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 Postal IEDs (3)


Things that have happened before

The press are pretty awful at describing any given terrorist attack as something "new".  I hope this site and the blog posts associated with it show that very often there is nothing new under the sun.  Tactics, technology, targets all repeat themselves in one form or another, and history is forgotten time after time.  Partly this is because of the "shock" affect of terrorism, which can indeed be stunning, and partly because people (journalists and politcians included) are lazy.

In an effort to counter these, as readers of previous blog posts will have seen, I research and collect early examples of certain kinds of improvised explosive devices, It's time to summarize a few here, some  of which I've written about before and otehrs I will write about when time permits.

a. Letter bombs - I have details of letter bombs from 1581 (Poland) and this one from 1764 (Denmark). A Colonel Poulsen, living in Borglum Abbey, received a box through the mail. "When he opens it, therein is to be found gunpowder and a firelock which sets fire unto it, so he became very injured"

  b. Vehicle bombs. The Wall St bombing in New York in 1920 is often wrongly cited as the first.  There was a famous vehicle bomb in Yildiz, Turkey in 1904 and the attempted assassination of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800, in Paris using a vehicle bomb. The concept was well known and various designs were circulated in military documentation much earlier. I've got some copies of those diagrams.

c. IED shrapnel coated in acid or anti-coagulant.  This was trumpeted as a new horrific tactic a few yars ago - but the Stern gang attempted such techniques in 1942 (along with exceptionally sophisticated "come-on" tactics) in an assassination attempt on a British Palestinian policeman.  The tactical design of this attack is extremely interesting, very thorough, and I'll post details in a few weeks.

d. Multiple VBIED attacks - attacks in Iraq ten years ago using multiple vehicles against a target such as a hotel were labelled as "new". But British Army deserters used three trucks to blow up Ben Yehuda St in Jerusalem in 1948, each allegedly containing a ton of TNT and additional material. Their intended target was a hotel. I'm building a full post on this.




1947 and 1948 Postal IEDs - The Stern Gang

A friend pointed me in the direction of recently declassified MI5 files, now officially and publicly available. One set of hitherto SECRET and TOP SECRET papers relates to a series of attempted IED attacks on British targets in 1947, by the Stern Gang, in the run up to the Israeli declaration of Independence in 1948.  If you have the patience, there is an 88Mb download available at this link.   For those of you with an interest in technical matters, the report by Her Majesty's Inspector of Explosives on one device, planted in Dover House, Whitehall, London on 16 April 1947 is on page 239.

The devices largely failed for technical reasons. However later IEDs in 1948 were not all failures.

Elsewhere in the released documents, historians will find some of the material fascinating.  MI5 demonstrably retained some of its star security officers from WW2,  and they were involved, in part, in this case - people like "TAR" Robertson who ran the "Double Cross" counter intelligence operation against the Nazis in the War.

There's some fascinating reporting of its time - telephone operators overhearing suspicious conversations, members of the public reporting concerns, police surveillance operations and pre-digital secret bureaucracy. It is interesting to see the 1947 version of inter-agency counter-terrorist coordination between Foreign Office, MI5, police forces, Special Branch and others. 

A later file from 1948 is also available for download (post the establishment of the State of Israel) and others clearly can now be accessed. In May 1948 the Stern gang sent a postal IED to Captain Roy Farran of the SAS (who was accused of murdering Alexander Rubowitz)  The package (addressed to R Farran), was opened by Roy's brother Rex, killing him.


Exotic characters, IEDs and brothels

As the previous post showed there were some interesting characrters who could get away with some pretty individualistic approaches to life in World War Two. I'm reading about another just now, Lt Col Billy McLean, an irregular solider who fought with the guerillas in Abyssinia (Wingate's Gideon Force) and with the partisans in Albania as part of SOE.  Earlier posts discussed how TE Lawrence and Bimbashi Garland, originally based out of the Arab Bureau offices in Cairo took the war to the Turks in WW1 - and it's clear some of that approach was still extant in Cairo in the Second World War. McLean tells of being trained in IED manufacture at a Commando depot in Egypt, prior to deployment to Abyssinia, and specifically how to blow up trains in the manner of Garland and Lawrence. This, despite the fact that the only train line in Abyssinia, from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, was long since out of service...  But as he says this fact did not dampen their ardour and they happily blew up railway tracks every morning.

He was then taught in the classroom how to make postal IEDs. Their instructor facetiously told them to address their real, but practice, IEDs to someone obvious like Mussolini or Hitler.  One of the sergeants, a fellow student of McLean laboriously addressed the IED to the commanding officer of his own regiment.... : - )

Beyond this, McLean's experiences in Abyssinia and Albania have some intersting parrallels with modern day SOF operations, in terms of living alongside, fighting with and commanding and mentoring indigenous troops of variable and frankly sometimes doubtful quality, against a mutual enemy.  Such things are not new and there are lessons to be learned, still.  But on the other hand, although public floigging of indigenous troops for wasting bullets might have worked for Abyssinia in 1940, it might not work today.

McLean's "irregular" traits came to the fore - he was arrested by the military police in an Abbysssinian brothel while "consorting with a particularly attractive inmate who did not smell in the least, apart from a faint tinge of garlic on the breath" but the arresting military policeman turned a blind eye for a moment, and McLean (then a  young Captain) took that as an invitation to scarper into the night.

There are some wonderful throw away lines in the description of Albanian operations such as "Food was in short supply. Luckily one of the mules died and provided them with meat."