Friday, December 15, 2023

1940s: WW2 Theme - Abrasives as a Sabotage Technique

 As I research WW2 and life in Nazi-occupied Europe, I keep seeing specific themes, such as not having decent shoes, not enough food, control of the media, and propaganda. However, a few days ago, I discovered a theme that was new to me (though apparently not to historians): the use of abrasives as a sabotage weapon.

    Note: All hyperlinks to the articles where I found the quotes are at the end of the article.

In 1988, my grandfather told me this story, which took place in Belgium in 1941:

    At one time we had to manufacture – also in my division; I’m not talking about other departments – huge tank, galvanized. The tank was for gasoline, for aviation gasoline, which Germans were supposed to use for testing the airplane engines. And someone in my division sabotaged the work by leaving in the tank after inspection, not leaving but, putting into it, some abrasive powder and other – more abrasive than sand – powders. Obviously this would damage airplane engines to be tested. It was very bad. Before the Gestapo came to investigate what happened and who was responsible, I left a second time; we left Brussels.
I'd never heard of this practice anywhere but in my grandfather's stories, and I always thought, "cool - that's really clever." I don't know why, but I assumed it was an isolated method of sabotage.

Then a few days ago, just as I was leaving for my morning walk, I was listening to A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell and the following quote jumped out at me. I was so excited that I went back inside so I could play the snippet for Chris:

As usual, he [Ben Cowburn] headed straight to Virginia’s apartment to prepare for his mission, which included persuading friendly workers at a local aircraft factory to introduce abrasives into the machinery and blowing up high-tension lines around a power station.

That got me wondering how common the practice was, and so I did some searches. And, well, it was totally a thing.

In her article "Sabotage and Subversion," Mandy Baker wrote:

In order to give the agents more of an edge, the SOE also employed budding scientists to invent unique weapons of war. These weapons included ... carborundum—an abrasive grease which, when smeared on the right spot, could bring a locomotive to an immediate standstill.

On Wiki, I found:

In the days before 6 June French operatives of the SOE's Pimento network, headed by Anthony Brooks, sabotaged the rail cars by draining the axle oil and replacing it with an abrasive powder that caused the axles of the cars to seize up. The powder had been parachuted in by SOE. The perpetrators of the sabotage were a 16-year-old girl named Tetty, her boyfriend, her 14-year-old sister, and several of their friends.

I even found an entire article on powdered substances (not just abrasives) by John S. Forrester called "How Powders Helped to Win World War II" and this is what he had to say about silicon carbide:

SOE agents mixed silicon carbide powder with oil to jam the parts of machines and vehicles in German-controlled areas. According to Stephen Twigge’s “The Spy Toolkit,” many trains were derailed by operatives using this gummy concoction.  

“The carborundum was used in powder form or ready-mixed with grease. It had the advantage of not appearing to be a sabotage weapon and so was unlikely to arouse suspicion even in close proximity to targets – locomotive yards, factories, workshops, and garages,” wrote Mark Seaman wrote in his 2018 book, “Undercover Agent,” on the experiences of a British agent during the war.

There's that phrase, "necessity is the mother of invention," and I think it applies here. My grandfather's experience happened very early in the war when the SOE was a fledgling organization, and before resistance organizations were very strong or organized enough to easily pass on practices like this, and because of that, I suspect that the person in my grandfather's division who used the abrasives to damage the fuel tanks, probably thought of it on his own, and like all good ideas, it arose independently in many different places.


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