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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 Timed IEDs (12)


IEDs in Belfast - 1922

Ian Jones has passed me details of IEDs in Ulster in 1922. Ian is a real EOD history guru and I recommend his excellent books

In 1922 Ireland was still being fought over and Irish republican bomb attacks were still relatively frequent (see my earlier posts such as this

Belfast was no different and a range of IEDs were encountered. There are details below of some interesting devices.  But note that the military response to these was by the Royal Engineers, not the RAOC who later became responsible in the province for such activity.  In a report published in the Royal Engineer Journal, which I cannot reproduce here for copyright reasons,  Captain EW T Graham-Carter reports a series of incidents that his Unit responded to. 

1. An attempted bombing of a telephone junction box in Arthur Square in the centre of Belfast, two IRA men disguised and equipped as telephone repair men opened a manhole cover and left a times device behind. A Sapper Unit was requested to deal with the device. The manhole was filled with water by the Fire Brigade (!) and after three hours the package was removed. The device, wrapped in sacking, consisted of a wooden box with a slider switch on the outside. The timing device was an adapted alarm clock. (There are pictures in the journal). The device failed because the alarm clock had not been wound up. The main charge was an unidentifed home made explosive or incendiary material (possibly sodium chlorate and sulphur). The initiators were interesting - two glass tubes sealed with insulating tape with two copper electrodes immersed in magnesium flash powder. Subsequent experiments were able to cause the main charge mix to explode. 

2. A series of other devcies are interesting because like many modern devices in the Middle East they utilised artillery shells, in this case 18pdr, but filled with home-made explosive. These were left in a number of "picture-houses" (cinemas), but on a number of occasions failed to function and were recovered by the Royal Engineers.

3. Other devices were designed to be hidden by or in roads. One found near Armagh consisted of hollow concrete blocks, 9in X 9in X 9in, with the addition of scrap metal as improvised shrapnel. It held 5lbs of explsoive and was initiated electrically by a command wire of 300 yards in length. 

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Apart from the Sappers that is. 


Westminster - an Explosive Past in a 100m Radius

The recent murder of people on Westminster Bridge and the stabbing to death of a policeman at the gates of the Houses of Parliament New Palace Yard have highlighted that the British centre of government and state power has a natural attraction to terrorists.  In my blogs I often look at threads in history of terrorism.  One can find, occasionally, interesting threads in the warp and weft of time, and usually I follow technical threads as far as I can.  But Westminster provides another thread, at right angles, the thread of geography, in a history of explosives and munitions. Bear with me as I recount the explosive history of Westminster - some of which you will know and others you won’t. I have underlined certain specific locations in order to make the point about repeated locations. Westminster is a surprisingly compact place and most of the incidents listed below occurred within about 100m of each other.   For context here's a plan of the explosive incidents in the Houses of Parliament, just about all within a circus of 100m radius:
Locations and Dates - Westminster
1605.   The Gunpowder Plot.  Of course you will know that the Gunpowder Plot targeted Parliament itself, and there is little new I can repeat here. But one aspect is interesting in the light of very modern accusation of “fake news” and “false flag” operations. There has been a school of thought over the ages since soon after the plot itself, that the Gunpowder Plot was a false flag conspiracy dreamt up by loyal royalists to discredit the Catholic opposition. The suggestion is that Sir Robert Cecil, the Royal Chancellor, coordinated a "false flag" operation for political motives, to persuade the public and the King himself that harsh measures were needed to keep persecuting Roman Catholics in England. There is also a suggestion that the gunpowder recovered from the 36 barrels discovered in the Westminster Undercroft had deteriorated so much that it may not have exploded anyway.  In another interesting parallel with today, and attitudes towards Muslims after the recent Westminster attack, King James himself, speaking to both Houses of Parliament five days later made clear that he believed that the plot had been the work of only a few Catholics, not of the English Catholics as a whole. By modern terminology the device was a large timed IED, the timing component being burning fuze.


A report from a few years after the PlotThe Conspirators

1885.     Dynamite Saturday - As part of a dynamite campaign Irish American “Fenian" terrorists planned and executed ”Dynamite Saturday" detonating a number of devices across London. One device exploded as it was being moved by policemen in Westminster Hall.

PCs Cole and Cox are blown up in Westminster Hall

PC William Cole was a London Police officer on duty in the Houses of Parliament on 24 January 1885. He was notified by a visitor, a Mr Green, about a smoking black bag on the steps between the St Mary Undercroft chapel and Westminster Hall, both within the Palace of Westminster. The bag was on the third step of the staircase that lead to the main part of Westminster Hall.  Bravely, Cole picked up the smoking bag and ran up the stairs of Westminster Hall with the intent of moving the bag outside into New Palace Yard. He was preceded by Mr Green who shouted “Dynamite!” to clear the way.  But before he could reach the door,  the bombfuze began to burn his hand, causing him to drop the bag - a second later the bag fully exploded. Cole and his colleague PC Cox, were injured, their clothes largely blown off them  and they lay, blackened in the crater caused by the bomb.  Mr Green was injured in his eyes and his two female companions were “bereft of their upper garments".  Other police and the Deputy Segeant at Arm's wife, Lady Horatia, rushed to attend to the injured. Cole was unconscious, and Cox was "rolling about, talking incoherently and hitting out with his fists although two constables held him down.’  Both officers were described in the politically incorrect language of the time as “black as n*****s”.  Seconds later, another bomb exploded in the empty House of Commons.   In one of those interesting pieces of history (given my interest in the Government’s Inspector of Explosives of the time, Colonel Majendie), Lady Horatia, the wife of the Deputy Sergeant was coopted by the police in the aftermath to help control access to the Hall. Imagine the scene,  the redoubtable Victorian lady assuming the role of gate guardian to a terrorist bomb incident. A short, bearded foreign gentleman approaches and demands access in a German accent, to inspect the scene. Lady Horatia is having none of it and physically blocks his path , firmly instructing a footman to “put him out”, ejecting him from the Hall.  It was in fact Dr August DuPre, the German born Chemist who was Col Majendie’s most important technical assistant and official Home Office consulting chemist who played a key and official role in investigating explosive crime.   PC Cole (later promoted to Sergeant) regained consciousness the next day, and was awarded the Albert Medal for his bravery, which was presented to him on the exact site of the explosion.  Mr Green suffered permanent injury to his sight but was not compensated despite the efforts of the Deputy Sergeant at Arms (probably prompted by the fierce Lady Horatia). Interestingly the body of PC Keith Palmer who was fatally stabbed in 2017 was kept overnight in St Mary Undercroft before his funeral.   My assessment of the device based on an interpretation of the reports and the fact that a James Cunningham was seen lighting a  fuze on a similar bomb that same day at the Tower of London was that the device was a timed IED, with less than 2.5kg of explosives, with burning fuze being the timing element. James Cunningham and an accomplice, Harry Burton, were sentenced to life imprisonment for their role in the bombings. Interestingly this bombing changed the ambivalent feeling of the USA towards the Fenians. Prior to this UK governmental efforts to encourage the US to constrain Fenian activity had fallen on deaf ears, but with an attack on parliament, wheels began to turn.


1939-1945. Although not terrorist attacks, the Houses of Parliament were subject to explosive attack frequently in WW2.   It was hit by German bombs on 12 occasions (nine exploded, 3 were defused) and the House of Commons was destroyed in a subsequent fire after an incendiary bomb attack - one of numerous incendiary bomb attacks.  The buildings were hit three times by our own anti-aircraft guns, one hitting Big Ben. Here’s a Pathe film of the aftermath of one attack.    Particular damage was caused by an explosive bomb on St Stephen’s Cloister on 8 December 1940, and the incendiary attack that destroyed the House of Commons and damaged the roof of Westminster Hall occurred on 10 and 11 May 1941. Three people were killed in all the attacks.

Bomb damage St Stephens Cloister, 1940

1974.  During the construction of the Underground carpark beneath New Palace Yard, the IRA was able to exploit the poor control over a large number of casual workers employed on the contract to place a bomb in a ladies toilet adjacent to Westminster Hall.  It exploded at 8am on 17 June, igniting a gas main causing considerable damage (photo).

1974, Westminster Hall Bombing

The IRA claimed it contained 20 lbs of explosive. That might be an exaggeration.  The device was probably on a  mechanical timer and laid the previous evening, I suspect. The authorities in Westminster have deliberately not removed all the black soot and sign of burning from one corner of Westminster Hall, where is remains to remind those present of the threat to democracy

1979.  The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) planted a bomb on the car of MP Airey Neave. the device exploded as Neave drove his car out of the underground car park in New Palace Yard. Neave died shortly afterwards. the device probably contained less than 2kg of explosive and was probably initiated by a ball bearing tilt switch. It is possible that the device was placed on the car before it entered Parliament buildings

Neave Assassination

From this list I have excluded a number of nearby incidents, including:

1. A Fenian bombing of the underground between Westminster Bridge station and Charing Cross station in 1882.

2. A suffragette bomb planted in Westminster Abbey in 1914.

3. An IRA mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991.

There are also a number of unsuccessful plots (other than 1605) relating to Westminster which I’m still gathering data on - the strangest is a post WW2 plot to drop bombs contained in adapted fire extinguishers on Parliament by an extreme militant zionist from a charted plane flown from France. More later on that!
Of course the nature of the target of these incidents attracts attention because of the political focus of power from the geography of the target. If I may be allowed a slightly political comment, following the stabbing of PC Keith Palmer and the associated murders on Westminster Bridge some commentators expressed the opinion that London was running scared from terrorism, and that the terrorists were winning. The silly phrase “London has fallen” was used by some of the alt-right to describe the incident, and people talked of Londoners being fearful and terrorised. I don't believe that to be true.  With the possible excerption of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, none of the other incidents ever caused anyone to suggest that terrorists could defeat our democracy and culture even though they penetrated the buildings of Parliament themselves. In 400 years, attackers have penetrated parliament many times and British culture and democracy remains. The perpertrator of the attack in 2017, armed with his mothers kitchen knife was shot before he entered the building and we can now forget his name.  

18th Century TPU, 19th Century Grave Robbers

I've blogged before about the use of flintlocks and other gun-lock mechanisms used as initiators in IEDs between the end of the 16th century and the middle of the 19th century.   Some recent digging has made me think that the integration of a timing mechanism with a flintlock mechanism was a widely used system, perhaps not regularly within an IED but widely enough that it's use must have been well known, even if only as a potential initiation system.  Here's some images of a couple of peculiar alarm clocks which I think make the point well. The operator sets a time on the clock which when reached released a spring loaded trigger on a flintlock.  A small amount of powder is then initiated which also ignite the wick of a candle which then by a linked spiring stands up in the box. These are I think from the period 1715- 1740 or thereabouts. Nowadays we'd call these a Time and Power Unit (TPU)

 I have also found a "set gun" which attached a flintlock to a tripwire, used as a deterrent for both for both poachers and grave robbers. Here's an image of one of these.  

To be clear I'm not suggesting any of these are IEDs, just that such a mechanism could have been used at the tme to initiate explosive devices.  The set guns were outlawed eventually but in 1878 an inventor, Mr Clover of Columbus, Ohio then came up with a "coffin torpedo" to deter grave robbers who opened a coffin with something like a shotgun cartridge, initiated by the opening lid.  "Torpedo" was the name given to IEDs at that time.   

In 1881 a Mr Howell invented two "Grave Torpedos", much more like IEDs and images from the patent application is shown below. These were much more like an American Civil War land mine, placed on top of a coffin with a plate above it, designed to be initiated when the grave robbers dug down.

These were effective - a grave robber was killed by the device and an accomplice wounded: 



Spanish naval troopship destroyed by an IED?

The Brod Martolisi was a high sided, commercial trading ship, of 800 tons, probably built in Dubrovnik some time before 1585.  It was a little under 100ft long.  It was owned by Petrov Jug and Jaketa Martolosic, traders operating from an Adriatic base. “Brod Martolisi” means "Martoli’s ship”, probably referring to the latter of the two owners. The ship served a wide range of trading in the Mediterranean and beyond. In 1586 it was returning from a long voyage to England, with a cargo of wool, due to be delivered to somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The ship called in to the port of Termini in Sicily, then under the control of the Spanish.   There, the Spanish viceroy was having trouble mounting support to a military operation in Cartagena. So he simply requisitioned the vessel and crew, offloaded the wool, and put aboard 300 Sicilian mercenaries.  The captain at that time was Luka Ivanov Kinkovic. 

By 1588, the ship was still being used by the Spanish as a troop transport as preparations for the the invasion of England began and the Spanish naval fleet prepared itself. The ship was one of the bigger vessels in the fleet, essentially a large troop transport.  A Spaniard, Don Diego Tellez Enriquez,was put aboard as the nominal commander, but it is thought the original captain (referred to in Spanish as Luca de Juan) remained skipper. The ship, by then renamed formally Santa Maria de Gracia y san Juan Bautista, but referred to as San Juan de Sicilia underwent minor adaptations for the joining the Armada, including fitting 12 guns.  The ship was part of the "Levant squadron" of the Armada. The squadron consisted of 10 ships, with 767 seamen and 2780 soldiers. Aboard the ship when it set sail for England were 3 contingents of troops, - Sicilians, Flemings and Spaniards. The senior officer of the troops was Don Diego Tellez Enríquez.
In the battles with the English along the Channel, as the desperate attempts of the English Navy kept the Armada at bay, initially the ship played only a small part, but later near Calais, it was at the heart of the sea battle. One story recounts how the sea was stained red with blood in its wake, so much damage and injury was caused aboard. It is also suggested that the ship might have been lost to English boarders, had it not been the deterrent of the high sides of the ship.  The Spanish fleet decided to retreat, by sailing north around Scotland.  The San Juan lagged behind, its masts and rigging severely damaged.  The English fleet in the main did not chase the Armada because they were concerned with other Spanish forces holed up in Holland and they had, by and large, run out of ammunition anyway, and the fleet was suffering from an outbreak of typhus.
On 20th September 1588 as the remaining ships of the Armada were off the west coast of Ireland there was a huge storm.  It wrecked many Spanish ships on the Irish coast. Lagging behind because of damage to its sails, the San Juan was hit off the Western Isles of Scotland, suffered more damage and sought refuge there. It was spotted off Islay on the 23rd September and a few days later it put into the small bay at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, north of Islay.  Negotiations were opened with the local clan leader of the Clan McLean, and for some weeks the ship was repaired, and the troops aboard acted as mercenaries for the McLeans in a local dispute with rival Clan MacDonald.
Finally, repaired, re-victualled and re-supplied, the ship was about to set sail and still within the bay when a massive explosion occurred and the ship was destroyed. The entire ship forward of the mizzen mast and above water was blown apart and the ship sank immediately. Only two people survived, both occupants of a cabin that was completely blown the hundred yards to shore, where, shaken and injured they emerged. (This latter story may not be true).
Now the question is, what caused this explosion?  There are a number of possibilities - accident, sabotage by the local McLean clan when by some reports they fell out with the Spanish who had been supporting them, or could it have been another unseen hand initiating the sabotage?  I want to explore the latter, and look at the role of Sir Francis Walsingham, the English spymaster and and true master of intrigue.
Walsingham maintained a spy network, of course, in Scotland, then not part of the Union. One of his Scottish spy networks was conbtrolled by the “Head of Station”, William Ashby, who worked within the English Embassy in Edinburgh. Walsingham had other agents throughout Scotland, included John Smollett, a merchant in Dunbarton.   Walsingham put out a request for intelligence about any sightings of the Armada’s ships in Scotland and in Sepetmber, Ashby started to report the sightings of large ship, variously in Islay and then Tobermory. Here is Ashby’s first report (ignore the wrong date and the over estimate of the tonnage).
‘As I had writ this letter Sir William Kith send me wourd that Mack Cleiden an Irishe Lord in the isles wrot to the K. that on Fridai the 13 of September there arrived a greate ship of Spaigne of 1400 tons, having 800 soldiours and there commanders; at an Iland caulled Ila (Islay) on the west part of Scotland; thether driven by weather, thei thinke that thei rest of the Fleat is driven on the north part of Ireland; I will make further inquirie and presentlie certifie your honour with sped: thei report this ship to be fournished with 80 brass peces, She beaten with shote and wether
The difference in the date can be ascribed to the ten day difference in calendars used by England and the rest of the world at the time. 13th September in Spanish and Scottish calendars was the equivalent of 23rd September in the English calendar. The assessment of the tonnage of the ship is not relevant and perhaps a typical exaggeration. Ashby clearly has interesting intelligence sources within the royal court in Scotland (“K" being the King James VI)
It would appear too, that John Smollett played a key role in re-victualling and re-supplying the ship in Tobermory bay.  Much more interestingly, in another secret letter to Walsingham on 26 November, Ashby writes:
the partie that laid the traine (fuse)...the man knowen to your honour and called Smallet’
As to the technical aspects of the intrigue, it remains possible the explosion was caused by the drying of gunpowder in the open air on the deck and that was the cause that a later Spanish inquiry came to conclude, albeit I think based on speculation themselves.  Procedures at the time for drying powder are not known but it is hard to imagine that it would be done with anything other than small quantities at a time. It’s also hard to imagine that it was dry and sunny enough in Tobermory in November! But the explosion must have been of the entire magazine and I think that is hard to ascribe to drying explosives on deck.
That leaves us with the saboteur theory.  I think that the saboteur theory has some speculative merit because:
  1. The ship had been resupplied and re-victualled, providing an opportunity for a saboteur to get aboard or have a device put aboard. The several weeks the ship had spent in Tobermory allowed times for the sabotage operation to be put in place. The supplier, Smollett, was an agent of Walsingham.
  2. Ashby specifically uses the phrase ”laid the train”, which is clearly, I think, a reference to an explosive train in an IED.  A similar set of words is used , just a few years later to describe the actions of Guy Fawkes.
  3. The indications are that the whole magazine exploded, if there was a fire first, some of the crew would maybe have been expected to have abandoned ship as the fire got close to the magazine. An accidental fire of powder drying on deck would not necessarily cause the magazine to detonate.
  4. Walsingham had the best motivation, and everything we learn about him suggests a willingness to use these tactics, and he had a demonstrated a direct intelligence interest in the Spanish ships in the Western Isles.
  5. Walsingham had the technology because not least he had hired Giambelli three years earlier. Even if the device was a simple IED , then that would of course not have been a problem for Walsingham's resources. The actual technique for initiating the device would have perhaps have been a burning fuze, similar to the “match” of a matchlock - a slow burning igniferous fuse. The magazine would have contained slow fuses for initiating cannon, of course.  But a clockwork timing mechanism was within the technical capability of the English secret service at the time, and arguably more easily to conceal inside a barrel of gunpowder than a burning fuse which would protrude. A booby trap using a wheel-lock mechanism is also theoretically possible. 
Warships in foreign ports have been and always will be potential targets for attack by IEDs. 




Twin IEDs in 1645

Here’s the story of a twin IED attack on Swedish ships in 1645.  Two senior Swedish officers were in the port of Wismar in what is now Germany. Gustav Wransel, the Swedish Master-General of Ordnance was on board the Swedish vessel the “Lion” and the Swedish Admiral Blume was on board the “Dragon”, both about to set sail for Sweden. Here's the story: