10 Famous Times Bombs Failed to Work

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A Brief History

On February 9, 1941, during World War II, a giant naval artillery shell dropped on the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa, Italy (usually just called The Genoa Cathedral) failed to explode, sparing the church from destruction.  Fired by the British battleship HMS Malaya, the 15 inch armor piercing projectile was mistakenly fired at the wrong target, and incredibly, the shell remains in place to this day!  Today we take a look at some instances when a bomb or other explosive failed to either detonate at all or detonate without achieving its intended purpose of destruction.  As always, feel free to tell us what such incidents we may well have included in this list.  (Note: Military bombs, artillery and mortar shells, grenades, and naval gun projectiles frequently do not go boom when they are supposed to.  Battle fields are littered with potentially deadly debris of war.  In 2020, a bomb dropped on London during World War II was discovered unexploded.  Such finding occur all the time.)

Digging Deeper

1. Cathedral of Genoa, 1941.

Armour-piercing shell – with cap (left) fired on 9 February 1941 into the nave of Genoa cathedral.  Photograph by William Domenichini.

As described above, the British battleship HMS Malaya mistakenly targeted the church with one of its main gun rounds, the 15 inch diameter armor piercing projectile weighing in at about 2000 pounds.  As part of Operation Grog, the Malaya and other British ships had shelled the Genoa harbor, managing to sink 4 Italian vessels and damage another 18 before accidentally striking the church.  The soft nature of the building where the shell struck kept the fuse from detonating the shell designed to strike hard, armored targets.  The Cathedral keeps the un-exploded shell on display with the caption: “This bomb, launched by the British Navy, though breaking through the walls of this great cathedral, fell here unexploded on February 9, 1941. In perpetual gratitude, Genoa, the City of Mary, desired to engrave in stone, the memory of such grace.”

2. The Gunpowder Plot, 1605.

A late 17th or early 18th-century report of the plot.

An ambitious plan to kill the reigning British King, James I, as well as to blow up The House of Lords of Parliament and its members, including family of the King and members of the Privy Council, the plotters planned to place 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the Parliament building with the intention of blowing their victims to Kingdom Come.  The plotters included Robert Catesby, the leader of the plot as a Catholic attacking the Anglican monarchy.  Another famous conspirator was Guy Fawkes, another Catholic that had formerly fought on behalf of the Spanish.  Fawkes, with the most experience of things military, was in charge of the explosives and rigging the bomb.  An anonymous tip to authorities warned of the plot and Fawkes was arrested in the basement with the barrels of gunpowder before he could trigger the explosion.  The 8 conspirators that were arrested were convicted of treason, including Fawkes, and sentenced to the terrible fate of being hanged, drawn and quartered.  Though a total failure, the Gunpowder Plot is celebrated to this day, mostly by British Catholics, as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night on February 5 of each year.  Fawkes plotted to blow up British Parliament (and the rich snobs in the House of Lords for which he is today a revered figure by the common folk in Britain) which makes him an odd object of affection.  Fawkes also inspired the more recent graphic novel (later adapted into a major motion picture in 2005) titled V for Vendetta. The Blu-ray release of the film includes a feature titled “Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.” Moreover, masks of his face are worn not just by the fictional “V”, but also by the real-life members of the hacktivist group Anonymous and Great Britain even has a holiday commemorating the “Gunpowder Plot” associated with Fawkes.

3. Richard Colvin Reid, The Shoe Bomber, 2001.

A mugshot of shoebomber Richard Reid

Known as “The Shoe Bomber,” Reid is English born and a convert to Islam.  Only 3 months after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks Reid tried to blow an airliner up with a bomb hidden in his shoes.  A bungler that joined al Qaeda (the terrorist outfit) in Afghanistan, Reid was unable to get the explosives to detonate and was arrested.  The then 28 year old career petty criminal was interrupted by a flight attendant while trying to light the fuse to his bomb.  He now sits in jail for the rest of his life.

4. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, The Underwear Bomber, 2009.

A young African man with dark skin, short black hair, and brown eyes, wearing a white T-shirt.

Yet another failed attempt to blow up an airliner by a suicide bomber!  On December 25, 2009 one of the most bizarre terrorist plots to destroy an airliner and its passengers failed when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was unable to get his bomb hidden in his underwear to explode.  Despite being the son of a very wealthy Nigerian and studying in London, England, Umar became radicalized by Islamic extremists against the West, especially the United States.  Perhaps his sexual frustration, which he discussed on social media, spurred his hatred.  Umar began his terrorist journey by flying from Ghana (Africa) to Amsterdam, Netherlands, where he got on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit, Michigan.  As the jetliner approached Detroit, Umar went to the rest room where he readied his bomb, and covered his body with a blanket when back in his seat.  Manipulating the device hidden in his under shorts with acid that was supposed to set off the explosion, Umar only succeeded in catching himself on fire.  Other passengers quickly subdued Umar and put the fire out with a fire extinguisher, dragging the now pants-less sap to the front of the cabin.  Umar admitted to trying to blow up the plane and was arrested upon landing.  He is serving 4 life sentences.

5. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Columbine Shooters, 1999.

Harris (left) and Klebold (right) on a surveillance camera on the day of the shooting

In a notorious school shooting incident that rocked the nation, 2 teen aged students of Columbine High School in Colorado perpetrated a bloodbath in which they shot and killed 13 people and wounded another 24 before turning their guns on themselves.  Two boys described as intelligent, but not happy, were allegedly bullied by other kids and perhaps depressed or even psychotic.  The amazing thing about this tragedy is that it could have been so much worse!  The two deranged boys (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) had made numerous threats and blogged about how they hated people and wanted to kill them.  Bombs were placed in the cafeteria where they could expect a large number of student victims to be packed and in the parking lot where they rigged cars to explode in order to kill people who fled there.  In fact, the pair had built 99 bombs!  They planned on picking off kids as they ran from the carnage in the cafeteria, but luckily none of the bombs went off and a dramatically worse tragedy (perhaps 500 more victims!) was thus avoided.  (Note: In 1927, the deadliest school attack in US history occurred when Andrew Kehoe used hundreds of pounds of dynamite to kill 38 school children and 7 adults.)

6. World Trade Center Bomb, 1993.

Underground damage after the bombing

On February 26, 1993, New Yorkers were shaken during their lunch break by the explosion of a giant bomb!  The same Arab-Muslim gang of terrorists (financed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) who would later perpetrate the September 11, 2001 attacks plotting to take down the World Trade Center, a target they saw as the heart of American capitalism in a city known for having a large Jewish population first tried to take down the giant buildings in a more conventional way.  The plan was to place a giant 1,300-pound bomb in a rental van which would then be parked in the basement parking garage where the explosion was expected to cause one tower to topple into the other one, completing their destruction.  The bomb mainly consisted of urea nitrate around cylinders of compressed hydrogen, the idea being the hydrogen would greatly amplify the effects of the explosion.  The terrorists also packed flammable metal particles around the bomb to enhance the incendiary effects as well.  The bomb was triggered by an initiating charge of gunpowder, nitroglycerine, ammonium nitrate and dynamite.  This type of construction can create a very powerful pushing effect that is effective in blasting out concrete walls as well as generate a tremendous amount of heat and fire to destroy evidence and further the destructive effect.  After the van was parked in the basement garage, the terrorists left and lit a 20-foot fuse.  Twelve minutes later, the bomb went off!  Tremendous damage was caused by the huge blast which left behind a hole almost 100 feet across through 4 levels of concrete and steel!  The building on top of it, however, did not fall.  The dense smoke choked survivors and permeated all the way to the 93rd floor, especially in the stairwells.  Luckily, although successful in creating more confusion and making evacuation more difficult, the smoke did not have the deadly effect the terrorists intended.  Incredibly, only 6 people died in the enormous blast, although about 1000 people were injured.  All of the perpetrators were eventually caught.  There was some speculation that the terrorists had also put cyanide in with their bomb, but if they did the explosion destroyed any trace of the poison.

7. Faisal Shahzad, Time Square Bomb, 2010.

Mugshot of Faisal Shahzad in 2009

A Pakistani-American who showed no remorse at all during his trial and sentencing, had plotted to blow up a car bomb on busy Times Square in New York City to kill as many Americans as possible.  After doing well in his career and life in the US, Faisal became a naturalized US citizen, but financial difficulties and increasing interest in Islamic extremism caused his wife to leave him.  He became increasingly distraught, and traveled to Pakistan where he was apparently trained in terrorist techniques.  He bought a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder for his car bomb, and packed the SUV with a diabolical homemade bomb that included several gallons of gasoline, propane cylinders, a pressure cooker packed with fertilizer explosive, and 180 of the large and powerful “M-80” type of firecrackers.  Faisal lit his fuse and left the scene, but witnesses saw smoke coming from the SUV and reported hearing firecrackers going off.  Authorities were notified and bomb squad deactivated the bomb.  Faisal was caught 2 days later trying to leave the country, and is serving a life sentence.

8. Kevin Harpham, Spokane bombing attempt, 2011.

Map of Washington highlighting Spokane County (location of the bomb attempt).  Map by David Benbennick.

Another American domestic terrorist attempt, this time perpetrated by a White Supremacist, Kevin Harpham, age 36, who tried to kill innocent people marching in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event in Spokane, Washington.  Harpham placed a bomb located in a backpack along the marchers’ route, a bomb packed with explosives, shrapnel and rat poison!  Luckily, the bomb was discovered before the radio controlled device could be detonated, and the bomb was deactivated by a bomb squad.  About a month later White supremacist and separatist Kevin William Harpham of Addy, Washington was arrested and later convicted of trying to kill people with his bomb.  Harpham was sentenced to 32 years in prison with lifetime supervision.

9. Assassination Attempt on Adolf Hitler, 1944.  (20 July Plot)

Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, and Bruno Loerzer surveying the damaged conference room.  Photograph by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-025-10 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Germany had a contingency plan called Operation Valkyrie to keep their government going in the face of a disaster during World War II, and by July of 1944 the war had certainly turned disastrous for Germany!  A German officer, Colonel Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, took part in a plot of German officers to try to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the German leader perceived as leading the country to ruin.  The plot consisted of Stauffenberg placing a bomb in a brief case at a staff meeting attended by Hitler, with the aim of killing Hitler and the other staff officers present.  Stauffenberg was to leave the bomb and make an excuse to leave the meeting.  The bomb went off, but failed to either kill or disable Hitler, although it did kill 4 people present (one was a stenographer) and injure 13 other people.  Hitler escaped with relatively minor injuries, except to his psyche!  Recriminations were swift, and those officers suspected of complicity, including Field Marshall Erwin Rommel  (allowed to kill himself), were executed.  Of the 7000 persons arrested by the Gestapo as conspirators, nearly 5000 were executed.  The 2 factors believed to have caused the failure of the bombing attempt included the heavy and sturdy construction of the meeting table the bomb was placed under and the probability that the briefcase had been knocked over or pushed aside prior to the explosion.  Another factor was Stauffenberg not having a detonator for both packs of explosives, so he only used a single 1 kilogram pack, apparently not thinking that putting both packs of explosive together would result in both going off even though only one had a detonator.  Oops!  A major motion picture starring Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg, Valkyrie, was released in 2008.  Several other attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, including through the use of bombs, also failed.

10. Mark Domingo, Islamic Revenge Terror plot, 2019.

Domingo, a US Army veteran, is a convert to Islam that was incensed by the anti-Muslim terror attacks in New Zealand in March of 2019 and wanted to take revenge against those he saw as enemies of Islam.  Authorities became aware of his plans to carry out terrorist bombing attacks in the United States and undercover agents sold the unwitting terrorist wannabe a fake bomb.  The 26 year old planned on carrying out his attack in Southern California.  He is now facing a potential 15 year prison sentence.  Domingo is just one of many people who have recently aspired to conduct one or more terrorist bombings that have been captured by the law enforcement authorities before their deadly attacks could be carried out.

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you believe is the most famous case of a bomb failure?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Caram, Peter. The 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. Empiricus Books, 2011.

Gisevius, Hans Bernd. Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler. Da Capo Press, 2008.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Lt S J Beadell, an official Royal Navy photographer, of a Supermarine Walrus amphibious aircraft, which was one of the spotting aircraft used during the bombardment of Genoa and Spartivento, is photograph A 4050 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.  This image is in the public domain, because it is a mere mechanical scan or photocopy of a public domain original, or – from the available evidence – is so similar to such a scan or photocopy that no copyright protection can be expected to arise. The original itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:

  1. It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
  2. It was published prior to 1970; or
  3. It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1970.

HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply)
More information.

See also Copyright and Crown copyright artistic works.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.