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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 Ship IEDs (8)


Meester's Ship IEDs of 1695.

I've written a few times before about ship IEDs, which typically are massive devices sailed into an enemy port and then exploded after the crew flee. You can see my earlier posts on the subject by following the "Ship IED" link in the right hand column to this page. The earliest I have is 1584 and the "Hoop" used against the Spanish in Antwerp, and the latest is HMS Campbelltown used against the Germans in St Nazaire in WW2.  In one of my earlier posts I mentioned in passing that such devices were used by the Royal Navy against Dunkirk in the 1690s. I have used a number of sources and there are some odd date discrepancies. The main attack on Dunkirk appears to have been on 1 August 1695 but I think there were other attacks at least one other using a "machine vessel".

I have now found more details of these ship born IEDs used against Dieppe and Dunkirk in 1694 and 1695. The explosive component was designed and built by a Dutchman, Willem Meesters, who was contracted by the Ordnance Board in 1690 to provide the devices and convert a number of small ships. Meesters, favoured by the King, was appointed by the Board Of Ordnance to be "Storekeeper of the Ordnance" in the Tower of London in 1691. The attack on Dunkirk in 1695 was a complete failure and there was much recrimination between those involved and some of the blame was apportioned to Meesters. He was accused of "Cowardice and Misconduct" by the commanding admiral.  The attack on Dunkirk, as did other attacks in that era on St Malo and other targets used a range of special ships. and it is important to understand the differences:

a. "Bomb Ships" are not ships designbed to explode, they carry large mortars and bomb the target from close to shore

b. "Fire Ships" are disposable ships, which are set fire to and drift into enemy shipping, causing confusion, smoke obscuration and hopefully set fire to ships they collide with.

c. "Machine ships" are the ones we are interested in, with "infernal machines" which explode. They may be disguised as fire ships.

The technical detail of Meester's "machine ships" is described in his proposal to the Ordnance Board.  He proposed to use a watertight metal box fitted with a clockwork mechanism which acted on a flintlock as the initiator for other explosives. Around this box were packed barrels of gunpowder, scrap metal and "fireworks". Some of his vessels were designed to explode with great violence and others simply to provide smoke screens.

Meester's design, in general principle, is identical to both that of the "Hoop" in 1585, and the Campbeltown in 1942 - a mechanical time fuze set to initaite a massive improvised charge in a ship. I still find it fascinating that this neer identical history of ship IEDs stretches so long over the centuries.

In May 1692, Meesters was authorised to purchase a number of vessels in which his 'machines' could be fitted. He bought, at first, seven vessels and some months were spent fitting them out for his purpose. All the ships were former Dutch merchant vessels. These were renamed, and by 1694 were based in Portsmouth, each with a crew of 10. A number of these were paid off and not used but the ones deployed operationally which exploded were:

1. Abram's Offering, a 55ft vessel under Commander Edward Cole. this ship was recorded as "expended" during the Dunkirk attack in "September 1696". 

2. Saint Nicholas, a 70ft vessel under Commander Roert Dunbar. This was exploded in an attack on Dieppe in July 1694.

Then a series of smaller vessels were bought each with a crew of 4. These were never used.

In 1695 four larger vessels were purchased and all were exploded in an attack on Dunkirk in August 1695. I have only the names of these vessels - Ephraim, Happy Return, Mayflower and the Wiliam and Elizabeth.  All four of these "machine vessels" were set too early and didn't get close enough to shore and caused no damage to the Dunkirk targets when they exploded. The admirals were not happy, Meesters was arrested, made to demonstrate another device, which itself failed. But he seemed to retain the patronage of the King, and remained in his official position at the Tower of London until 1701.

Despite the attack being a failure, I have found a treasury record that he was paid (three years later), the large sum of £3222 for provision of these machine ships for the attack on Dunkirk.


April 6, 1588 - a Dutch ship borne IED

Further digging has unearthed the story of a Dutch ship-borne IED on about April 6th, 1588, a few months before the Armada. I've found reference in letters to Elizabeth's spy-master, Francis Walsingham, from an agent, David Cabreth,based in Calais and which enclosed a letter from Cabreth's "servant" Renault le Normand, based I think in Dunkirk.  Cabreth was an adventurer from King's Lynn in Norfolk who had a privateer's commission ("a Letter of Reprisal") against the Spanish in Northern France, and the typical sort of person that Walsingham used in his network. In this case Cabreth apears to have been running a spy network for Walsingham.   In March or April (the dates are a little confused) a Dutch "bark" (a small trading vessel) entered the port of Dunkirk, then held by the Spanish. They were challenged as to the cargo by port security officials and claimed it contained "cheese and beer". It appears they tied up the ship in the port and then the crew departed in a small boat giving the excuse they had to recover an anchor from near the port entrance. The ship however was loaded with "powder and stones" and by some means set to explode shortly after the crew departed.

Three ships along with the bark were destroyed, two of them carrying Spanish munitions. An area of buildings around the port were damaged. The report suggests the "sudden blast did so terrify the Spaniards that they went howling about the street, crying like cats".

Fragments of an explosive barrel reported landed on another vessel, which brought it to Calais for investigation - early IED Technical intelligence!

The significance of the explosion I think might have reinforced the Armada's concerns about explosive ships amongst the fireships launched against it a few months later which caused such disruption and led to the defeat of the Armada by the English in August of that year.

I can't help wondering if Frederigo Giambelli, the builder of the "Hoop" ship IED in 1584 had a hand in this attack. He had been working for Walsingham since 1585.  This device in Dunkirk clearly had to have had a reliable and discreet time fuze - the port authroities might have seen the smoke from a burnng fuse.  


USS Intrepid - Another ship-borne massive IED

I’m indebted to John C Wideman, author of an excellent and detailed study of US civil war IEDs for information about another ship-borne IED similar to those mentioned in an earlier blog post

The USS Intrepid was a ketch, originally named the Mastico, captured from Tripoli (now in Libya) in the First Barbary War. The First Barbary War has its origins in interesting parallels with modern piracy.
In 1804, the Intrepid was converted into a “floating volcano”, to be sent into Tripoli harbour and blown up amidst the corsair fleet adjacent to the walls of the port’s fortress. The ketch was loaded with 150 artillery shells and 100 barrels of gunpowder. Burning fuzes with a 15 minute delay were attached.  a crew of 11, led by Lt Richard Somers manned the vessel.  On entering Tripoli harbour, it cane under intense fire, and was unable to manoeuvre towards the intended target.  The 15 minute fuze proved unreliable and the ship detonated prematurely, killing the crew who had intended escaping by row boat.
USS Intrepid exploding in Tripoli Harbour
So, it can be seen, the explosively laden ship has been a repeated tactic, since 1584:
1584 - The explosion of the “Hoop”, Antwerp, against the invading Spanish Army. This incident remains, in my opinion the IED that has killed most victims in history, with 800 - 1000 killed. Tell me if I'm wrong.
1693 - The “Vesuvius”, used by the British under Admiral Benbow against St Malo
1694 - The Dieppe Raid, and raids against Dunkirk using the same technique
1804 - The Intrepid used by the American Navy against Tripoli, North Africa
1809 - Two explosive ships used by Admiral Cochrane, against the French, in the Basque Roads. Notably these had 15 minute fuses which exploded prematurely.
1864 - USS Louisiana, used in the US Civil war against Fort Fisher, Wilmington, N Carolina. 
1918 - Zeebrugge raid, by the British Navy, using a submarine packed with explosives
1942 - HMS Campbelltown rammed into the dock gates in St Nazaire by the Royal Navy. 



Operation Lucid - to singe Mr Hitler's moustache

I've blogged before about the use of exploding ships and other fireships in history here.  But I've just found another interesting plan of combined exploding/fire ships in World War Two, a plan called Operation Lucid.

With a German invasion fleet massing around Calais and Boulogne, a series of pretty desperate measures were considered as methods of damaging the invasion fleet. Churchill, with his taste of history and knowledge of the fireships used against the Spanish Armarda, approved a plan put forward by Captain Augustus Agar VC. The plan involved two or three old oil tankers, filled with an incendiary mix and explosives to be steamed into the the large collection of German wooden invasion barges being collected at Calais and Boulogne.   The incendiary mix , dubbed "Agar's Special Mixture" consisted of 50% heavy fuel oil, 25% diesel oil, and 25% petroleum (gasoline).  The explosive components consisted of unmeasured, but large, quantities of gun cotton, cordite and old sea mines.

Here's a quote from one of the sailors assigned to the operation:

Chief Petty Officer Ronald Apps recalled:

In July 1940, I joined a Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker – the War African – that was anchored off Sheerness for an idea that I have always assumed was thought up by Churchill. These tankers were filled up with fuel oil and there were mines and detonators down in the holds. The idea was that we would run them over to Boulogne and about five or six miles out of the harbour, we would set the controls and lash them – with the boilers going full bore – and run them into Boulogne harbour and let them blow up, to destroy the potential German invasion fleet. It was called Operation Lucid and we spent four weeks preparing. We practised setting the controls and evacuating the ship with two speedboats alongside us which had been commandeered from Southend. These speedboats were remarkable things. They could go at 35 or 40 knots and the idea was that at the blowing of a whistle, we had to rush down, get in the boats and we were away. Those four weeks were a bit hairy because the tanker was full up with fuel oil when it came to us and it was primed and ready to explode and there were air raids at night. When you're in a tanker, sitting on all this explosive material and the Germans are coming over and dropping bombs, it's not very ... shall I say 'sleep inspiring' experience. I got round to the idea that I had to sleep or I wouldn't be able to walk around the next day. 
In the end there were four attempts to launch the operation, but each failed for a variety of reasons, not least that the elderly ships adapted for the task were simply not reliable enough and kept breaking down. There are more details here.
There are some odd, almost spooky links between the operation's commander, Agar VC, and previous blog posts I have written. Agar is a really interesting historic character. He had participated in the Zeebrugge raid in 1918 (link) and so was not new to the concept of the modern use of an explosively laden vessel. He was awarded the VC in mysterious circumstances because he was operating at the end of WW1 in support of SIS operations in Russia - running agents in and out of Bolshevik Russia using MTBs in the Baltic and other nefarious activities. As well as the VC he was also awarded the DSO. The DSO and the VC were awarded for two seperate motor torpoedo attacks on Bolshevik cruisers based on the idland of Kronstadt (the site of this story in a previous blog).
I never imagined putting a link to a Daily Mail article on my blog, but this story here of the Baltic operations is worth breaking the rule.
The story of how he commanded HMS Dorsetshire, which was sunk under him by Japanese dive bombers in 1942, is also a remarkable story.

Big IEDs in Ships

As promised, a quick “connections’ commentary on some pretty remarkable IEDs on ships and boats in history.

“Fireships” in terms of boats and ships loaded with incendiary material go back in history – I have found reference to them as far back as 413 BC.  With the invention of gunpowder, fireships occasionally contained gunpowder. Sometimes in massive quantities.  In an earlier blog here, I wrote about the “hellburners”,  two explosively laden fireships used by the Dutch defenders of Antwerp in 1584 against the invading Spanish – one of these the “Hoop” (Hope) detonated against a temporary Spanish bridge, killing 800 - 1000 soldiers. If this is true, it is still probably the most lethal single IED in history. I have now found a diagram purporting to the the clockwork timing mechanisms of the device manufacter by Bory. The Hellburner itself was designed by the Italian Giambelli, who possibly at the time (and certainly later) was an agent of the British.

References I have found recently suggest that Giambelli mounted a series of earlier attacks , floating explosive objects down the tidal river, with limited success. These IEDs were generally floating objects and rafts which carried barrels of gunpowder on a burning fuse.

After these earlier attacks failed Giambelli “thought big” and amidst a fleet of regular fire vessels sailed two explosive vessels (the “Hoop” and the “Fortune”) down the tide towards the target bridge. My earlier post has more details.  The "Fortune" had a burning fuse (which I have also fund an description of, but it is too complex to post details here).

The Hellburner incident and the use of explosive ships (described by the Italians as “Maschina Infernale”, and by the British as “Machine Vessels” became well known among the navies of Europe for several hundred years.

Just over a hundred years later in 1693 the British Navy led by Admiral Benbow used a ship, imaginatively named the Vesuvius, laden with 300 tons of explosives, (other sources say 20,000 pounds of gunpowder) during an attack on the French port of St Malo. The vessel was sailed in by a Captain Philips. The ship did not quite reach its target, became stuck on a rock and exploded “blowing the roofs of half the town”. But causing little loss of life.  The capstan of the “machine vessel” was thrown several hundred yards and landed on an Inn destroying it.Machine ship "Vesuvius", 1693

The following year in a raid on Dieppe, again led by Benbow a machine vessel was sent in to the port to destroy it. The ship, skippered by a Capt Dunbar was placed again the quay – and the crew and Capt Dunbar left it quickly. Unfortunately the fuze went out – but Dunbar re-boarded the vessel, re–lit the fuze, and evacuated a second time.

The Dieppe Raid, 1694

Similar machine vessel attacks were mounted on Dunkirk in the same year.

(Note: There were a number of vessels developed in parallel at the time , known as “bomb vessels” but these should not be confused with machine vessels. Bomb vessels were essentially ships built to mount and fire mortars.  To confuse matters the Vesuvius was a bomb vessel converted to a machine vessel)

A little over 100 years later in 1809 Captain (later Admiral ) Cochrane used an explosively laden ship in the Battle of the Basque Roads on the Biscay Atlantic coast of France.  Cochrane used two explosive ships and twenty-one fire ships to attack the French fleet moored off Ile d’Aix.  Here’s Captain Cochrane’s description (who personally set the fuses on one explosion vessel himself)

 "To our consternation, the fuses, which had been constructed to burn fifteen minutes, lasted little more than half that time, when the vessel blew up, filling the air with shells, grenades, and rockets; whilst the downward and lateral force of the explosion raised a solitary mountain of water, from the breaking of which in all directions our little boat narrowly escaped being swamped. The explosion-vessel did her work well, the effect constituting one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable. For a moment, the sky was red with the lurid glare arising from the simultaneous ignition of fifteen hundred barrels of powder. On this gigantic flash subsiding, the air seemed alive with shells, grenades, rockets, and masses of timber, the wreck of the shattered vessel. The sea was convulsed as by an earthquake, rising, as has been said, in a huge wave, on whose crest our boat was lifted like a cork, and as suddenly dropped into a vast trough, out of which as it closed upon us with the rush of a whirlpool, none expected to emerge. In a few minutes nothing but a heavy rolling sea had to be encountered, all having again become silence and darkness."

Cochrane went on , in 1812, to design even bigger machine vessels, but never got the political support needed to build or employ them. His 1812 designs used a hulk, rather than a rigged vessel.

“The decks would be removed, and an inner shell would be constructed of heavy timbers and braced strongly to the hull. In the bottom of the shell would be laid a layer of clay, into which obsolete ordnance and metal scrap were embedded. The "charge," in the form of a thick layer of powder, would next be placed, and above that would be laid rows and rows of shells and animal carcasses.   The explosion ship would then be towed into place at an appropriate distance from anchored enemy ships, heeled to a correct angle by means of an adjustment in the ballast loaded in the spaces running along each side of the hulk between the inner and outer hulls, and anchored securely. When detonated, the immense mortar would blast its lethal load in a lofty arc, causing it to spread out over a wide area and to fall on the enemy in a deadly torrent. Experiments conducted with models in the Mediterranean, during his layoff, convinced Cochrane that three explosion ships, properly handled, could saturate a half-mile-square area with 6,000 missiles--enough destructive force to cripple any French squadron even if it lay within an enclosed anchorage.”

In 1864, during the American Civil war an explosively laden ship, the USS Louisiana was used to attack a Confederate fort, Fort Fisher, guarding Wilmington, North Carolina.  The ship was meant to be run aground adjacent to the fort walls and then detonated.  The ship was carrying “215 tons of explosives”. The attack failed as the Louisiana detonated too far away from the fort walls to cause damage. 

Here’s a diagam of the ship. Note the huge amount of explosives. I have obtained a detailed description of the numerous initiation systems and fuzes but it is too complex to post here easily.  Suffice to say there were 5 independent firing systems.

USS Louisiana, 1864

Just over a fifty years later the Zeebrugge raid of 1918 saw the British Royal Navy again use an explosive vessel, this time the submarine C-3, under Lt Cdr Sandford. Sandford was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.

"This officer was in command of submarine C3, and most skilfully placed that vessel in between the piles of the viaduct before lighting his fuse and abandoning her. He eagerly undertook this hazardous enterprise, although well aware (as were all his crew) that if the means of rescue failed and he or any of his crew were in the water at the moment of the explosion, they would be killed outright by the force of such explosion. Yet Lieutenant Sandford disdained to use the gyro steering which would have enabled him and his crew to abandon the submarine at a safe distance, and preferred to make sure, as far as was humanly possible, of the accomplishment of his duty." After pushing the submarine under the piles of the viaduct and setting the fuse, he and his companions** found that the propeller of their launch was broken, and they had to resort to oars and to row desperately hard against the strong current to get a hundred yards away before the charge exploded. They had a wonderful escape from being killed by the falling debris.

Damage caused by the detonation of the C-3 - Zeebrugge 1918

The final one from this series is Operation Chariot, aka “the Greatest Raid”, the British Navy and commando raid on St Nazaire in 1942.  I won’t repeat the story, other than provide this link to the Wikipedia article – not many wikiperida articles make the hairs of my neck stand up, but this one does. In this raid, HMS Campbletown was converted into a massive IED and rammed into the docks in St Nazaire to prevent their use by the German Battleship Tirpitz.

 HMS Campbelltown rammed onto the dock gates in St Nazaire, before she exploded. 1942.

One big concept - massive IEDs in ships, woven through history.  

I have much more to post on historical naval IEDs. Be patient!