It’s a scenario we’ve all seen a hundred times: our hero discovers a bomb planted by the villains, the countdown flashing in bright red numbers on the timer. Armed with only a pair of wire cutters, he opens the bomb and roots through the tangle of multi-coloured wires within, frantically searching for the right one to cut. Is it the red one or the blue one? Or maybe the yellow one? With his and dozens of other lives on the line, with shaking hands he makes his choice as the timer ticks the last few seconds to zero.
The so-called ‘wire dilemma’ has been a staple of action movies for decades, but has this scenario ever actually played out in real life? The short answer is yes, but – as any bomb disposal technician will be quick to point out – only ever as a last resort. For there are much, much safer ways of disarming a bomb.
The history of bomb disposal goes back to the late 19th Century, when the first dedicated bomb squad was formed in London by Sir Vivian Dering Majendie, Chief Inspector of Explosives from 1871 to his death in 1898. Following an incident on October 2, 1874 in which a barge carrying five tons of gunpowder exploded in Regent’s Canal – destroying the Macclesfield Bridge and part of London Zoo – Majendie drafted what would become the Explosives Act of 1875, the first modern legislation regulating the safe storage, transport, and disposal of explosives. But his greatest claim to fame would come during the Fenian dynamite campaign of 1881-1885. The Fenian Brotherhood was an international political organization which fought for Irish independence during the latter half of the 19th Century. Following the failed 1867 rebellion in Ireland and the Fenian Raids against Canada in 1866 and 1870, the organization changes tactics and launched a series of bombings against military and civilian targets across the United Kingdom – among the first coordinated terrorism campaigns of its kind in history. The bombings were made possible by two recent technical developments. The first was nitroglycerine and its derivative dynamite, which could be manufactured at home using readily-available materials and which for the first time gave revolutionaries access to powerful, military-grade explosives. The second was the development of clockwork timers and detonators, a technology pioneered by American Confederate officer John Maxwell. On August 9, 1864, Maxwell planted one of his so-called ‘horological torpedoes’, hidden in a candle box, at Union Army headquarters in City Point, Virginia, killing and wounding nearly 300 people.
The Fenian campaign began on January 14, 1881 with a bombing at an Army barracks in Salford, Lancashire, which resulted in the death of a young boy. This was followed by more than 20 successful and attempted bombings over the next four years, including a simultaneous attack on the Tower of London, Westminster Crypt, and the House of Commons on January 24, 1885 which became known as ‘Dynamite Saturday.’ In response to the bombings, Sir Vivian Majendie organized a special squad to find and disarm suspected ‘infernal machines’. Majendie’s personal approach to bomb disposal was very, shall we say,‘hands on.’ Following an attack on Victoria Station on February 26, 1884, he found another bomb hidden in the station and disabled its clockwork fuze himself, while his 1898 obituary in The Colonist claims, with typical British understatement:
“It is said of him that he carried an India-rubber bag full of nitro-glycerine, found in the lodgings of a Fenian, in a four-wheeled cab to Woolwich, and that on this occasion he warned the driver not to collide with any other vehicle on the way, else “he might hear no more about it.”
Yet despite this seemingly cavalier attitude to the work, Majendie also developed some of the first modern bomb-disposal techniques, including specialized tools to allow a technician to manipulate a bomb from a safe distance. For his actions, he was knighted in 1885. Majendie’s work during the Fenian bombings would set the template for bomb-disposal operations in Northern Ireland nearly a century later.
Countries around the world copied the British model, with the New York Police Department forming its own bomb squad in 1903. This unit was created in response to a string of domestic terrorist bombings which had plagued the country since the end of the Civil War, carried out by groups ranging from the mafia to anarchists to feuding labour unions. Given the shifting nature of the assailants, the NYPD bomb squad went by many names in its early years, including the “Italian Squad,” the “Anarchist Squad,” and the “Radical Squad.” As most bombs encountered were based on gunpowder or dynamite, the standard disposal technique was to soak any suspicious package in motor oil, thereby neutralizing any explosives within.
But the next revolution in bomb disposal would not come until the Second World War, when the German Blitz on London and Southern England resulted in large numbers of unexploded bombs or UXBs in civilian areas which had to be safely disposed of. This led the Royal Engineers and Royal Army Ordnance Corps to form special Bomb Disposal Companies, which by January 1941 had grown to over 3700 personnel. While unexploded bombs in the countryside could simply be detonated in-place, those in built-up areas required more sophisticated techniques such as trepanation, wherein a hole is drilled in the bomb casing and high-temperature steam used to safely melt or dissolve out the explosives. Other techniques included soaking the fuzing mechanism in liquid nitrogen to freeze batteries or firing mechanisms, and the use of special pullers to stop and extract mechanical time fuzes. The latter device was invented by Squadron Leader Eric Moxey, who would become a legend among wartime bomb disposal technicians. Another legendary figure was Charles Howard, the 20th Earl of Suffolk, who along with his secretary Eileen Morden and his chauffeur Fred Hards formed a bomb disposal squad known as the “Holy Trinity.” Between September 1940 and May 1941, he managed to single-handedly defuse 34 unexploded munitions. Like Sir Vivian Majendie before him, Howard preferred a hands-on approach, as an official report on his work stated:
“On many occasions Lord Suffolk cleared everyone away from the danger area and proceeded to operate alone. Deliberately he exposed himself daily to danger. [He] was a fatalist saying that “If my name is on a bomb, that’s it.””
Seeing every bomb as a unique challenge, Howard’s standard procedure was to explore the inside of an open bomb casing with his hands or a stethoscope, while Eileen Morden stood nearby recording his observations. But heroic as they were, the exploits of Moxey and Howard were destined sooner or later to come to an abrupt end. On August 27, 1940 Eric Moxey was called to dispose of a pair of bombs embedded in the runway at Biggin Hill Aerodrome. While he managed to defuse the first, the second exploded, killing him instantly. Charles Howard’s end came less than a year later on May 12, 1941, while defusing his 35th bomb at the Erith Marshes in Kent. The cause of the fatal detonation was a new device which has become the bane of bomb disposal technicians ever since: the anti-handling fuze, a booby trap designed to detonate a bomb and kill anyone who tries to move or disarm it.
The development of anti-handling devices and the short life expectancy of early bomb disposal technicians lead to the traditional “hands-on” approach being largely abandoned. Today, in contrast to what is depicted in films like The Hurt Locker, it is exceedingly rare for bomb disposal technicians to interact directly with explosive devices, with most disposal work being carried out from as great a distance as possible, using elongated manipulator tools or bomb-disposal robots.
Many of the specific “make safe procedures” used by bomb disposal technicians are closely-guarded secrets, as knowledge of these methods would allow bomb makers to build more sophisticated bombs. But the basic principles are relatively simple and well-known.
The greatest tool in a bomb disposal technician’s arsenal is, as with most aspects of life, knowledge, as the best method for disposing of a bomb depends on its particular design and construction. For this reason, many bomb squads are equipped with portable x-ray devices that can be placed beside a suspicious package and used to image its contents.
As happened during the Second World War, bombs found in unbuilt and unpopulated areas are typically detonated in-place using a small remotely-activated explosive charge. When this is not possible, bomb squads typically turn to a technique called disruption. At their most basic, all bombs consist of 3 basic components: the explosive charge, the initiator, and the activating mechanism – which in an electrically-actuated bomb typically includes a power source, wires, and a switch. If any of them are removed or deactivated, the bomb will not function; thus the goal of disruption is to separate these components quickly enough to prevent a firing signal from reaching the explosive charge. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, using devices ranging from an ordinary shotgun to a so-called “boot banger,” a water-filled shaped explosive charge that projects a supersonic “blade” of water that can instantly cut a bomb apart. Similar in concept is the “pig sticker,” a small cannon that fires a high-speed water jet that can punch through steel bomb casings.
Many of these techniques were developed in what is regarded as the birthplace of modern bomb disposal: the 40-year period of conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.” From 1969 to 2007, British Army Ammunition Technician Officers or ATOs played a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, who became increasingly skilled in the design and deployment of improvised explosive devices. The IRA planted bombs in cars, trains, public spaces, and army barracks, making frequent use of anti-handling devices or multiple charges in order to kill Army ATOs. On several occasions militants planted suspicious packages in open areas, exposing the responding ATOs to fire from a concealed sniper. Such tactics lead to the deaths of 28 ATOs over the course of The Troubles.
Among the most active units in this conflict was the Royal Logistical Corps’ 321st Explosive Ordnance Disposal or EOD Company, today the 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Search Regiment RLC. The 11th is the most decorated peacetime unit in British military history, its members having received more than 200 gallantry awards – most of them for service in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the 11th’s greatest contribution to EOD was the development of bomb disposal robots, known universally among EOD personnel as “wheelbarrows.” This device was invented by Lt. Col Peter Miller of the Royal Tank Regiment following the deaths of 8 ATOs during the period of 1971-1972.
At first Miller tried to buy and modify a lawnmower, but the store owner suggested an electric wheelbarrow instead and the name stuck. Fitted with manipulator arms and a shotgun or pigsticker water cannon for bomb disruption, the wheelbarrow proved an invaluable tool and is credited with saving hundreds of lives. Today, most bomb squads worldwide employ some form of this technology.
In military settings such as Afghanistan and Iraq, disruption or in-place detonation of unexploded munitions is sometimes carried out at long ranges using large-caliber anti-materiel rifles such as the .50 caliber Barrett M82. Indeed, on at least one occasion in Northern Ireland, sharpshooters were used to carry out a long-range version of the classic Hollywood “cut the wire” maneuver. The IRA had hijacked a train from Dublin to Belfast, disconnected the locomotive, and planted a bomb at either end, the two charges being connected by a long wire. The responding ATOs decided sever the wire with a rifle bullet so each charge could be dealt with in isolation. The sharpshooter’s first two shots missed, but the third struck home, causing the entire train to explode. It was later determined that the wire was not in fact electrical cable but rather explosive detonating cord. Whoopsie-doodle…
While disruption is the preferred method for in-situ bomb disposal, there are certain cases where this is not possible. For example, many industrial explosives such as dynamite and blasting gelatine are far more shock-sensitive than military explosives, and can be set off by a shotgun or pigsticker blast. In such cases it is sometimes necessary to transport the bomb to another location for disposal. This is typically done using a bomb containment chamber, a spherical container designed to contain the blast should the bomb detonate prematurely in transit.
Yet despite all the advanced remote technologies available to bomb squads, on rare occasions there is no choice but for a technician to approach the bomb in person in order to place x-ray equipment, disruptors, or explosive charges or to manually disarm a bomb. Among bomb disposal technicians, this is known as “the long walk.” In order to increase their chances of survival, technicians typically wear heavy protective bomb suits made of thick fire and ballistic-resistant kevlar. The suit is designed to protect the wearer from flying shrapnel and prevent the explosive blast wave from reaching their bodies, but even this is only effective up to a certain point. If the bomb is too powerful or detonates too close to the technician, death via pressure injury to the airway – a condition known as “blast lung” – is likely.
As can be imagined, this kind of work requires a special kind of temperament, as Sergeant 1st Class Jeffrey McClean of the U.S. 754th Ordnance Company, who participated in nearly 600 EOD calls in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained in a 2011 interview:
“[One] thing that helped me relax and clear my mind was knowing everyone was looking to me for answers. I’m the best one that can deal with the problem and I don’t want to let people down. I want to get rid of the IED and get that road open again so it doesn’t injure Soldiers. Occasionally, I hum or sing to myself. My favourites, because of my ethnicity, are Irish drinking songs. They keep me in good spirits when I perform the ‘long walk.’ Every time I defuse an IED I look around and mumble to myself and sometimes out loud ‘Nah, you didn’t get me! You didn’t beat me! Who’s smarter now? I win!””
Of what it takes to be a bomb tech, an EOD instructor for the Royal Engineers commented:
“To some extent, it doesn’t seem to matter how we do the technical selection and how many psychometric tests we conduct on the candidates. From my experience there is only one seemingly infallible way of telling whether someone has what it takes to be a bomb disposal man. Watch them in the bar on the first night. You can always tell the people who will survive through the course and in this business. They are the ones with a very strange sense of humour.”
Yet whatever their temperament or coping mechanisms, no truly effective bomb tech places themselves at unnecessary risk. In all but the rarest of circumstances, standard procedure is to destroy a bomb as safely as possible, from as far away as possible. And as for the classic Hollywood “ticking time bomb,” another reason this scenario is unrealistic is that most improvised explosive devices encountered today don’t use timers at all, being either victim-triggered or remotely detonated by wire or radio. And in those cases where a timer is used, few bombers are courteous enough to display the time remaining in giant red numbers. So should you ever come across a bomb, put away the wire cutters, back away, and leave the disarming to the experts, or you may very well find yourself travelling rapidly in every direction at once.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
- Can You Really Pull a Grenade Pin with Your Teeth and Do Soldiers Ever “Cook” Grenades?
- A Murder Mystery- An Airliner Bombing and the Last to Hang
- That Time the Soviets Decided to Try to Extinguish a Fire with a Nuke For Reasons…
- How To Read An EKG (electrocardiograph)
Expand for References
Death of Colonel Majendie – A Brave Inspector, The Colonist, June 16, 1898, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TC18980616.2.18
Kenna, Shane, ‘One Skilled Scientist is Worth an Army’ – The Fenian Dynamite Campaign 1881-85, The Irish Story, February 13, 2012, https://www.theirishstory.com/2012/02/13/one-skilled-scientist-is-worth-an-army-the-fenian-dynamite-campaign-1881-85/?relatedposts_hit=1relatedposts_origin=5411relatedposts_position=2#.YAR95y1b1By
Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Operations, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 9, 2012, https://info.publicintelligence.net/JCS-CIED.pdf
Essex-Lopresti, Tim, A Brief History of Civil Defence, http://www.civildefenceassociation.org.uk/HistCDWebA5V5.pdf
Foster, Renita, Unit Kept One Step Ahead of Enemy, July 22, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20110722182649/http://www.monmouth.army.mil/monmessg/newmonmsg/feb022007/m05bomb.htm
Sinclair, Melissa, The South’s Headless Hero-Terrorist, Style Weekly, June 29, 2005, https://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/the-souths-headless-hero-terrorist/Content?oid=1361218
Hubbard, Peter, “The Exploding Kind,” http://www.racheldavid.plus.com/share/The_Exploding_Kind.pdf