You can contact me at rogercdavies(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.


Entries in Railway IEDs (5)


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. 




Attacking Railway Lines with IEDs - 1870

Readers of this blog will know I have written on a number of occasions about the use of IEDs against railway lines.  In one of the “threads" I have followed, I worked backwards from the use of such devices by Lawrence of Arabia in WW1, established that they had been developed and used in Arabia , by “Bimbashi” Garland, Lawrence’s explosive mentor, a former Ordnance Corps Laboratory technician, and traced the design of these devices back to the Boer War where they were used by Boer guerrillas led by Jack Hindon against the British. Devices under railway lines were also used by Russian Narodnaya Volya terrorists in 1879 and in many attacks since then.    In digging around the provenance of the Boer devices I found a vague reference to the experience of a Boer who had fought in the Franco-Prussian War 30 years earlier, that the Boer's utlised.  Here’s a list of previous posts on the matter in the order I wrote them.
I have been digging around reports on the Franco-Prussian war for some time, hampered by my sadly limited language skills, looking for something that might indicate where the Boers had gained their experience of blowing up trains using a pressure switch activated by the weight of a train. At last I have found something that fits and it’s pretty interesting. In 1870 a young Royal Engineer officer, Lt Fraser, was observing the events of the Franco-Prussian war, a habit that many armies followed in the 19th century. Lt Fraser wrote a paper, published, in the Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Vol XX in 1872. The paper is entitled  "Account of a Torpedo used for the Destruction of a Railway Train on the 26th of October, 1870.”  As a reminder the word "torpedo" was used at the time to describe a much wider variety of explosive devices and munitions than is applied today.  
Here is a brief extract from a third party source, as I await a hard copy of the publication in the post which I hope will contain more detail:
Learning that a Prussian troop train was to pass through Lanois (on the line between Reims and Mons) on October 26, 1870, they resolved to effect its destruction. How they operated is told by Lieutenant Fraser, R. E., who arrived on the spot shortly afterwards, and heard the story from some of the men engaged on the work. 
Any obstruction placed on the line would have been seen. Hence a different course had to be adopted. Selecting a spot where the line ran along a 12-ft. high embankment, to which a well-wooded slope came down on one side, the franc tireurs took up a pair of rails, removed the sleepers, cut a deep trench across the line, laid some pieces of iron at the bottom of the trench, placed on the iron a box containing thirty kilos (2 qrs. 10 lbs.) of powder, and fixed into the lid of the box a French field shell in such a way that, when the rail was replaced over the box, the head of the fuse would be just below the lower flange of the rail. In restoring the line again in order that there should be nothing to attract attention, the franc tireurs omitted one sleeper so that the weight of the locomotive should in passing press the rail down on to the head of the fuse. The party—some seventy-five strong—then withdrew to the shelter of the woods to await developments.   

In due time the train of forty coaches approached at the ordinary speed, the driver not suspecting any danger. When the engine reached the spot where the "torpedo" had been placed, an explosion occurred which tore up a mass of earth, rails and sleepers, threw the engine and several carriages down the embankment, and wrecked the train. Those of the Prussian troops who got clear from the wreckage were shot down by the franc tireurs under the protection of their cover. The number of the enemy thus disposed of was said to be about 400.
I think there is a clear link to the device I report in the my previous blogs about the depressing rail activating a pressure sensitive switch albeit in this case an artillery fuse, and not the trigger of a rifle breech as seen in the Boer War and used by Garland and Lawrence in Arabia.  The device too has a link to the earlier pressure sensitive devices, using artillery shells with contact fuses adapted to initiate on pressure used by General Raines in the American civil war in 1862.



IED triggers

In two earlier posts I wrote about how Lawrence of Arabia and Bimbashi Garland used rifle trigger mechanisms to blow up Turkish trains in World War 1, and that they appeared to have been copying an earlier design used by the Boers and Jack Hindon against British trains in the Boer war in 1901.  To remind you here's the diagram again.

I'm grateful that Dennis Walters in South Africa, who is writing a book on the Boer attacks on trains, has forwarded to me photos taken in the Royal Engineer Museum in Chatham, Kent, of a recovered trigger mechanism found under a railway in the Orange Free State on 20th June 1901.   I'll pass on details of Dennis's book when it is published, but in the meantime, here are the photos:


Blowing up railway bridges in Virginia

I've found more fascinating US civil war stuff on IEDs.  General Herman Haupt was a Union general and engineer with specific responsibilities for both repairing and destroying railways as the operational circumstances demanded.  His reminiscences can be found in  Here's a description he makes of how to make and place an IED, (a torpedo, in the parlance of the time) and a picture of the said IED.


Here's another interesting extract:


A Train Of Thought

A bomb on a railway line in Russia yesterday, 27th November, causes me to bounce, in a mind map sort of way along a series of thoughts. Let me try and replicate this below with, excusing the pun, a progression of thoughts in a train. I’ll put a link or two at each “carriage” so you can dig detail if you wish. I’m limiting my thoughts to bombs under train tracks and not bombs on trains.

The explosion yesterday appears to have derailed the train, killing at least 26 people. Interestingly there was a second explosion some hours later a short distance away - details are not yet clear.

Devices placed on railway lines, detonated as the train passes aren’t new in Russia. One occurred in 2007. Two Chechen terrorists were charged with the crime.

Earlier in Russia’s history trains were attacked by IEDs by other terrorists. Tsar Alexander II was the target of an IED attack in 1879 when the Narodnaya Volya terrorist group attempted to attack his train by placing explosives under the railway Livadia to Moscow, but they missed the tsar's train. The Narodnicks attacked the Tsar seven times, finally killing him in 1881.

One of history’s best train bombers, arguably, was Lawrence of Arabia, famous for attacks on the Turkish controlled railways in Arabia during the ”Arab revolt”. This excerpt from a letter to fellow officers from Lawrence.

In a letter to fellow officers describing one of his daring raids on a Turkish train, Lawrence vividly captures the excitement he felt fighting in the desert. The train, he wrote, “had two locomotives and we gutted one with an electric mine. This rather jumbled up the trucks , which were full of Turks shooting at us. We had a Lewis and flung bullets through the sides. So they hopped out and took cover behind the embankment and shot at us between the wheels at 50 yards.Then we tried a Stokes gun, and two beautiful shots dropped right in the middle of them. They could not stand that (12 died on the spot) and bolted away to the East across a 100-yard belt of open sand into some scrub. Unfortunately for them, the Lewis covered the open stretch."

In other conflicts too, IED shave been used against trains. The diagram below is of an IED recently researched by a colleague in South Africa dating from the Boer war and was a Boer IED used to attack trains. The device uses the trigger of a rifle which is pressed when a train travels over it.


This incident highlights the Boers’ success in wrecking trains, which plagued Roberts and Kitchener throughout the war.  No train was safe.  At first they were derailed by setting off dynamite as the train passed.  The attackers had to lie next to the line to light the fuse.  This was highly dangerous, and the Boers subsequently developed a safer method of stopping trains without injuring passengers or damaging the supplies they needed.  Old Martini-Henry rifles (for which there was no ammunition) were prepared by sawing off the butt behind the breech and removing the barrel a few inches in front of it.  The trigger-guard was the removed and the breech opened.  They inserted a cartridge without a bullet in the breech and placed a dynamite cartridge in the shortened barrel.  Stones were then removed under the rail to make a hole, which was packed with dynamite.  The mutilated breech of the rifle was then placed upside-down on top of the dynamite with the trigger just touching the rail.  When a train passed, its weight made the rail sag and set off the trigger.’  


Jumping back to modern times, and to demonstrate the potential vulnerability of rail systems, the terrorists responsible for the Madrid train bombings were believed to have planted a device under the tracks of a Madrid express train to carry out a subsequent attack but they all died when their safe house was discovered before this follow on attack could be launched.  The 12kg device was found on April 2 2004 on the Madrid to Seville express line. Other islamist/Al Qaeda plots focused on train tracks are numerous.

In France a few years ago there was a bizarre extortion plot threatening trains that soaked up thousands of hours of track searching by the police.

Elsewhere, a wide variety of groups around the world have attacked train tracks and the trains that run on them. Northern Ireland, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc etc,  Here’s a couple of reports  from India both in the last two weeks which demonstrate how commonplace such attacks are:

I think this 'train of thought' technique works quite well - please feel free to add your own carriages of related material - remember this thread is explosions of tracks to attack trains not bomb on trains.