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 USA (20)


The Horse's Head and the Horse's Hoof - VBIED Investigation in 1800 and 1920

I have posted before about the vehicle bomb attack in the failed attempt to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris in 1800, details here.  I have now uncovered some fascinating details about the subsequent investigation. This was an extremely high profile incident and initially focus was placed on "The Jacobins", a political opposition to Bonaparte, or indeed the British. But I have found in the memoirs of a French dignitary details of a more thorough investigation headed by Fouche (who I have written about elsewhere).

The device used was in a container placed on a horse-drawn cart in the Rue St Nicaise.  The horse that was harnessed to the bomb vehicle had been killed on the spot, but apparently was "not in the least disfigured". Fouche, the Prefect of Police, ordered that parts of the dead horse including its head be taken to all the horse dealers in Paris to see if they recognised it.  One of them indeed recognised the horse, and was able to direct the police to a specific house.  The woman who "kept the door" identified the occupants who were affiliated within a particular group  (the "Chouans" - a group of "Royalists" and not the Jacobins).  She was also able to detail how the leader of the group had worked on something placed in a "water-carrier's barrel" over a period of six weeks. 

The leader of the group, a man called St Regent, was still in the vicinity of the bomb when it detonated, and was thrown against a post, breaking his ribs. He "was obliged to resort to a surgeon", and the surgeon betrayed him to the police.  He and an accomplice were guillotined.

In one of those fascinating parallels that I encounter occasionaly on standingwellback, the VBIED attack on Wall St, New York City, in September 1920 also featured the remains of a horse as part of the investigation.

In this attack, 120 years after the Paris attack, outside the bank of JP Morgan, a horse drawn cart also exploded. In this explosion, however, the horse wasn't left intact and was blown to bits, not least because the device contained dynamite rather than the gunpowder used in the 1800 device. The investigators were able to recover one of the hooves and took it to blacksmiths across the city.  The blacksmith was eventually identified a month later but by then the investigative trail had run dry.

We sometimes assume that modern day bomb investigators are a new breed of professionals in a new industry. while me way not see many horse drawn vehicle bombs these days, the modes of investigation go an awful long way back.



Extensive IED Campaign in the USA

During the period 1914 to 1932 in the USA there was a violent and extensive campaign of IED attacks from the anarchist group the “Galleanists”.  This IED campaign is largely now forgotten but there are important lessons. The issues are slightly hard to discern because of aspects of the crimes that remain unsolved but with 20/20 hindsight it seems sensible to attribute key attacks to this group. We should also remember that this period in history was complex and also saw IED attacks in the US from German saboteurs, from local home-grown labor disputes and from organised crime.

The politics of the time were heated and radical. The leader of this particular Anarchist group was the Italian Luigi Galleani, and he was active in the US between 1901 and 1919.
Galleani very much pushed the idea of “propaganda of the deed’ as described a couple of decades earlier by Johann Most. Galleani was a powerful orator and writer with an international reputation before he got to the US in 1901, aged 40. His intense activity continued, and he wrote and published anarchist and revolutionary literature extensively. Galleani always championed “direct action” and praised those who committed violent acts. Galleani published a bomb making guide, oddly called “Health is in You!”, which sold for 25 cents.  The guide is interesting reading though with a technical error that allegedly cost the life of at least one enthusiastic student bomb maker making nitro-glycerine.
Galleani was deported to Italy in 1919 but continued his revolutionary work. His followers mounted a number of IED attacks and some significant IED campaigns in the US from about 1914 onwards. Here’s an outline summary:
  • 1914 - Several IED attacks in New York including St Patrick's Cathedral and the placement of an IED in Tombs Police court under the chair of a Magistrate. 

  • 1914 - Premature explosion on Lexington Avenue in a bomb making facility. killing four anarchists.


  • 1915 - Another Plot to blow up St Patrick’s cathedral in New York, intercepted by NYPD Bomb Squad commander Thomas Tunney  
  • 1916 - Mass poisoning attempt with arsenic, Chicago. The perpetrator was never caught.
  • 1916 - Bomb attack on a Boston police station
  • 1916 - Galleanists now believed to have been responsible for the San Francisco Preparedness Day Bombing on 22 July, which killed ten people.  Local labor activists were convicted but decades later pardoned and the evidence against them discredited. No other perpertrators were brought to justice. Many historians now attribute blame to the Galleanists.  The device was reported as dynamite or TNT packed into metal pipes in a suitcase with a clock as a timing component. However examination of the evidence years later suggest much less certainty about the construction of the device. 
  • 1917 - A bomb placed in a church in Milwaukee was recovered to a Milwaukee police station where is exploded killing 9 policemen and a female civilian. The perpertrator was never caught
  • 1917-1918 Other bombings across the US attributed to the Galleanists. 
  • 1918 - A number of IEDs placed in the homes of Philadelphia public officials
  • 1919 - An IED being placed by four Galleanists in a Wool Mill exploded prematurely killing four of the perpetrators.
  • 1919 - Further bombings
  • 1919 - In late April 1919 a total of 36 dynamite IEDs were posted to a number of high profile individuals across the US in the mail. The bombs were intended to be delivered on May Day.  No-one was killed but a senator’s housekeeper was badly injured opening one of the packages. No-one directly charged with the offence.  The postal 36 IEDs were described as follows:   The package was wrapped in brown paper. Inside the brown paper the package was again wrapped in green paper, stamped “Gimbel Brothers - Novelty samples”. This contained a cardboard box containing a six inch x three inch x one inch block of hollowed out wood, which held a stick of dynamite. A small vial of sulfuric acid was fastened to the wooden block next to three mercury fulminate blasting caps. Opening one end of the cardboard box (marked “open’) released a spring which broke the vial of acid, which dripped into the blasting caps, causing a detonation.  I note that in some senses the initiation mechanism is similar to the acid initiated devices of Harry Orchard in 1903. 
  • 1919 - In June, the Galleanists exploded eight large IEDs nearly simultaneously in several different US cities.  Each utilised about 25 pounds of Nitroglycerine, and was packed with shrapnel. Only two people were killed, - one a nightwatchman and the other an anarchist who was laying a device when it exploded.   Police traced the printer who had printed flyers left at the scene of the bombs. They arrested two men, Andrea Salsedo and Roberto Eliam. Salsedo was questioned (some reports suggest he was tortured).  He then either jumped from a 14th floor window or was pushed by Elia. Elia refused to talk and was deported. The investigation stalled and the police used more aggressive tactics, including, allegedly, warrantless wire taps.  No direct suspects were indicted but several hundred suspects were exported.

  • 1920 -   The Galleanist Mario Buda is believed to have built and detonated the Wall St bomb on 16 September, killing 38 people.   The perpertrator was never brought to justice. 
  • 1927 - More bombings of court officials
  • 1932 - Another bombing of a court official
To us, sitting here in 2014, some one hundred years after these bombings started, the concept of a radical revolutionary IED campaign, and significant violent industrial disputes in the USA is hard to fathom.  I’m intrigued too that the revolutionary fervour of the times wasn’t “underground" as it would be today.  Here’s useful evidence of that. In 1914 there was an explosion in an apartment occupied by anarchists in Lexington Avenue New York. Four anarchists died, after the IED apparently exploded as it was being constructed. This image below shows a very well attended public demonstration in New York in support of the dead anarchists. Bizarre by today’s terms, I think.
But the threat posed by the Galleanists was real, and while complex and occurring at the same time as other threats, there was clearly a public concern about their capabilities.  I think that the logistics of planting 8 devices across the country is significant.  I'm also surprised so few perpertrators were properly brought to justice.  
The Galleanist campaign reinforces once again the fact that the USA, of all nations, has had a significant domestic experience of IEDs throughout its existence. Those who suggest that the USA only really came to terms with IEDs in the last decade are simply wrong.



Left, Right, Anarchist and Nut Job

The history of IED attacks in the US is full of surprises. The two organizations responsible for the most IED attacks, numerically, in the last 120 years is the Puerto Rican separatists organization the FALN (in the 1970s and 1980s ) with 126 IED attacks that killed 6 people in total, and the Iron Workers Union who between 1906 and 1910 used 111 IEDs to attack industrial targets, then finally the “bombing of the century” as it was called, when it blew up the offices of the Los Angeles Times. The subsequent fire killed 26 people.

I have blogged before about union attacks in the period, clearly industrial relations were very much an issue then, but the volume of attacks is remarkable.  But remember at the time there were other violent attacks on going – the “black hand” extortion gangs in the New York area were very active, as were the early bomb squads in terms of responding to them.  

 The LA Times bombing was the fourth worst bombing (I think) in US history, after the Oklahoma bombing, the Wall Street bombing and the Bath School bombing – tell me if I have that wrong.

The LA Times device consisted of a suitcase of dynamite left on some sort of timer. It was reportedly set to detonate at 4.00 am when no-one was expected to be in the building, but detonated early at 1.07 a.m. The whole case is fraught, even now, with question marks and conspiracy theories.  Indeed even the defendants lawyer the famous Clarence Darrow was caught bribing a juror. The end result of the bombing and the subsequent trial was a considerable set back for the Unions in Los Angeles.

At the same time as the incident at the LA Times, another IED was found on a windowsill at the residence of the owner, General Otis and another targeting another opponinet of the unions. 

So, in terms of perpetrators, the most fatal bombings in US history are the responsibility in each case of domestic terrorists:

  1. Radical right wing extremist (Oklahoma Bombing) 168 killed
  2. Regular nut job (Bath School Bombing) 45 killed
  3. Anarchist extremists(Wall St bombing) 38 Killed
  4. Radical left wing unions (LA Times bombing) 21 killed

Of course the 9/11 attacks killed more, but they weren’t IEDs per se. 


Kurt Jahnke: the legendary German saboteur

I’ve blogged before about the German sabotage campaign just before the US entered World War 1.    I’ve been digging slowly through much new material with regard to Kurt Jahnke.  Jahnke was one of the key German saboteurs operating in the USA before and during the First World War and along with his close colleague Lothar Witzke and a more distant colleague, Franz Rintelen, they played key roles in the extensive and, in my opinion, largely underestimated or unrecognized, IED campaign and associated disruptive activities in the period. This disruptive campaign involved extensive use of IEDs, biological warfare attacks (anthrax and glanders attacks on US soil), arson, encouraging labor disputes, encouraging Mexico’s entry into the war against the US, etc I’m building extensive files on this campaign, bit by bit.

There’s enough for a couple of books, and frankly I’m a bit overwhelmed and the material demands much more beyond a short blog.  For those of you who haven’t heard of him, here’s a very brief potted history of Jahnke:

  • 1888 Born Gnesen in West Prussia
  • ? Enlisted in the German Navy
  • ? worked in Peking as a member of the International Customs service, possibly as a German Agent
  • 1909 Emigrated to the USA
  • ? Enlisted in the US Marines and served in San Francisco, Pearl Harbor and the Philippines
  • ? Discharged for medical reasons (malaria?)
  • 1912 Posted to the German Consulate in San Francisco as a diplomatic official
  • 1912 onwards – developed connections with China whilst in the San Francisco post
  • 1916. Almost certainly involved in the Black Tom explosion, New Jersey
  • 1916 Strongly suspected of fomenting and encouraging labor strikes in San Francisco
  • 1916 Claimed to be responsible for sinking 14 allied munitions ships
  • 1917 Almost certainly responsible for the Mare Island munitions depot explosion near San Francisco.
  • 1917 Involved in other bombings on the US east Coast
  • 1917 After declaration of war, operated from Mexico with numerous plots
  • 1923 Undertook sabotage attacks against occupying French forces in the Ruhr, Germany
  • 1920’s Possibly involved with official, but secret German collaboration with Russian forces
  • 1920’s Possibly recruited as a Russian agent
  • 1934 Formed the Jahnke Buro , a semi-official intelligence agency, aka “Abteilung Pfeffer” Possibly responsible for handling of a German agent in the US embassy
  • 1939 By this date Jahnke’s “Abteilung Pfeffer” was under direct control of Rudolf Hess.
  • 1941 – After Hess’s flight to Britain he “retired” . Some reports suggest he was fired in 1940
  • 1943? – Tempted out of retirement by Walter Schellenberg, head of the Nazi’s foreign intelligence department to return to intelligence activities.  Suggestions he opened a dialogue with Allied intelligence agencies in 1944
  • 1945 – Fled to Switzerland
  • 1945 – Returned to Germany, arrested and tortured by Russian SMERSH
  • 1945- Killed by SMERSH or perhaps not till 1950… or perhaps not at all… suggestions that he worked for one Russian intelligence agency but was arrested by another in a  turf war. Suspected by everyone of being a double agent of one sort or another.

As one might expect with such a full and complex life, establishing the truth is nigh on impossible.  Certainly Jahnke at times claimed responsibility for things he probably hadn't done, such as the sinking of the USS San Diego, which he claimed responsibility for to the Rusiians interrogating him. Other things about Jahnke worth considering, which I’m digging at:

  1. Could he have played a part in the 1916 "Preparedness Day bombing" in San Francisco
  2. If so, could he be involved in the 1921 Wall St bombing (there’s a possible connection)
  3. Details of his sabotage attacks on the Ruhr in 1921
  4. Details of the explosive devices he employed
  5. Details of the China connections
  6. Details of US and UK operations in Mexico to counter his activities (quite a bunch of stories there) 

There's lots more to come.


Coal Torpedoes

A “coal torpedo” was the name given by Confederate Secret Service agents for a crude IED disguised as a lump of coal. The device was then introduced into the stocks of coal on ships and trains with the aim of causing an explosion in the boiler when it was shoveled into the engine.

The coal torpedo seems to have been invented by Capt Thomas Edgworth Courtney of the Confederate Secret Service.  Courtney proposed the idea to Jefferson Davis motivated probably by the financial rewards promised by the Confederacy which were suggested could be 50% of the value of Union shipping destroyed by new inventions. In this case, financial reward became the mother of a number of inventions. Courtney was commissioned and formed a Secret Service Corps of 25 men with direction to to attack any Union vessel or transport carrying military goods found in Confedserate waters, with his rewards (no salary) being paid in Confrderate war bonds.

Details of Copurtney’s plan leaked to the Union who put a price on his head. Courtney escaped to England, and tried to sell the design of the Coal torpedo to the British Navy, the French, the Spanish and Turkey, without success.

The Union naval forces on the Mississippi under Admiral David Porter issued General order 184 accordingly:

The enemy have adopted new inventions to destroy human life and vessels in the shape of torpedoes, and an article resembling coal, which is to be placed in our coal piles for the purpose of blowing the vessels up, or injuring them. Officers will have to be careful in overlooking coal barges. Guards will be placed over them at all times, and anyone found attempting to place any of these things amongst the coal will be shot on the spot.

Details of the actual ships destroyed by this means are unclear as records have been destroyed but it appears likely that a number of the devices functioned as intended.

Courtney’s torpedoes were manufactured carefully at the 7th Avenue Artillery shop in Richmond, Virginia. Actual lumps of coal were used to form a mold into which iron was cast. The walls of the devices surrounded a hollow sufficient to hold about four ounces of blackpowder.  After filling, the void was closed with a threaded plug, dipped in beeswax and rolled in powdered coal to disguise it.  The device, although small, could rupture the pressure vessel of a ship, causing much greater secondary damage.

The concept of coal torpdeos carried on. After the American Civil War the Fenian Brotherhood (see previous blog posts) had connections with both sides and there appears to have been a plot in the 1860s and 70s to use such devices to place in the furnaces of New York hotels and British shipping .

In WW1 German saboteurs operating in the US planned to use such devices to attack munitions ships, and in an earlier post I mentioned that such devices were found by US forces after overrunning the Germans in France in 1918.

In WW2 both the OSS and the SOE used similar devices, as did German spies. I have found reports that the Japanese also developed a similar tool at the Noborito research Institute, and they were used by Japanese commandos in raids in New Guinea.  There is also a hint that the CIA explored this as a tactic to be used in Vietnam.

The OSS didn’t do things by halves and developed a coal camouflage kit for such devices, with a range oif paints to enable the device to match variations in coal supplies.