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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 Victim-operated IEDs (15)


Earlier Russian stay-behind explosive devices

In my previous post I discussed Russian stay-behind explosive devices . Now, it is usually my habit to dig back in history to find earlier instances of certain attack styles, and indeed this does apply in this case. I've written a little before about Russian mines in the Crimea during the war with the French and British in the 1850s. When the Russians lost Sebastopol to the British and French in 1855, they "left behind" numerous booby-trapped explosive devices hidden in the buildings and connected, in some cases, to powder magazines within the fortresses of Sebastopol. So these were massive IEDs, left behind within potential military facilities, by the Russians. so in some ways exactly the same concept of operations as the WW2 F-10 devices, except the latter were command detonated rather than victim-operated.

Here's a report from a "war artist" who was on the scene of one of the explosions:

Yesterday, as I was sketching in the west of Sebastopol, an explosion shook the buildings around and reverberated through the roofless and untenanted edifices of the place. The Arsenal Creek was filled with a heavy black smoke, and showers of large stones fell into the water, lashing it for a moment into sheets of foam. The centre of the fire was a battery on the left flank of the Creek Battery. This was one of the works erected by the Russians to sweep the approaches of the Woronzoff road; it was built of stones taken from the houses around it, faced with earth externally, and without a ditch. The magazine was in the foundations of a house which had once stood there […]. The Russians had placed a fougasse over it, and an accidental tread upon a wooden peg driven into the earth broke a glass tube of inflammable matter which communicated with the powder below […].

Three of the men in the work were blown to atoms; and a large number were buried in the ruins; whilst sad havoc was at the same time committed on parties of workmen leading mules along the road close by. Two soldiers of the guard in the Creek Battery were killed by stones projected with great violence into the air, and launched with fatal force upon them. Several mules and horses were killed in this same manner, and every point within 200 yards of the spot was visited by the terrible shower. The crater left by the explosion was about twenty feet deep and twenty wide; and in its crumbled sides were found some of the wounded, who were speedily conveyed to hospital.


So for the victors in urban environments, the challenge of stay behond devices goes back a long way. I contend that there are direct simlarities in the concept of operations between the Russian stay-behind devices in the Crimea in 1855 and those of 1941 and the Eastern Front. I wonder too about those towns in Iraq and Syria, liberated from ISIS/Daesh and the identical challenge faced by EOD teams this very day and for years to come. Nothing in EOD is new

From the description above it's clear that these were versions of the Jacobi-Fused landmines used elsewhere in defensive positions by the Russians. 

The fact we know a fair amount about these mines is in part due to a US military mission to the Crimea.  In 1855 Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, created a team called “The Military Commission to the Theater of War in Europe”.  The team consisted of three officers – Major Richard Delafield, (engineering), Major Alfred Mordecai (ordnance) and Captain George B McClellan of later US Civil War fame.  McClellan resigned in 1857 and the report was published in 1860. It is wonderfully detailed and I’d recommend it to any students of military history – it covers just about all aspects of European military developments, from defensive positions, artillery to mobile automated bakeries aboard ship, ambulance design, hospital design and French military cooking techniques.

With regard to innovative munitions, Immanuel Nobel (father of Alfred Nobel) had been engaged by a Russian military engineer,  Professor Jacobi,  to develop submarine charges and a contact fuzing system. These “Jacobi” fuzes consisted of a pencil sized glass tube filled with sulphuric acid fastened over a chemical mix.  Some reference history books say the chemical mix was potassium and sugar but I think that’s probably a misunderstanding – I would suspect the mix was actually potassium chlorate and sugar, as in Delafield’s report below.  When the glass vial contianing the acid is broken, (such as when stood upon) it mixes with the chemicals below and explodes initiating a gunpowder charge sealed in a zinc box.  One might have expected Mordecai to take an interest in the IEDs but it was Delafield who took particular interest and heartily recommended the use of such things by the US military. Here is an extract from Delafield’s technical report from the device recovered by the British:

They consisted of a box of powder eight inches cube (a), contained within another box, leaving a space of two inches between the, filled with pitch, rendering the inner box secure from wet and moisture, when buried under ground. The top of the exterior box was placed about eight inches below the surface, and upon it rested a piece of board of six inches wide, twelve inches long and one inch thick, resting on four legs of thin sheet iron (o), apparently pieces of old hoops, about four inches long. The top of this piece of board was near the surface of the earth covered slightly, so as not to be perceived. On any slight pressure upon the board, such as a man treading upon it, the thin iron supports yielded. When the board came into contact with a glass tube (n) containing sulphuric acid, breaking it and liberating the acid, which diffused within the box, coming into contact with chloride of potassa (sic) , causing instant combustion and as a consequence explosion of the powder.

Delafield goes on to note that the British and French exploiting these devices did not have a chemistry lab available to properly identify the explosives.  I think a mention of a lack of resources for what today might be called "Tech Int" is instructive! The deployment of Technical Intelligence laboratories and associated "CEXC" capabilities to theatres remains an issue today.

A second device is then described:

Another arrangement, found at Sebastopol, was by placing the acid within a glass tube of the succeeding dimensions and form. This glass was placed within a tin tube, as in the following figure, which rested upon the powder box, on its two supports, a, b, at the ends. The tin tube opens downwards into the powder box, with a branch (e) somewhat longer than the supports, (a, b)   This , as in the case of the preceding arrangement, was buried in the ground, leaving the tin tube so near the surface that a man’s foot, or other disturbing cause, bending it, would break the glass within, liberating the acid, which, escaping through the opening of the tin into the box, came into contact with the potassa, or whatever may have been the priming, and by its combustion instantly exploded the powder in the box.  What I call a tin tube, I incline to believe, was some more ductile metal, that would bend without breaking. For this information I am indebted to the kindness of an English artillery officer who loaned me one in his possession and from which measurements were made.

The famous Colonel Majendie, who later became the British Chief Inspector of Explosives, the UK first official bomb disposal officer, and who conducted remarkable IED and technical investigations some 30 years later, in the 1880s, fought as a young artillery officer at Sebastopol. Could it be the same man?  I’d like to think so.

The Jacobi fuse , or at least a variant of it, was used in Russian sea mines at the time - see this earlier post.

But of course one can go back further in time to look at previous Russian efforts, earlier still. When Napoleon's Grande Armee entered Moscow in 1812, it was with great triumph and the summit of a remarkable campaign - but within a day Russian saboteurs had started to burn the city to make it uninhabitable for the occupants. Napoleon himself had to be rescued from fires encroaching the Kremlin and soon the retreat from Moscow started.  I don't doubt that the Russians of 1855 and 1941 knew their history. and whether it is a knowledge of history, or something else, the ruins of Syria and Iraq today pose an identical challenge.  Moscow 1812, Sebastopol, 1855, Kiev and Kharkov 194, and Syria 2019.

Here's a pic of Moscow burning, set fire by Russian saboteurs, with Napoleon looking glumly on.



A railway bomb in Watford, 1880.

Another in my series of bombs on railways. (see the tags for Railway IEDs in the RH column) This one an unsolved case from 1880 where the perpertrators of an attempt to blow up the London and North Western railway were never discovered.  Early on the morning of Monday 13th September 1880, a gang of workmen were doing a routine check of the line between Bushey and Watford, about 16 miles north of Euston. They were half a mile from Bushey station  when they discovered an explosive device, apparently damaged by a passing train. The device consisted of a package of dynamite placed beneath the rails. Connected to it was a rubber tube filled with gunpowder and some detonators. The assessment is that the rubber tube was somehow placed on the line, with the intent that a train's wheels would have crushed the detonators, ignited the gunpowder and hence initiated the dynamite.  The workers recovered the package and took it to the police, suggesting that the rubber tube had fallen off the rail due to the vibrations of the approaching train. A separate, slightly contradictory, report suggests the tube was cut by the trains wheels but no detonator had been crushed. I suspect the former is more likely. The dynamite was in the form of cylinders, 4 inches long, and one inch in diameter, then wrapped in newspaper, and then brown paper, tied with whipcord. Later analysis suggests the dynamite and detonators were standard commercially available materials for quarrying. 

The motive for the attack was unclear. One suggestion was that the device was the work of Russian "nihilists" attempting to assassinate Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, who travelled on the line a day or two earlier. 


A letter bomb defuzed, 1712

Here are some details of a letter bomb sent to the Earl of Oxford in November 1712.  The device was defuzed by the author of "Gulliver's Travels", Jonathan Swift. There was much misreporting of the incident in the newspapers of the time but I have found a reference to what actually happened with some significant detail of the device in a book by Swift which refers to this report as being correct.  In this report, the "gentleman in the room" is Swift.  A bandbox is a box used for storing hats. I believe the "wild-fire" referred to is some sort of flammable oil.


More railway IED attacks from history

I have built an exceptional trove of IED attacks on railways, which I'll blog further about in coming days and weeks. These include:

1. A fascinating and unsolved IED attack on a railway line near Watford, in 1880, using an unusual booby trap switch.

2. A further campaign against the Ottoman train system in Salonika in the early 1900s.  So the Ottoman train system was subject to IED attacks in Salonika (now Greece) in the 1900s, in Arabia in WW1 (Lawrence etc) and in the Dardanelles campaign, WW1 (from submarines). 

3. Attacks on the railway system in the Arab revolt in Palestine, pre WW2.  Of interest the British forces in Palestine applied an unusual,and in today's terms, immoral technique for preventing booby trapped rail IEDs -see the photo below, which shows an improvised armoured rail car behind two Arab hostages.


Also from Palestine, but this immedaitely post WW2, and prior to the establishment of Israel. the railway lines were attacked extensively by the Irgun/Stern gang.  These groups posed a significant IED problem for the British Forces, which I'll write about in coming days - a largely forgotten story, with some challenging EOD situations and challenging IEDs.  This device below uses a bell push which is depressed by a bracket fastened to a sleeper.  I found this image in an official British Royal Engineer publication from 1946 describing Irgun devices.   Note that the device contained a hidden anti-handling switch in addition to the bell push. (Details of that not shown, for security reasons).



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.