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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 VBIEDs (12)


IEDs from 1630

At the moment I'm working on some early seventeenth century pyrotechnic and military manuals again, to re-visit the development of military rockets. (Not everything you have heard about Congreve as an inventor is true!). But in doing so I came across some interesting early IED designs that I had in my archive but deserve a post in their own right. Here's an interesting IED. Key here is the use of improvised shrapnel and the "spikes" which both add to shrapnel and make the device tricky to move.

and this - an explosive charge on a cart, so an early VBIED or vehicle bomb.  As I have done frequently before, this further discredits the idea that the Wall St Bomb of 1920 was the game changer in terms of the concept of a vehicle bomb use. These images are from a book published in 1630, 290 years earlier.  I have listed several other early vehicle bombs here and here . There were also ships (vehicles) and trains pre-dating 1920.




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.




Quite often in my research into historical IEDs, I’m struck by parallels with modern IED threats. Here’s a historical story with exactly that.
There is a common perception that the “first” vehicle bomb or VBIED was the 1920 Wall St bombing In New York. As readers of this blog will know by now, that isn’t even close, with vehicle bombs hundreds of years before that.  These VBIEDs described below were from around 1912/1913.
I see some parallels between the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria and the Mexican Revolution in terms of military activity.  Today there are conflicts between government troops and insurgents, one way or another. One common tactic in Iraq and Syria we are seeing is the government troops defending a FOB in a small town or village and insurgents launching attacks on them quite often preceded by a suicide vehicle bomb. The “shock action” of a large explosion potentially disorientates defenders as other attacks are launched. The attacks often take place in desert countryside down the the communication routes (the roads), and has been seen very frequently in the last couple of years.
There are similarities then, with the Mexican revolution and in particular in the period 1912 and 1913. This was a complex revolution and I don’t intend on getting into the detail of its causes and protagonists - you can read that here if you wish to.
There were various rebel leaders, including Zapata and Orozco who launched guerrilla warfare campaigns that today we might call insurgencies. Both government forces and the rebels moved forces and their supplies quite often by the railroad system - the only practical way of moving volumes of men and material around the country quickly.   Typically the government forces, in pursuit of rebels, would move forces along a railway line to a town which they fortified, moving with the aid of three or four trains that arrived in a given town.  Or the rebel forces did exactly the same.   On a few occasions rebels mounted attacks that were initiated sending their own or captured trains at high speed down the line, which collided with the stationary government trains and caused alarm and confusion.  It didn't take long before the one side or the other spiced up these runaway trains with the addition of a lot of explosives on board.
One example - In the First Battle of Rellano which took place on 24 March 1912, between two opposing sides, one under under command of Pascual Orozco. Government forces arrived in Chihuahua province but their progress was stalled because Orozco had blown up railroad track and bridges with IEDs.   The government forces under General Salas had to repair the bridges and railway lines on order to move. Orozco’s troops were defending the town of Rellano and the government forces were moving up the railway line in trains to attack them.  One of Orozco’s comrades, Emilio Campa, loaded a locomotive with dynamite and sent it at high speed down the track to where government forcers were disembarking from their trains just outside the town.  Despite the fact that the government forces had removed some track (to protect themselves from such eventuality) the VBIED train, traveling at high speed, left the tracks but still collided with the troop train, and exploded killing 60 soldiers and injuring many more.  I haven’t been able to establish any fuzing mechanism.
Such tactics were used in a number of other engagements by the (various) participants and the trains were known either as “loco-locos” (crazy trains) or “maquina loca”, an adaptation of the “maquina infernale” or infernal machine which in those days was used to describe an IED.
Rodolfo Fierro, (an ex railway brake man) who commanded some of Pancho Villa’s forces used this tactic several times, most notably at the Battle of Tierra Blanca in November 1913.  Fierro’s nickname was “the Butcher” a name that apparently was quite apposite.
Here's a picture of the aftermath of one loco-loco.
The aftermath of an exploding train
So these insurgent battles were violent, desert-bound conflicts not too dissimilar from the violent conflicts of Syria and Iraq just now.  Of course the Mexican revolution has been glamourised by Hollywood or spaghetti westerns such as the Wild Bunch, A Fistful of Dynamite and Villa Rides!    Indeed the whole film "A Fistful of Dynamite" concludes with a Loco-loco being used against an Army train.  The hero of the film is James Coburn, playing an Irish explosives expert plying his trade in Latin America (with an awful Irish accent)...and there's another story for the future...




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.  


1948 Truck Bombs by British Army deserters

This is a strange story in today’s context. One of the biggest vehicle bomb attacks ever occurred in Palestine, just prior to the formation of Israel on 22 February 1948.  Two large IEDs in trucks were initiated simultaneously in Ben Yehuda Sreet in Jerusalem early in the morning.  The devices were contained in British Army trucks, accompanied by an armoured British military police vehicle. There had been a series of incidents over the period before this attack (in the run up to the formation of Israel as a state) and security was high, but as this was apparently a British Army convoy it was allowed through the checkpoints.  On arrival in Ben Yehuda street the trucks were parked up and the occupants, in British military uniform, left in the armoured vehicle. Some reports suggest three vehicles were left.

Three of the participants are believed to have been Azmi Djaoumi, a Palestinian Arab,  Eddie Brown a British military policeman and Cpl Peter Madison.  Both the latter were British Army deserters. The pair had been responsible for an earlier truck bombing against the Palestine Post building using a similar tactic. 
Shortly after they left the scene both trucks detonated. The devices were prepared by Fawzi el Kuttub, a Palestinian bomb maker. Kuttub had a strange history. Tall, blond and with blue eyes he was the lead explosives expert for the Palestinians in Jerusalem, and was allegedly trained by the Nazis in WW2. His nick name amongst the Palestinians was "The Engineer" - not the first to be called this title.
At first I was going to take a stab and suggest that the initiation system was probably a standard military delay fuse in each truck. Then I found a description of the earlier attack by the same perpetrators, which described lighting a fuze protruding from the truck with a lit cigarette, and there is one report that some smoke was seen coming from one of the trucks before it detonated, so I’m going to guess that both trucks had burning fuzes as initiation mechanisms. - probably less than a few minutes in terms of duration.  Of significant interest is a single report I have found suggesting that the initiation fuze was inside a metal tube attached to the dash board of each truck, so that once ignited it could not be accessed easily.
I have been unable to ascertain exactly how far away from each other the trucks were parked - there may have been two explosions or one may have initiated the other.  But this is just a guess. The explosive content is interesting - each truck reportedly contained a ton of TNT, but in addition 200lbs of a home made mix which included aluminium powder, and possibly potassium nitrate, packed into a dozen oil cans.
The explosion demolished four buildings and killed about 60 people.   If we assume that the two trucks contained between them over 2 tons of explosives, and both detonated together, that’s one of the bigger vehicle bombs  in history.  
The incident added to that strange triangular violence of the time with Palestinians, Jews and the British at the three corners and elements of each corner with elements taking more and more extreme actions. No side comes out well.   As for the British Army some deserters did support the Palestinian Arab side and others the Haganah.  The Irgun used vehicle bombs too.
Ben Yehuda street as been the the scene of a number of terrorist bombs since then.
The deserters, Brown and Madison went to Cairo in expectation of a reward of £1000 from from the Mufti of Jerusalem. However they were given nothing and left empty handed. I can’t find out what happened to them both.