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 Railway IEDs (12)


Railway attack on British troops - 1948

More on interesting railway attacks. During the years after WW1 up to Israeli Independence, the British forces in Palestine came under repeated attack from both Arab and Jewish Groups. I posted a picture of one (immoral) counter-measures used in 1936 against Arab attacks here.  I've also found some details of Jewish militant devices from both Irgun and Lehi (the latter referred to by the British Army as the Stern gang). 

Probably the most significant of the Lehi attacks was in late February 1948, a few days after the VBIED attack carried out by British Army deserters in Jerusalem, described in an earlier blog here. In this railway attack electrically initiated comand wire IEDs were used to attack the train carrying British troops from Port Said near Cairo to Hiafa. The attack occurred just outside Rehovot.  28 British soldiers died in the attack. The command initiation point was in a nearby orange grove, with a full view of the train as it ran along an embankment.


Interestingly the intensity of the bombing campaign was so high in 1946 that the Britsh military, reducing in size following WW2, were short of EOD operators, and so sought volunteers. This is an interesting quote from one of those volunteerrs

"District asked for two volunteers to attend a Bomb Disposal Course in Jerusalem. I don't know how many fools applied but I was one of the Twelve Apostles that found themselves rather hurriedly in Jerusalem. For our tutor we had a hightly experienced Sapper Major; His opening words to the twelve of us as we sat in the classroom in the Police Depot at Mount Scopus were as follows: 'Gentlemen. I have seen Bomb Disposal service in France, the African campaign, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany, and now here. I am wise and experienced, but here I haven't a bloody clue.' It was like a sentence of death." My Trinity, Eric Howard.




Attacking the Tsar's train with IEDs, 1879

A shorter gap between blog posts than usual, as I am prompted by responses to the last one about a railway IED in 1880.  This one is about a series of three IEDs all targeting the same train, all carrying Tsar Nicholas II on a journey from the Crimea to St Petersburg in November 1879.   The attack also allows me to explore once again the concepts of tactical or operational design, which describes how, why, what and when an IED plot is developed and instigated and the factors which constrain or provide opportunity to the development of a terrorist plan.. It also allows me to dissect in more detail why railway IED attacks have seemed attractive over the years.
The group concerned was the revolutionary group Narodnaya Volya. Read upon them if you have time, elsewhere.  The sub groups concerned with this “triple” plot are in interesting mix of revolutionaries, peasants and engineer/scientists.  In 1879 Narodnya Volya "passed a death sentence” on the Tsar in August 1879 for all the reasons you can read about elsewhere.  It then came to their attention that the Tsar, who used the railways extensively to travel throughout Russia, would be travelling from the Crimea where he had a “summer residence” at Livadia, all the way North to St Petersburg.  They therefore could predict, somewhat, his route.  Here we come to the issue about railways, that when you look at it, is obvious but needs pointing out. Railways are attractive to terrorists because:
  • The railway provides a location, somewhere on its length, where a target will present itself. The terrorist knows that the target will be at any specific point along its length at some point, between point A and B, at some perhaps unknown time. So it's a location where the target “will” present itself with a degree of certainty, and the manner of that presentation (in a railway carriage) is also known. This is a factor a terrorist can exploit.
  • In many circumstances, trains are scheduled by a time table. so again the terrorist has a factor he can exploit to a greater or lesser extent. This may give him options for detonating the device, either by timer, or by a victim-operated (train operated booby trap) switch, or by command, allowing the terrorist to only be present at a firing point for a limited period of time, enhancing his security.
  • The lengths of railways lines (in this case hundreds of miles) ensures that the terrorist has freedom to lay a device, when no-one else is around, perhaps at night or at distance from people. Security measures cannot cover hundreds of miles of railway. so there is a freedom of action for the terrorist to exploit. In essence every dark night and in every remote location the authorties are forced to relinquish control of the railway.
  • The nature of railway lines provides additional factors that the terrorist can exploit. Firstly it is easy bury and hide a device under a rail. secondly the fact that a train is travelling at speed adds to the effect of an explosion which might, perhaps simply rupture the lines - a train will then be derailed, and thus the explosive effects can be added too if needed, so as well as explosive damage there is the kinetic energy release of a train crash. Trains have a large mass, and a high speed, potentially, and these are again factors for the terrorist to exploit in terms of energy utilisation, especially on a bridge or embankment.
  • Some other factors, which might appear trivial but which can be important. The railway line can usually be found easily by the terrorist -"Go to station A and walk up the line a particular distance." The rail system itself is a mode of transport for the terrorist and the IED. Railways are large constructions and a train can usually be seen approaching from a considerable distance, allowing the terrorist some freedoms, and some warnings which can again alert him and allow him to be in a dangerous firing point for a limited period of time. The noise of a train at night also provides this “signal” to a terrorist, which can help them.
In this case, the Narodnaya Volya, as was sometimes their wont, decided on three separate IED attacks on the train as it carried the Tsar from the Crimea, northwards to Moscow and on to St Petersburg at different points in its journey, providing a degree of built-in redundancy in their plot. Interestingly it was known that there had been a plot ten years earlier in 1869 to attack the Tsar’s train in Elizavetgrad with explosives. so the “concept” of such an attack was known to the revolutionaries. In effect they had a template half formed in their mind already.  
The group had a “man on the inside’, employed as a railway-guard near Odessa who was able to provide a degree of information.  This probably included the fact that actually the Tsar’s train traveled in convoy with at least one other train, one carrying his entourage, with the Tsar in the second train (according to some sources there were three trains and he traveled in the third). This ruled out the sort of attack described in my earlier blog post about the attack in UK, which was designed to be initiated by a train, because that would simply hit the first train.  Thus the attacks on the Tsar in the second or third train had to be by command initiation.   Three subgroups were formed, one for each attack. They were supplied with over 200 pounds of dynamite made by their technical expert Nikolai Kibalchich in his apartment on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg. Kibalchich carefully tested the explosives and the other components, using as a power source a Ruhmkorff induction coil - which produces high voltage pulses from a low voltage battery (plenty of good you-tubes on such things)
  1. At a point on the railway near Odessa, Kilbalchich and four others developed the tunnel or trench to run the wires to an explosive charge under the railway taking two weeks to get it into position. Kibalchich brought the explosives he had made himself in a suitcase.  Then, days before the expected attack they got news from the insider that the Tsar wouldn't be travelling on the stretch of track they had expected. So they packed up, recovered the explosives and abandoned this aspect of the plot. 
  2. At a village called Aleksandrovsk, a village between the Crimea and Kharkhov a second group of five rented a house close to the railway line.  With difficulty they dug a shallow trench all the way to the railway embankment, laying an electrical cable.  It seems the circuit was faulty and when the circuit was closed nothing happened, and the Tsar’s train passed over unharmed.
  3. At the third point, on the approaches to Moscow, the terrorists successfully detonated the device, electrically, under the second train, not knowing that for unknown reasons the order had changed and the Tsar was in the first train which was allowed to pass safely. In this case the device exploded under the baggage train. Interestingly in the “follow up” the police raided the house where the device had been initiated from and remarked how well everything had been "properly camouflaged" to ensure a casual visitor wouldn't deduce what was going on. More evidence of very careful planning.

So the attacks all failed in their stated intent. But nonetheless Narodnaya Volya claimed a degree of success in terms of derailing the Tsar’s baggage train, and notably announced their pride in planning such a complex operation with care and great diligence. The group saw the attack as a “modern” attack better than confronting the target with a revolver and little chance of escape. Interestingly not long after in 1881 they succeeded in assassinating the Tsar, in St Petersburg, but not by “sophisticated” command devices, allowing their escape but with a bomb simply thrown at the feet of the Tsar, in effect a suicide bomb. 
There has been some discussion about how the Narodnaya Volya attacks may have ben a preliminary inspiration for other railway attacks that occurred in subsequent decades.  But while it may have been something of an inspiration I think that the experience of the US Civil war, where there were a number of IED attacks on railways, and indeed the IED incident I reported on previously in 1870 as art of the Franco-Prussion war, showed the world the potential vulnerabilities of railways to IEDs, well before the Russian events detailed here. 
To return to the tactical and operational design concept. I think it's useful to look in detail at this triple plot, (which failed) compared to the assassination of of the Tsar two years later, which succeeded. An understanding of the design of these plots, and indeed any plot is best elicited (I propose) by asking the following questions of each incident:
  1.  Why did the attack occur here, at this point?   The answer is rarely simple, and indeed some of the factors may not even be recognised by the terrorist perpetrator themselves. A few years ago doing a study of roadside bombs in Iraq, an activity I was associated with established 27 different factors which affected the choice of firing point , route of command wire and initiation point. 
  2. Why did the attack occur at this time?  Again think beyond just time of day.
  3. Why was this target attacked?
  4. Why was this particular device used? Not just the actual device but why this means of initiation, this size, in this container , etc. sometimes an IED is presented to a perpertrator and they have to use it somehow, at other times the device is designed or at least adapted for a particular mission. Understanding which of these options occurred is a useful insight.  Sometimes it is driven by some of the other factors.
Answering as many of those questions as you can will give insights into the expertise, resources and skills of the perpertrator, and also provide other valuable information or suggest other leads for the investigator.  for the historian too these leads may become fruitful as a result. Comparing the answers regarding these attacks in 1879 and the subsequent successful assassination two years later in intriguing - very different operations, yet counter-intuitively the mission with less detailed planning succeeded. How Narodnaya Volya got from planning meticulously three electrically initiated command devices, over the length of the country (all of which failed in one sense) to a much more ad hoc but successful suicide bombing gives insights that are valuable today, I submit.

A railway bomb in Watford, 1880.

Another in my series of bombs on railways. (see the tags for Railway IEDs in the RH column) This one an unsolved case from 1880 where the perpertrators of an attempt to blow up the London and North Western railway were never discovered.  Early on the morning of Monday 13th September 1880, a gang of workmen were doing a routine check of the line between Bushey and Watford, about 16 miles north of Euston. They were half a mile from Bushey station  when they discovered an explosive device, apparently damaged by a passing train. The device consisted of a package of dynamite placed beneath the rails. Connected to it was a rubber tube filled with gunpowder and some detonators. The assessment is that the rubber tube was somehow placed on the line, with the intent that a train's wheels would have crushed the detonators, ignited the gunpowder and hence initiated the dynamite.  The workers recovered the package and took it to the police, suggesting that the rubber tube had fallen off the rail due to the vibrations of the approaching train. A separate, slightly contradictory, report suggests the tube was cut by the trains wheels but no detonator had been crushed. I suspect the former is more likely. The dynamite was in the form of cylinders, 4 inches long, and one inch in diameter, then wrapped in newspaper, and then brown paper, tied with whipcord. Later analysis suggests the dynamite and detonators were standard commercially available materials for quarrying. 

The motive for the attack was unclear. One suggestion was that the device was the work of Russian "nihilists" attempting to assassinate Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, who travelled on the line a day or two earlier. 


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).