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April 11, 2011 9:49 PM   Subscribe

Derailing a train isn't as easy as you might think. [1944] (Declassified WW2 OSS training video.)

OSS WWII Secret Agent Training Film – How to be an Undercover Agent (parts 2, 3, 4).

Advanced Briefing: Project Gold Dust, using propaganda and misinformation to demoralize the enemy.
posted by crunchland (55 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
The first line of the film (and its delivery) gave me a chuckle.
Spur track: Didn't Marine handbooks use to have info on train derailment & stuff in them?
posted by ShutterBun at 9:58 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of course, nowadays you have track circuits to work around, so you not only need to blow out 5 foot of rail on one side, 2.5 foot of rail on the other, but you also need to maintain the electric current from one segment of track to the other on both rails while blowing it up. This way your intended target train won't stop because of some pesky fail-safe track circuit signalling.

I may have said too much... Bye!
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:03 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


that was just ridiculous. When I was a kid we were discouraged from putting pennies on the tracks in case we derailed the train, now I am all disillusioned.
posted by selenized at 10:11 PM on April 11, 2011 [17 favorites]


I have a friend whose college chemistry was taught by an elderly Polish gentleman. Among other things he learned, my friend says he knows just how much thermite it takes to weld a locomotive to the tracks. (You have to do that while they're stopped, though.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:14 PM on April 11, 2011 [7 favorites]


They probably would have had more luck blowing out the exterior rail on a curve where momentum would have been working for them.

It's pretty easy to derail a train with the right device which can be home brewed pretty easy with some flat stock and a welder.
posted by Mitheral at 10:25 PM on April 11, 2011


I'm surprised that government film makers were so clever. That's a pretty well produced short.
posted by empath at 10:27 PM on April 11, 2011


They probably would have had more luck blowing out the exterior rail on a curve where momentum would have been working for them.

Wouldn't you want to blow out the interior rail? The train would be leaning inwards on a curve and probably not touching the exterior rail, right?
posted by empath at 10:28 PM on April 11, 2011


"Video not found or access denied".

Did we kill it?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:33 PM on April 11, 2011


thanks/ for the memories.
for you crunchy i give you.
CIA Archives: Small Town Espionage - Soviet Spy School Training (1960)
posted by clavdivs at 10:34 PM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised that government film makers were so clever. That's a pretty well produced short.

That's exactly what we said about Reagan man.
posted by clavdivs at 10:36 PM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wouldn't you want to blow out the interior rail? The train would be leaning inwards on a curve and probably not touching the exterior rail, right?

Centrifugal force sez the cars are leaning toward the outside edge of the curve.
posted by ShutterBun at 10:47 PM on April 11, 2011


Did we kill it?

Nah, it's just that you're on a watch list.
posted by pompomtom at 10:48 PM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorta related. Quantum physicist Richard Feynman: What keeps a train on the track?
posted by floam at 10:54 PM on April 11, 2011 [10 favorites]


Clearly the top-notch voiceover talent had been sent to the front. The delivery was so particularly stilted that I couldn't quite place the awkward, eager-to-please yet lifeless inflection, until finally I figured it out: The video (fittingly enough) was voiced by this man's grandfather.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:56 PM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


empath writes "Wouldn't you want to blow out the interior rail? "

Railroad wheel flanges are on the inside of the rail (IE: both flanges are between the rails). The locomotive only has the force applied by the outside rail to the outside wheel flange (actually normally the change in relative diameter inside to outside due to the wheels being tapered but we're talking about a catastrophic failure here where that doesn't apply) to force it around the corner. No outside track and zoom off the rails. The length of missing track may need to be such that the hole displaces a full rail width but that would be the maximum. Considering how easy it is for a poorly functioning switch to derail a train I'd guess much less than a full rail width is required.
posted by Mitheral at 11:03 PM on April 11, 2011


Considering how easy it is for a poorly functioning switch to derail a train

My extensive experience in the 1:87 world suggests exactly this, and the classic full-scale derail is not a complicated instrument -- although perhaps difficult to deliver to target clandestinely. But although I was very impressed with how this film showed the physics of a train mitigating against derailment on a straight stretch, I had to wonder how much more effective a damaged switch would be -- or just what has been shown in various Westerns by bandits: knocking a section out of alignment.
posted by dhartung at 11:16 PM on April 11, 2011


When I was in the special forces we were trained in the clandestine installation of catch points
posted by the noob at 11:32 PM on April 11, 2011


Why wouldn't the military just talk to a mainline railroad about how to put a train on the ground? One man with a track wrench could have done it (quietly) in less than 5 minutes.

I wonder how much this experiment cost.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 11:43 PM on April 11, 2011


I've flagged this whole thread as a derail.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:45 PM on April 11, 2011 [35 favorites]


(with a track wrench and a claw bar. sorry.)
posted by The Hamms Bear at 11:50 PM on April 11, 2011


It would appear there were plenty of men around that should have known what they were doing. I am not certain, but did they not know what a derailer was back then?

On preview, pretty much what The Hamms Bear said.
posted by chemoboy at 11:52 PM on April 11, 2011


When I was a kid we used to put pennies on the track to see then get squished. Then the rumor spread that this could lead to a train derailment, so we probably shouldn't, especially because we all were convinced that California had an antiquated law that called for the death penalty if you cause a train to derail. But then one elementary school 'expert' announced that the only way to derail a train was to put a spoon diagonally on each track.

I now see that the spoons wouldn't do it. But it turns out California does indeed have this old death penalty for train derailment law.
posted by eye of newt at 12:06 AM on April 12, 2011


(with a track wrench and a claw bar. sorry.)


This might not have been practical, for OSS purposes. Tools for wrangling jointed track are indeed simple, but they're also pretty hefty pieces of ironmongery, and spooky troops working behind enemy lines are probably already carrying a lot of stuff.

Plastic explosive is lightweight and multi-purpose; a claw bar is essentially a good-sized crowbar with limited applications, which weighs as much as a Browning Automatic Rifle with a respectable ammo supply.
posted by dansdata at 1:38 AM on April 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


A timely post for me, as I just finished You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger, which is a hilarious account of the heyday of the OSS.
posted by Harald74 at 1:56 AM on April 12, 2011


I bought this book a couple of years ago and it's full of fun stuff like this. The SOE recruited folks from all over to do their training - burglary and safe cracking was taught by old hands, sabotage by men who had worked in factories and knew which equipment was most expensive/hardest to replace.

So far as derailing a train is concerned it helps to know how the Germans used to run their trains (no, not on time...) so you understand the techniques used against them. What they did earlier in the war vs the methods they used later in the war after the Maquis had been sabotaging them etc.

I couldn't recommend that book enough, along with Forgotten Voices of the Secret War. The two books together give an absolutely fantastic overview of the men and women of the SOE as well as what and how they carried out their craft. I might also put a word in for A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE which veers from amazing to depressing as it tracks what happened to the various agents that were captured by the Nazis.

Finally, the historian MRD Foot's SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive is an excellent overview and studies the actual effect of the SOE and it's activities.
posted by longbaugh at 2:23 AM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised that government film makers were so clever. That's a pretty well produced short.

A lot of Hollywood talent worked on these things as part of the war effort. Here's one produced by John Ford. I'm having trouble getting it to play and need to get to work, but based on the description I'm sure it's worth a look:

"Produced by Director John Ford’s OSS Photo Unit, this film shows a device called the All American Escape Harness, which allowed agents to be snatched up by low flying aircraft. First the sheep had to try it!"
posted by marxchivist at 4:19 AM on April 12, 2011


pompomtom: "Did we kill it?

Nah, it's just that you're on a watch list."

Actually it's a "no-watch" list.
posted by bwg at 4:22 AM on April 12, 2011


How come the training videos are so careful not to mention the enemy? It's pretty clearly the nazis, but even the swastikas on the uniforms are replaced.
posted by pewpew at 4:45 AM on April 12, 2011


In the UK, special forces are instructed on how to sprinkle leaves on the line in the event of a hostile invasion to prevent locomotives from moving between places.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:49 AM on April 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


Derails? Pah. If there's one thing Unstoppable taught me, it's that the only surefire way to stop a speeding train is to use a 60/40 combination of explosive set-pieces and smouldering good looks.
posted by dudekiller at 4:50 AM on April 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


> How come the training videos are so careful not to mention the enemy? It's pretty clearly the nazis, but even the swastikas on the uniforms are replaced.

Because the film might come in handy again later against a different enemy.
posted by ardgedee at 5:03 AM on April 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Derails? Pah. If there's one thing Unstoppable taught me, it's that the only surefire way to stop a speeding train is to use a 60/40 combination of explosive set-pieces and smouldering good looks.

No, what Unstoppable taught us is that you can't derail a train if the attempt occurs too far from the end of the movie.

Also: four legs goooood, two legs baaaaad, but that's another discussion.
posted by Herodios at 5:43 AM on April 12, 2011


leaves on the line

This would work in Philadelphia, too. Also squirrels.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:11 AM on April 12, 2011


Then how the hell did my dad derail not one but two engines at work? (unless grounding them is different than derailing but I dont' think so)
posted by stormpooper at 6:46 AM on April 12, 2011


Some of the other videos are great too: Undercover
posted by The Whelk at 7:07 AM on April 12, 2011


also: Outtakes
posted by The Whelk at 7:10 AM on April 12, 2011


Unbreakable taught me not to worry about train wrecks.
posted by Splunge at 7:12 AM on April 12, 2011


Bad track maintenance. Any other questions?

I'm guessing US Steel. Am I right?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:15 AM on April 12, 2011


True story: In the 1990's, a train once derailed in the US while standing still.
posted by dry white toast at 7:19 AM on April 12, 2011


The best way to derail a train is with a cellphone-detonated bomb in the restroom vents and a machine for projecting someone's consciousness into the body of a passenger on the train.

That way you can derail it over and over and over again to your heart's content!
posted by Naberius at 8:07 AM on April 12, 2011


If you derail an articulated train, you actually might not kill anybody, even if the train's traveling at full-speed. France's TGV trains have derailed at as high as 182mph with no major injuries reported.

Thanks to the stiffness of the articulated design, the trains remained upright, and on the trackbed, even though they dragged 2.3km along the ground as they came to a stop.

On the other hand, Germany wasn't so lucky. In 1998, one of their high-speed trains slammed into a bridge pier after derailing, which caused the bridge to collapse on top of the still-moving train, which in turn caused the train's rear cars to jackknife, killing 101 and injuring 88.
posted by schmod at 8:17 AM on April 12, 2011


I thought the undercover agent film was amazing - initially for the thought that somebody had commissioned an orchestra just for the score. Given an hour of the audience's time to play with the producers manage to get characterisation and a compelling narrative woven in amongst a load of practical advice: a way better performance than most of today's corporate training films.

I was disappointed, however, to see that Canada featured as "enemy territory" for only one small segment.
posted by rongorongo at 8:26 AM on April 12, 2011


"Drama? Yes, there's plenty, but no dress rehearsals... this picture is a dress rehearsal"

Which statement is a LIE?
posted by snottydick at 8:55 AM on April 12, 2011


@ eye of newt - I now see that the spoons wouldn't do it. But it turns out California does indeed have this old death penalty for train derailment law.

I think and I grew up in the same area at about the same time. I think I've a few pennies flattened by the UP outside LA. Never tried the spoons, however.
posted by Man with Lantern at 9:10 AM on April 12, 2011


Something about this film being distributed makes me deeply uncomfortable.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:23 AM on April 12, 2011


That "Undercover" short is a film within a film! About going undercover! Where does deception end and reality begin?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:37 AM on April 12, 2011


If you derail an articulated train, you actually might not kill anybody, even if the train's traveling at full-speed.

Derailing the train wasn't really about killing anyone; that would just be a bonus. It was about disabling transportation networks. A derailed train takes significant time and resources to rerail even if it remains upright. And in the mean time nothing is going down those tracks.
posted by Mitheral at 9:41 AM on April 12, 2011


clavdivs: for you crunchy i give you.
CIA Archives: Small Town Espionage - Soviet Spy School Training (1960)


Very interesting! That video claims (at the end) to be set in a replica American small town which was located on a military base near the Ukrainian town of Vinnytsia. They claim that this town was used as a sort of university for training Soviet spies on how to infiltrate the USA - a sort of real life "Truman Show". That sounds like a really interesting story - but the only other reference I can find to such a place is this 1959 article in Time magazine. Does anybody know any more?
posted by rongorongo at 9:56 AM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pfft, everybody knows the best way to derail a train is to have a Democrat propose one to be built.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:43 AM on April 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


selenized: "When I was a kid we were discouraged from putting pennies on the tracks in case we derailed the train"

When I was young I lived in a small town in Montana. Train used to come through pretty regularly. There was a station there, but the trains never stopped any more. My brothers and I used to go there and watch the trains. Once in a while we would try to put a penny on the tracks. We were told not to, we knew it could derail the train. That's what they told us anyway. Our concern wasn't the derail, it was finding the damn penny. We tried it many times but it was always hard to find the coin after it was flattened - a freight train running full-speed through a small town makes it hard. We even tried duct taping the coins to the track - still didn't make it easier!

One day my little brother and I went through the usual routine. Place penny on tracks, walk to the station, sit back against the sun-warmed white-painted station wall and wait. Pretty soon we heard the rumbling of the engine and a long freight barreled through, all churning steel wheels and deafening rattle and clank. When it finally passed, we stood up to go look for the penny, and I felt a sharp momentary pain on the top of my head. I looked behind me and realized that one of my hairs had been pinned to the station wall by the penny. Damn thing went edge-on, buried itself into the wall, missed me by about half an inch. If it wasn't for that single hair I might never have known it.

Moral of this story: If you put a penny on the tracks, get behind something while you wait.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:06 AM on April 12, 2011 [14 favorites]


Interesting. Commuter trains in the Boston area usually left the coin roughly where you set it. Sometimes it would be knocked off the track and you'd find it a foot or two away laying in the rocks, but more often it would be still sitting on the track, now flattened.
posted by cribcage at 12:09 PM on April 12, 2011


I think the difference is between the speeds that trains have when passing through urban areas and the speeds that they take when they're in the middle of nowhere.
posted by ErWenn at 3:00 PM on April 12, 2011


Interesting. Commuter trains in the Boston area usually left the coin roughly where you set it. Sometimes it would be knocked off the track and you'd find it a foot or two away laying in the rocks, but more often it would be still sitting on the track, now flattened.

I may have placed a penny under the same trains you did, but my experience was always different. Sometimes the penny was gone, sometimes it was there, flattened. Once it appeared the penny was pressed into the locomotive wheel. It left a perfectly flat copper colored Abraham Lincoln. A foot or so down the rail was another penny imprint, only lighter. One penny left about four imprints before it finally wore down.
posted by chemoboy at 4:03 PM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


One summer, I was living in an apartment surrounded by woodland and about a quarter mile from a main rail line, and so once in a while, with time and spare change on my hands, I tried making railroad pennies.

Recovered a couple, some with only an edge squished flat, but lost most of them.

The following summer, I was chatting with a friend and found out she was selling jewelry made with railroad pennies. They were finely-hammered, elongated pieces of copper, with the faintest phantoms of Abe on one side and wheat stalk on the other.

I said, "Hey, I tried making pennies, but lost most of 'em, they're probably still lodged deep in the railbed gravel. How do you keep from losing pennies?"

"Toothpaste," she said. "Stick 'em to the rail and they won't move."
posted by ardgedee at 4:42 PM on April 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Story time! A piece of OSS history picked up in Washington D.C.

Being a young itinerant science person, my permanent address is the retirement community building where my mother lives and I go back home from time to time. It is right in the middle of Washington D.C. on fantastically valuable land. Apparently it was built, and run into the ground, by baptists before being bought up by the corporate entity that transformed it into the Kafkaesque dream world it is today. Life there is sometimes hilarious, frequently very interesting, often tragic, and regularly bizarre, from the hilariously bad restaurant in the lobby to the gentleman seemingly proud of how he hasn't left the building for other food in years, convinced it's the best in town. Or the man who quite plausibly claims to be a White Russian whose father was a captain in the Imperial Merchant Marine and stowed the family as well as everyone they could pack on board before getting the hell out of dodge at the last moment and cruising around the Mediterranean, until of course the Bolsheviks caught up with the ship in Croatia after the war. He has the passport and everything, but no one can get much of his story out of him because he is deaf as a post. Or the one apartment outfitted with beautiful ancient furniture picked up in China before the war and artwork that could by rights easily be displayed in the Smithsonian. The feel of the place is difficult to describe, the lower lobby is painted to resemble a cafe some of the great capitals of Europe, except the doorway under the sign labeled "To London" goes to an office, while Paris must be somewhere beyond the exercise room and parking lot. It feels built to continue to house you once you've forgotten about the outside world, though something about that and the disorientation from it hits me right at the bottom of something like an uncanny valley.

One day, at one of the tables of the restaurant in the lobby (the one that serves chicken and calls it quail) a woman came to the table who usually ate in her room. She sat down and ate quietly while everyone talked mostly about current events, when somehow the name of Wild Bill Donovan, the very colorful head of the OSS, came up. This look of recognition and relevance came across her face and she exclaimed, Oh yes, I knew Wild Bill Donovan! To which everyone at the table was shocked but extremely interested and pushed her to tell the story.

As she described it, she was a Grey Lady who signed up at the beginnings of WWII. Grey Ladies were women with the Red Cross who, even at that point, had a long history of young unmarried women with the status and breeding to be able to afford to volunteer their time doing something productive, which generally involved the kinds of tasks that needed doing in a hospital that did not require a medical education. Things like writing letters for people, changing bed sheets and bed pans, doing paperwork, and keeping lonely patients company. Having signed up early and thus possessing valuable experience with the job, she was given the task of supervising a cohort of Grey Ladies for the D.C. area. One of her easier duties was to coordinate their schedules to cover the various shifts until that all changed. She remembered being very confused when all of her, more than a dozen, Grey Ladies had frustratingly extensive and sudden conflicts, all simultaneously. For months, none of them would give strait answers to her questions until finally one of them pulled her aside to quietly tell her what was happening.

As it turns out Wild Bill Donovan had come to each of them individually with a request. He had a problem, OSS operatives who had been dropped into France, been compromised in some way, and escaped to Allied territory were coming back though D.C. and getting themselves into trouble in the raucous culture that dominated D.C. nightlife. These men would have been worth much much more than their weight in gold to the OSS. Not only were they among the most daring, brightest, strongest, fastest and best the country had to offer, but they had intimate knowledge of the resistance and situation on the ground, had invaluable experience evading the Nazis and collaborators, and survived to jump again or teach others how to. Also, at the time, the wrong parts of town (which was most of the town) were very wrong, where much of the pimp mythos originated, with plenty of opportunity for easy trouble for lonely men with combat pay. The request, as the woman told it being described to her, was for the young, pretty, and morally upstanding Grey Ladies to entertain the young men at the local country club and keep them company until their next assignment.

Now, there are several country clubs around DC that do date from that era, but I don't know any that have rooms upstairs. As this story was being told, it was immediately obvious to everyone at the table what was going on, as indeed something had to be going on; Wild Bill Donovan's understanding of human needs would not have extended as far as hors d'oeuvres, the foxtrot, and pleasurable conversation. However, the teller did not seem to understand this (or perhaps want to understand it), there seemed to be nothing remarkable in her mind about a nice dinner with a pretty eligible woman, and fortunately the table had the good taste not to press the point.

Really though, as hunky, dedicated, aware, and intelligent as these men must have been, I can't imagine the patriotic duty of caring for them after what would have been an inconceivably damaging experience. My understanding is that most of those who jumped into France are still there, and while Wild Bill Donovan himself was able to go to Nuremberg to see those who tortured his men find justice, this would have been no comfort yet to those in the arms of these Grey Ladies with the war still raging.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:22 PM on April 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


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