SOE Sabotage – Plastic Explosive

During the Second World War Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) developed a whole series of sabotage devices for use behind enemy lines. Using unique archival footage this series of short videos examines some of the weapons developed for use by SOE agents in occupied Europe. In this episode we look at the component which made so many of them possible – Plastic Explosive. This video contains demonstrations of various uses for the malleable explosive.

The footage, believed to have been filmed in 1940, is part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection, it shows plastic explosive being demonstrated in a number of different applications. It was filmed by Cecil Vandepeer Clarke, a British engineer and sabotage expert who was a member of the Special Operations Executive and worked at a number of weapon research and development centres during the war.

Plastic explosive and its effect (IWM)

The clip features a number of men preparing and shaping plastic explosive charges, adding fuses and detonators.  The explosive is then seen being applied to a steel plate in a ring shape, before being detonated. The resulting explosion punches a round hole through the plate. The film also includes demonstrations of what plastic explosive pressed against a tree trunk can do. Once detonated the roughly 1 foot thick trunk is splintered in two. Metal girders are also shown being prepared with a substantial block of explosive being pressed into its seams.

The SOE’s 1944 Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies lists the ‘Standard Charges’ of 1.5lbs or 3lbs of plastic explosive with an integrated central primer available in rectangular blocks inside a rubberised fabric. Of course SOE agents were taught to use as much or as little explosive as was needed for the task and they were taught to be able to improvise in any given situation.

A standard 3lb charge, (SOE’s 1944 Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies)

Given the date of the footage the explosive being used is likely and early form of plastic explosive produced at Woolwich arsenal, possibly PETN or Cyclonite better known as RDX, which would have been mixed with a plasticiser to make the explosive malleable. 

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World War II Allied Sabotage Devices and Booby Traps, G.L. Rottman

SOE’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies, c.1944

SOE’s Secret Weapons Centre: Station 12, D. Turner

SOE: The Scientific Secrets, F. Boyce & D. Everett

Arthur John G. Langley’s Unpublished Memoir (1974)

The footage is part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection © IWM MGH 4523, 4524 & 4325 and is used under the Non-commercial Use agreement.

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