing its "French" identity.  
  • In 1948 the French, supported by the British, requested return of the material or equivalent from other sources. After some discussion 32.5 pounds of heavy water was shipped to France, via Harwell in the UK in a stainless steel drum.

This may be, at the end of the day, simply a logistics story, but I feel it is a true adventure, featuring bravery, human character and fortitude, and it is a story which may have changed the world.

For more on Jacques Allier, see here.  Frank Foley was another remarkable man, and a little of his life is detailed here.  He helped 10,000 Jews escape Nazi Germany, was responsible for interrogating Rudolf Hess, and played a key role in the Double Cross deception operation using double agents to persuade the Nazis that the Allies would invade the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.  Some more on "Jack Howard" is here


The Nazis and Copernicus

One of the nice things about this blog is that I don't have to stick rigourously to its stated subject.  In the previous post I examined some of the explosive devices used by the Polish Resistance in Warsaw.  During that research I came across this story which is simply worth retelling.

The Polish resistance was not without its sense of humour, and the occupying German forces... well lets just say they were German and not renowned for the perspective humour offers.   In the heart of Warsaw stood a large statue of the astronomer Copernicus. Copernicus lived when the Kingdom of Poland was part of Prussia so both the Poles and the Germans had claims to him.  At the base of the monument was a plaque with the inscription " To Copernicus, from his countrymen".  The German authorities, on occupying Warsaw, removed the plaque and replaced it with another that read "To the Great German Astronomer".  The statue was in a square right outside a German police station.

One day a group of workmen, seemingly from the city council, arrived and began to work on the base of the statue, unnoticed. They removed the German plaque. It was actualy a group led by Polish resistance fighter Maciej Aleksy Dawidowski.   It was 10 days before the authorities noticed their plaque had gone missing. The German commander, Governor Fischer was outraged.  This is his picture - he looks pretty much like the proto-typical nazi war criminal that he was doesn't he?

Fischer issued a proclamation below:

A translation is something like this:

"On 11th or 12th February 1942 criminal elements removed the tablet from the Copernicus Monument for political reasons. As a reprisal, I order the removal of the Kilinski monument. At the same time I give full warning that should similar acts be perpetrated I shall order the suspension of all food rations for the Polish population of Warsaw for the term of one week"

Now, Jan Kilinski was another popular historical figure in Warsaw, a shoemaker who led the fight against the Russians in a seige of Warsaw in 1794.  His statue was indeed removed by the Nazis and stored in the vaults of the National Museum.   By the following morning someone had painted in very large letters on the side of the Museum


"People of Warsaw, I am in here! Signed Jan Kilinski"

A week later, all of Fischer's proclamations were over pasted with another announcement, printed in the same style. This proclamation read:

"Recently criminal elements removed the Kilinski monument for political reasons. As a reprisal, I order the prolongation of winter on the Eastern Front front for the term of two months.  

Signed Nicholas Copernicus"

Now as it happend the winter of 1942 was indeed long and hard for the Germans on the Eastern Front.   Fischer was tried for war crimes and hung in 1947. Dawidowski died very bravely in 1943 in an attempt to rescue fellow partisans from jail.




The Death of Tommy Atkins

There's been discussion on the letters pages of "The Times" about the origins of the "Tommy Atkins" reference - the standard typcial British soldier with all the phlegmatic character so well described by Kipling. Well, it turns out that Kipling didn't "invent" the name out of the blue, and the history of Tommy Atkins as a real person is moving, dramatic and a little older.

In 1843, The Duke of Wellington, a national hero, former Prime Minister and Victor of Waterloo was a "Minister without Portfolio". He was an elderly man of 73 and the Grand Old Man of the British establishment. The previous year he had been re-appointed as Commander in Chief of the Army.

The Duke of Wellington, aged 74

Officers on the Army Staff came to show him a new piece of bureaucracy - a form that soldiers had to sign to claim their allowances. They wanted to create a "typical entry" as a guide for soldiers entering their details. The discussion turned to the name that the guide should use as its example, and they asked the old General his opinion.

Wellington sat back and thought. He recalled one of his earlier campaigns, in the Low Countries in 1793. After a battle he had come across a gravely wounded solider, lying on the ground. That soldier had served in the Grenadiers for 20 years, could neither read nor write, but was the "best Man-at-Arms in the Regiment". His name was Thomas Atkins.  Atkins was severely wounded, and had begged the stretcher bearers to leave him be, so that he could die in peace.  Looking up and seeing the Duke's concern, the man uttered his last words. "It's all right, Sir. It's all in a day's work."

Wellington still remembered that experience, 50 years later, and so the name on the form and for every British soldier since became "Thomas Atkins".


Sausage Cohen - Four Wars and a lifetime of Crowded Hours

Sos Cohen is another of those men from history and whichever way you look at it his story is pretty remarkable.  “Sos” is an abbreviation of his nickname “Sausage”.   Lionel Frederick William Cohen was born in 1875 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  At the age of about 14 he ran away from home and joined the Royal Marines Light Infantry. (That was his first military engagement.)  Eventually he was tracked down by his horrified family who insisted on buying him out and bringing him home.

His family then sent him to work as a clerk for an uncle in Johannesburg. He was bored by that, ran off, and at the age of 17 became a guard for a mining company.  Seeking adventure he then joined as a volunteer in the campaign against the Matabele, (his first war) with the now historical figures of Selous and Jamieson.  He took part in the Battle of the Shangani River in 1893 where he fought with fixed bayonets.   After other adventures in Africa he then became involved in the Boer War  in 1899 (War Number 2), where he worked as a undercover special force commander in Mozambique preventing arms being delivered to the Boers, reporting via the Mozambique authorities to his British controllers.

When that war ended he returned to civilian life and had more adventures.   When World War 1 (his third war) began he joined the 1st South African Horse as a 2nd Lieutenant.   He fought in German East Africa. At one point he and a single troop captured 430 of the enemy.  After this, now promoted to a “special service” Captain he took his troop behind enemy lines on intelligence missions. In 1916 he was attached to the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as an airborne observer. He was involved in several skirmishes and crashes. In 1917 he formally joined the British Field Intelligence Force, again working behind enemy lines.  He ended the war as a major, with an MC and a DSO  and was mentioned in despatches three times.

By 1937 he was living in England and played a key role in setting up the RAF Volunteer reserve. He was commissioned into the RAF as a Pilot officer in 1939, aged 64. WW2 being his fourth war and at least his fourth service.  He served was a liaison officer from RAF costal command with the Royal Navy.  In this role he flew 70 operational missions as an observer or air gunner.  He reached the rank of Wing Commander and took part in bombing action against the Scharnhorst over the port of Brest in 1941, and other missions that sunk U-boats.  As a senior officer on liaison he was not meant to fly , but insisted on it. He received the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) in 1944, his 70th year.  He was mentioned in despatches twice more.  He died in 1960 aged 85.

I have omitted a lot of his adventures outside of the services, which are equally extraordinary. You can read about them in his biography “Crowded hours






The joy of Col AD Wintle MC

Some people ask me why I intersperse my blog with odd tales of military eccentrics.  At this link is a reason why. I posted an article some time ago about one of these characters, Col AD “Freddie” Wintle MC.  This audio archive is 16 minutes of utter, complete joy, full of the most outrageous quotes.  Enjoy it.  

Wintle is recorded in 1962 as a guest on Desert Island Disks. He's asked "Have you ever been on a remote desert island?" and he answers "Not if you don't count Ireland".

He's asked what luxury he'd like to take to the Desert Island , and he says he'd like to take a dog whip, "In case any Germans landed".  You will laugh too about the end of his hunger strike.