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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 Railway IEDs (9)


Was Lawrence of Arabia trolling the Royal Engineers?

Further to the series of posts on Railway IEDs I have found an article written by Lawrence of Arabia for the Royal Engineers' Journal, Vol XXIX, No1, January 1919, shortly after the end of the war. The article was signed "T.E.L." and describes how he and his colleagues blew up Ottoman railway lines in Arabia during the war.   Now, as I have written earlier, Lawrence was quite willing to take credit for others where he felt it necessary. He relied on the technical skills of one or two Royal Engineer officers and Major Garland (a former Ammunition specialist) for developing his sabotage techniques. You can see these articles here.     In this article there is a strange paragraph where Lawrence may be "pulling the leg" of his Royal Engineer colleagues, as he describes handling explosives in a fairly "adventurous" way.  I'll leave you to judge by repeating a paragraph verbatim. I have bolded a couple of the most outrageous sentences:

The actual methods of demolition we used are perhaps more interesting than our manners of attack. Our explosives were mainly blasting gelatine and guncotton. Of the two we infinitely preferred the former when we could get it. It is rather more powerful in open charges in direct contact, far better for indirect work, has a value of 5 to 1 in super-tamped charges, is quicker to use, and more compact. We used to strip its paper covering, and handle it in sandbags of 50 lbs. weight. These sweated vigorously in the summer heats of Arabia, but did us no harm, beyond the usual headache, from which we never acquired immunity. The impact of a bullet may detonate a sack of it but we found in practice that when running you clasp it to your side, and if it is held on that furthest from the enemy, then the chances are that it will not be hit, except by the bullet that has already inflicted a mortal wound on the bearer. Guncotton is a good explosive, but inferior in the above respects to gelatine, and in addition, we used to receive it packed 16 slabs (of 15 oz. each) in a wooden box of such massive construction that it was nearly impossible to open peacefully. You can break these boxes with an entrenching tool, in about four minutes slashing, but the best thing is to dash the box, by one of its rope or wire beckets against a rock until it splits. The lid of the box is fastened by six screws, but even if there is time to undo all of these, the slabs will not come out, since they are unshakably wedged against the four sides. I have opened boxes by detonating a primer on one corner, but regard this way as unnecessarily noisy wasteful and dangerous for daily use. 


More railway IED attacks from history

I have built an exceptional trove of IED attacks on railways, which I'll blog further about in coming days and weeks. These include:

1. A fascinating and unsolved IED attack on a railway line near Watford, in 1880, using an unusual booby trap switch.

2. A further campaign against the Ottoman train system in Salonika in the early 1900s.  So the Ottoman train system was subject to IED attacks in Salonika (now Greece) in the 1900s, in Arabia in WW1 (Lawrence etc) and in the Dardanelles campaign, WW1 (from submarines). 

3. Attacks on the railway system in the Arab revolt in Palestine, pre WW2.  Of interest the British forces in Palestine applied an unusual,and in today's terms, immoral technique for preventing booby trapped rail IEDs -see the photo below, which shows an improvised armoured rail car behind two Arab hostages.


Also from Palestine, but this immedaitely post WW2, and prior to the establishment of Israel. the railway lines were attacked extensively by the Irgun/Stern gang.  These groups posed a significant IED problem for the British Forces, which I'll write about in coming days - a largely forgotten story, with some challenging EOD situations and challenging IEDs.  This device below uses a bell push which is depressed by a bracket fastened to a sleeper.  I found this image in an official British Royal Engineer publication from 1946 describing Irgun devices.   Note that the device contained a hidden anti-handling switch in addition to the bell push. (Details of that not shown, for security reasons).



D'Oyly-Hughes's IED

As is often the case my previous post on the IED attack from the US Navy Submarine, USS Barb in 1945, sent me down an investigative alley.  Here's details a similar attack, this time launched from a British submarine, against an Ottoman train line in the Dardanelles in 1915 in WW1.

The leading character here is Lt Guy D'Oyly-Hughes, the first officer on the Royal Navy submarine, the E11.  This submarine had an incredible aggressive series of operations against the Turks at the time of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, sinking over 80 vessels on three operational tours.   In August 1915, they hatched a plan to blow up a key railway line with explosives after attacks with its deck gun on the railway line at Ismid had proved ineffective. This was the railway line that ran between Istanbul and Baghdad, so was very much a key transport route.

Lt D'Oyly-Hughes constructed a small raft containing two barrels into which he packed the components for his device. The main charge was gun-cotton, (frequently used for such purposes in WW1 and earlier) initiated by burning fuze to a detonator.  The burning fuze was itself initiated by a system we are not that familiar with these days - using a special "pistol" which fired a flash cartridge. The pistol was used by Navy and Engineer units because the system was much less likely to be damaged by water. Here's a picture I have found of such a pistol, although this one may be from the late 1800s.

I have also, surprisingly, found two photographs of Lt D'Oyly-Hughes with his explosive raft, one on the transom of the submarine before the operation and the second as he entered the water off the coast of Turkey. 

Before launchIn the waterThe raft contained 16lbs of guncotton. Lt D'Oyly-Hughes, swimming, pushed the raft towards the shore. Here's what happened next from the official history of British Naval operations:


Finding the cliffs were unscalable at the point where he landed, he had to relaunch the raft and swim further along the coast till he reached a less precipitous place. Armed with a revolver and a bayonet, and carrying an electric torch and a whistle for signalling purposes, he laboriously dragged his heavy charge up the cliffs, and in half an hour reached the railway. Finding it unwatched, he followed alongside the track towards the viaduct, but he had only gone about a quarter of a mile when he heard voices ahead, and soon was aware of three men sitting beside the line in loud conversation. It was impossible to proceed further undetected, and after watching them for some time, in hopes of seeing them move away, he decided to leave his heavy charge of gun-cotton where he was and make a detour inland to examine possibilities at the viaduct. Beyond stumbling into a farmyard and waking the noisy poultry, he managed to get sight of the viaduct without adventure, but only to find that he was beaten again. A number of men with a stationary engine at work were moving actively about, and the only course was to retrace his steps and to look for a vulnerable place up the line where he could explode his charge effectively. A suitable spot where the track was carried across a small hollow was soon found too soon, in fact, for it was no more than 150 yards from where the three men were still talking. But the place was too good to leave alone, and deciding to take the risk, he laid the charge, and then, muffling the fuse pistol as well he could, he fired it, and made off. For all his care the men heard the crack, started to their feet and gave chase. To return by the way he came was now impossible. His only chance was to run down the line as fast as he could. From time to time pistol shots were exchanged. They had no effect on either side, and after about a mile's chase he had outdistanced his pursuers and was close to the shore. Plunging into the sea, he swam out, and as he did so the blast of the explosion was heard, and debris began to fall about him, to tell of the damage he had done.
Yet his adventure was far from over. The cove where the submarine was lying hidden was three-quarters of a mile to the eastward, and, when about 500 yards out he ventured to signal with a blast on his whistle, not a sound reached him. By this time day was breaking and his peril was great. Exhausted with his long swim in his clothes, he had to get back to shore for a rest. After hiding a while amongst the rocks he started swimming again towards the cove, till at last an answer came to his whistle. Even so the end was not yet. At the same moment rifle shots rang out from the cliffs. They were directed on the submarine, which was now going astern out of the cove. In the morning mist the weary swimmer did not recognise her. Seeing only her bow, gun, and conning tower she appeared like three small boats, and he hastily made for the beach to hide again amongst the rocks. Once ashore, however, he discovered his mistake, and hailing his deliverer, he once more took to the water. So after a short swim he was picked up in the last stage of exhaustion and his daring adventure came to a happy end…


Later in his career, Lt D'Oyly-Hughes rose in rank to command HMS Glorious, an aircraft carrier, but died when it was sunk by the Scharnhorst in WW2.

Interestingly I have also found a report of another, similar operation from a second British submarine, the E2 , a few weeks later in September 1915.  First Lieutenant H.V. Lyon from HMS E2 swam ashore near Küçükçekmece (Thrace) to blow up a railway bridge. The bridge was destroyed but Lyon failed to return.


In WW2, the British Navy also employed this tactic in the Mediterranean. On 28 May 1941 Lt Dudley Schofield led a raiding party of 8, deployed from HMS Upright to attack an Italian railway line with pressure initiated explosives. I can find little description of the device other than it used "pressure pads". A month later, on 24 June Lt Schofield, who had adapted his techniques from lessons learned, went ashore with one  other and planted explosives on the Naples-Reggio di Calabria line. The charge failed to be initiated by a train so Schofield went ashore the following night to detonate the charge manually. Similar operations continued with Lt Wilson, (Royal Artillery) and Marine Hughes put ashore by HMS Urge in Sicily where they succesfully planted a pressure initiated device on a railway bridge.  There were quite a few other similar attacks from HMS Unique and HMS Utmost and other submarines.   Some similar submarine sabotage operations took place in Norway. 


The US Navy Sub that destroyed a train, with an IED

I've written a few blogs in the past about IEDs placed under train tracks, that the weight of the train triggers. As a reminder:


  • In the US Civil War, in 1864, the Union Army designed an IED (a "rail torpedo") that initiated when a train ran over a rail , pressing down on a gun trigger that caused the device to function.
  • Another IED design was used in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, with the rail pressing on an artillery fuse to initiate the charge.
  • In the Boer War, in 1901, Jack Hindon used devices under railways to attack British trains, using an upturned Martini Henry gun lock, with the rail bending under weight to press on the trigger which initiated an explosive charge.
  • In WW1, ordnance specialist "Bimbashi" Garland designed and deployed similar devices, again using an upturned gun trigger, and used by Lawrence of Arabia to great effect against the Ottoman Turk trains in Arabia.


I'm glad to say I've now found a similar device, with a great story, from WW2.   The use of the IED was effectively the ONLY US ground combat operation on the Japanese homeland in the entire war. (Noting that the attack took place in southern Sakhalin, which was considered a Japanese home island at the time) .

Late in the war, US Navy submarines begain to patrol very aggressively close to the Japanese mainland. One of the subs was the USS Barb, skippered by Commander Eugene Fluckley. The patrol in question started on 8 June 1945 and involved a variety of attacks including, unusually, firing rockets at Japanese targets from the deck of the surfaced submarine. After noting considerable Japanese railway activity on a railway line near the shore, a plan was developed to blow up a train by putting a team ashore at Karafuto from the submarine.

An improvised device was carefully designed.  As far as I can make out it was as follows:


  • The main charge was a 55lb super-Torpex "scuttling charge" held in reserve on the submarine for scuttling the sub in an emergency. The blasting caps used must have been the ones meant to be used with this charge.
  • Power was provided by two dry cell batteries.
  • The switch was a microswitch removed from some electronic equipment on board.
  • The batteries and circuitry were mounted inside an oil-can to protect it from the elements. Included was a "test circuit" to ensure safety.


The crew made careful calculations to estimate the deflection of the railway line  (7/10", which was adjusted on the operation itself to 1/4") and made an improvised gauge to help the setting of the switch. They also made improvised shovels to help bury the charge under the rails. An eight man team was put ashore in inflatable boats and made their way (with one or two adventures) towards the track.

The charge was succesfully initiated by a 16 carriage train and all the saboteur group escaped unharmed. Commder Fluckley ended the war as the most decorated officer in the Navy. 




Attacking Railway Lines with IEDs using Firearm Initiation Systems

I think I have a final piece of the jigsaw here, that links the IEDs used by Lawrence of Arabia, with IEDs used by Jack Hindon in the Boer War and now, the final piece, with a specific IED designed in the US Civil War.  

My intent here is to show how a specific IED design, improvised from commonly available battlefield materials, that used the weight of a target train on a gun lock trigger mechanism to explode a charge, seems to have begun in 1864, and that design, or very close approximations of it were then seen in the Boer War decades later, and again in WW1 more than ten years after that.  It is of course possible that the design was independently invented - but my supposition is that it was not, and the concept was known by those who deal with explosives in one form or another. The attack mode proved useful in what we would call today "guerilla warfare", often associated with a firearms firing on the resulting shocked and disorientated survivors.

In bringing these together in a historical sequence I am in part repeating earlier blog posts. In uncovering the details I worked backwards but now I'm laying this out in sequential historical sequence, covering a period from the early 1860s to WW1.  I'm specifically looking here at attacks on railways where the weight of the train causes a trigger on a gun "lock" to be initiated - components of firearms were of course used in other sorts of IEDs over many centuries and I have blogged about that here, but that's outside the scope of this post.

1. US Civil War. Union IEDs designed to attack Confederate trains.  As I have blogged before IEDs (then called "torpedoes") were used extensively by both sides in the US Civil War, with perhaps the Confederates making most application of them. After the end of hostilities the Chief Engineer of the US Army, Brigadier General Delafield collated numerous reports on various Torpedos used in the conflict and put them into a historical context, examining the efficacy and appropriateness of use.  I find it intruiging that Delafield, in the decade prior to the US Civil War was one of the US Army's observers in the Crimean War which saw extensive use by the Russians of IEDs.  In the collated reports is a letter written to Brigadier General Delafield by 1st Lieut Charles R Suter, Chief Engineer in the "Department of the South, Hilton Head, South Carolina, on 26 October, 1864. The letter reads as follows:

By direction of Major General Foster, I have this day forwarded by Adams Express, a box containing a railroad torpedo, tools and drawings showing its use.

This torpedo was devised by Charles F Smith, 3d U.S.C.T.

We have not yet been able to try them on the enemy's railroads, but they have been thoroughly tested in experiments. The magazine holds 20 to 30 pounds of powder, and this is sufficient to blow a car off the track besides utterly destroying it. Two magazines can be used with one lock and by regulating the length of the powder train, any car of the passing train may be blown up.  The accompanying tools are simple and light. The idea of the inventor was, to send small parties of men, 3 or 4 in each, with these torpedoes and return. Each magazine is a load for a man. Another man can carry the lock and another the tools.

The manner of laying these torpedoes is as follows: -

The spikes are drawn from three consecutive ties on one side.  A hole is then dug, and the lock placed as indicated in the drawing. The rail is then sprung up and iron wedges placed on the adjacent ties to keep the rail from springing the lock by its own weight. When thus secured, the lock is cocked and capped, and the box closed. The magazine is then buried in the proper place, and the connection made. By using a little care in excavating and carrying off the superfluous earth to some little distance, the existence of the torpedo would never be suspected. The bottom of the arched rail should just touch the lever. Any shock by the bending down the rail pulls the trigger and explodes the torpedo.

In our experiments, a torpedo of 18 pounds was exploded by giving a car sufficient impetus to run over it. The car was entirely destroyed, and rails, ties and fragments of the car were thrown in every direction. One rail was projected 40 feet. 

These torpedoes can probably be used with success in some of the larger armies. Their greatest efficiency lies in destroying the locomotive, which cannot be replaced, whereas a torn up track can easily be relaid.  the magazine should be tarred before being used.

I am, General,

very respectfully,

Your obd't serv't


1st Lieut, U S Engineers & Chief Eng'r D.S.

Here's the accompanying diagram:



The diagram shows a "lock" from a firearm, with a lever engaging the trigger system. This has been "pre-packaged" is a small box with the initiation mechanism causing a fuze to be lit. The fuze is then connected to two containers ("magazines") placed under adjacent sleeper ties.

Despite much research I cannot find a report of a "gun-lock" initiated railway IED in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, five years after the end of the US Civil War.  But railway IEDs were used, initiated by the weight of a train on the fuze removed from an artillery shell and was the subject of my last blog post here

2. The Boer War.  Gunlock initiated IEDs were used by the Boers against British Trains in the Boer war in 1901.  Here's a diagram of the adapated Martini-Henry gun lock. The similarities of the US Civil war design of 1865 are clear.

Pictures of actual gunlocks from these devices are at this page 

3. WW1 - Lawrence of Arabia and Bimbashi Garland's attacks on Turkish trains in ArabiaLawrence of Arabia's campaign against the Ottoman Turks in the Arabian peninsula in WW1 often attacked the railway lines running south. The IEDs that Lawrence used were pretty much identical to the Boer devices, but had been developed by his ordnance specialist "Bimbashi Garland" and former Ordnance Corps laboratory technician who had been co-opted in the Arab Bureau because of his interest in archaeology.  I have no doubt that Garland was aware of the Boer methodology and simply used the same technique. Details are here

In summary then I think it is clear that the use of a gunlock placed under a railway line to initiate an explosive charge began in 1865, with the invention by Charles Smith, for the Union Army.  This technique somehow found its way to ther Boers in 1901, and then was copied again by Garland and Lawrence of Arabia in 1917.