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 Timed IEDs (15)


The 55th device - 1578 - The force is mighty and commeth with such a terror

I have been hinting that I had found an early printed book containing interesting matters with regards to ordnance, military engineering and explosives. Having worked initially from second-hand reports of the publication and an original manuscript version (a digital copy) which I couldn't read at all, I finally tracked a printed copy down and literally got my hands on it, in the British Libary, last week and so it's time to start discussions of it.

The book is "Inventions or Devices" by William Bourne, or to give it it's full title as it appears in the British Library catalogue " Inuentions or Deuices, Very necessary for all Generalles and Captaines, or Leaders of men as wel by Sea as by Land", written and printed (I think)  in 1578.  Here's the cover page:

Bourne appears to have been a well-travelled Naval gunner and mathematician with experience in of wars in Europe. The book is an odd list and description of military ideas and  "inventions", mostly practical or pragmatic. Some are startlingly obvious but others are quite fascinating and a little bit obscure.  On one level he offers advice that a modern munitions specialist or ordnance officer would recognise in terms of "proofing" and inspection of ordnance. These ideas include safely unloading a fully loaded breech-fast projectile stuck in a cannon, methods of checking the barrel of cannons and a device for consistently assessing the power of a sample of gunpowder with a mechanical testing device. Other matters include various naval maters and the sapping and mining of castle walls, countermining and the design of assault ladders. 

I'll go through a number of these in future posts because the ideas are worth exploring and this is a very early publication, I think, for some of the technical ideas discussed. For now though, to start us off, here's his description of a large grenade-like device. I'm going to post a couple of images of the actual pages then attempt to translate some of the archaic language. This is the earliest decription I can find in a primary source about the design, manufacture and use of a metal cased grenade. The method describes using a mould for a 5" cannonball to make a hollow grenade by using a clay insert in the casting.  The case of the "grenade" is bell metal or brass, with iron nails providing the spacing to the void (and adding to fragmentation) which is filled with good quality gunpowder and a fuse.  

 Here's my attempt at a translation:

The 55th Device.

As diverse Gunners and other men devised sundry sorts of fireworks for the annoyance of their enemies, yet as far as ever I have seen or heard, I never knew nor heard of any good service done by it, neither by sea nor by land, but only by powder, and that hath done great service, for that the force of it is mighty and commeth with such a terror. But for their other fireworks, it is rather meetest to be used in the time of pleasure in the night then for any service. And for to make this kind of ball, do this: Prepare the mould of a double culvering shot (a sort of cannonball) that is five inches high, and then take clay, and make it round in a ball, as much as a minion shot (another smaller size of cannon ball) that is three inches, and let it be dried as the Founders (Those who work in a foundry) do use to dry their moulds, and then stick that clay round about with iron nails, leaving the nails an inch without the clay, and then put that mould of clay into the moulde of the culvering shot, and look that the nails do bear that the ball of clay do stand right in the middle of the mould of the culvering shot, and also make the mould of clay so that it may have a touchhole to come into the clay, and then take bell metal or other coarse pot brass, and then fill the mould of the culvering shot with that metal, and that being done, then it is finished and so make as many as them as you list, and then that being done pick out the clay again that is in the ball, that was cast in the culvering shot mould and then fill that with good corne powder (good quality gunpowder), and then that being filled near full, then take some receite (? fuze?) of soft firework that will not burne too hasyily and fill up the rest of the ball, and then it is perfectly finished.  And then in the time of service, either by sea or by land, it is very good to throw in amongst your enemies, where they do stand thick, as they be very good to defend a breach or such other like causes, as this, to take it in his hand and to fire it, and then throw it amongst your enemies, and as soon as the firework is burned into the powder, the ball will break in a thousand pieces and every piece in a manner will do as much as an Arquebus shot (a bullet) so that there is no kind of firework comparable to this kind of ball, for service in the time of need. 

This publication predates the adoption of such things (grenades) by armies several decades later in the 17th Century. 

More of Bournes "Devices and Inventions" will follow in later blog posts.


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.


Two IED attacks on police during WW2

Here's the story of two curious IED attacks that occurred during WW2. Different in nature, but with some odd parallels between the two. 

The first attack took place in Tel Aviv, Palestine against the British Palestine Police in 1942.  The target specifcially was members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) investigating the extemist "Lehi" group, aka "The Stern Gang". This was a significantly complex IED plot, what might be termed a "double come-on attack", using 3 IEDs, the latter two electrical command-initiated, targeting the responders to the first explosion. Senior members of the CID had had a number of successes against Lehi in the months prior to the attack. In particular Superintendent Geoffrey Morton and his subordinate Tom Wilkin were well known to the Stern gang.  When Wilkin managed to arrest Lehi's chief of staff for shooting a Jewish member of the Palestine Police, the Lehi leader, Avraham Stern, decided on very focused action against the head of CID (Morton) and his assistant Wilkin.

Superintendent Geoffrey Morton

The plot was complex and multi-stage. A small explosion was made to occur in a roof-top room of a house in Yael St, Tel Aviv, as if it was a premature explosion in a Lehi bomb factory. The CIDs response to such an incident was well known and the Lehi assumed that Morton, as head of CID would attend the scene of the incident, along with Wilkin as he normally did to incidents involving Lehi. A second larger device had been hidden in the roof-top room, connected by a carefully concealed command wire to a waiting operative in a building nearby. Another command-wire initiated device was buried in a flowerbed just outside the house, providing another opportunity to attack responding policemen.

When the first reports of the explosion came in, Morton and Wilkin were involved in another matter so tasked other senior Palestine Police officers to the scene, saying they would follow shortly. Three officers went to the the house in question and went up to the roof top. Deputy Superintendent Shlomo Schiff was the leading officer, and was the senior Jewish officer in the Palestine Police. He had been the target of a Lehi assassination attempt the previous year. He was accompanied by Inspector Nathan Goldman and Inspector E Turton.  As they approached the door of the roof-top room the command wire device was initiated. Allegedly the perpertrator mistook the unifomed police for Morton and Wilkin. Schiff was killed immediately and the other two succumbed to their injuries in following days.  Morton and Wilkin arrived shortly afterwards but the third device was not initiated and was discovered later. It contained 28 sticks of gelignite. In police operations that followed a number of Lehi members were shot during raids. Stern himself was shot dead by Morton after being arrested. In a curious after-story, there was an attempt on Morton's life three months later, another command wire IED on a car he and his family were traveling in. He escaped serious injury but later hidden IEDs were found at the cemetery where supposedly Lehi expceted him to be buried, purportedly to attack mourners. 


The second attack took place in Rome, Italy, in 1944, against the German SS "Bozen" Polizie Regiment. The attack target specifically was a mass column of German speaking Italian police, recruited by the Nazis from northern Italy, who regularly walked the same route on parade through Rome.  Thus the column of marching troops provided a predictable target for the attack by the partisan "Patriotic Action Group" (GAP). The regular march by the column of police, paraded through Rome singing, around the Piazza del Spagna and into the narrow street of Via Rasella. The partisans prepared a large charge consisting of a steel container holding 12 kg of TNT, along with another bag containing more TNT and TNT filled metal tubing. The bomb was hidden in this hand cart.


A forty second burning fuze was lit as the marching troop approached (exactly the same technique as used in the VBIED attack against Napoleon in 1800). 28 of the SS policemen were kileld in the explosion. The incident led to very significant reprisals by the Nazi authorities, includng the dreadful Ardeatine massacre where 335 Italians were executed.


I think there are some interesting points shared by these attacks.  Both were against police forces at least partially recruited or sponsored by other nations.  Both exploited the predictability of their targets, albeit in different ways. In both events the aftermath of the IED attacks led to further nasty tragedies. In war the focus of history is on the front line battles between armies. But Home fronts also provide an environment for IEDs and the police are often the targets but are often forgotten in some history books. Patterns of IED tactics seen today appear as we look further and further back in time. 




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.