Explosions are one thing that we all can agree are awesome! When we all go to the movies they’re the main selling point of almost every action flick. Just ask Michael Bay… that man made his entire career from movies that explode the entire multiverse where every inhabitant in them is blown away in a fiery blaze of glory. All the while Vin Diesel is walking away and lighting a cigarette on the errant flames that just happen to waft by.
Explosions make movies so awesome that you can make an entire flick called ‘Explosion: the Movie’ with anthropomorphized explosions that just explode from sheer happiness and it will likely rake in the combined GDP of East Africa. The tagline could be ‘Come on! It’ll be a blast!’ or something equally cringe worthy.
But real explosions are anything but… they’re astonishingly loud, devastating and absolutely terrifying. To anyone who has had the misfortune of witnessing one, they are also rather ugly things to look at. Real explosions, however small, can turn buildings into rubble, shatter masonry, and turn people into a fine red mist that would need to be identified by DNA analysis rather than faces or other recognizable parts.
Thankfully, there are uses for explosives that don’t center on destroying things. The mining industry uses massive amounts of explosives in order to extract metals and minerals from the earth, and the wrecking industry also has a use for explosives in tearing down buildings to free up lots so that new buildings can be built.
Whatever they’re used for, explosions are still fascinating on such a primal level that we cannot help but be drawn to them. To quote J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, ‘For I am become death, destroyer of worlds.’ He uttered this line when he witnessed the first ever nuclear explosion in New Mexico. However, we’re not going to talk about nuclear explosions, those are too easy. We’re also not going to mention accidental civilian explosions since those are as glamorous as a rotten steak. We’re going to focus our list entirely on deliberately detonated non-nuclear explosions, both from current times and the semi-distant past.
15. SIEGE OF ANTWERP, 1585
Gunpowder has been used in warfare longer than the 16th century, but it was in the 16th and early 17th century that gunpowder really took off as the main way armies fought each other. When they used explosives, they weren’t kidding around. The Fall of Antwerp in 1585 involved one of the biggest explosions in the world at the time (and it’s no small potatoes now). The Dutch wanted to take over a fortified bridge called Puente Farnesio that the Spanish built. They built four fire ships (a type of disposable ship they built, loaded with as much kaboom-juice as possible, and then set adrift while on fire… yeah, they weren’t messing around) and sent them towards the bridge.
The first ship went nowhere, the second got lost, the third apparently needed to stop and ask directions then just vanished… but the fourth one made it through and exploded right where it needed to. The ensuing blast was so massive that it not only utterly terminated the bridge, but it also killed 800 Spanish troops and sent debris flying for miles around. It created a miniature tsunami and the blast was so powerful that it was felt 35 kilometers away in the town of Ghent. When it shook windows and probably rustled more than one jimmy…
14. BRESICA EXPLOSION, 1769
So now we’re getting some serious explosive tragedy here. In 1769, the Bastion of San Nazaro in Brescia, Italy, was the home of thousands of people and 90 metric tons of black gunpowder. Now Mother Nature used to be the big boss of explosions with natural gas booms and volcanic eruptions. This simply wouldn’t do in Mother Nature’s view and so it saw fit to send down a lightning bolt directly to the Bastion holding the powder. The resulting explosion was less Michael Bay and more Hiroshima since it hurled boulder-sized rocks as far as one kilometer away and leveled 1/6 of the entire city. At least 2,500 people died.
This explosion was also pretty damn significant since it altered the Catholic Church’s view on lightning rods. Lightning rods were newfangled technology at the time invented by someone called Ben Franklin (I’m sure you’ve heard of him, he makes great beer!), but the Church originally saw them as interfering with God’s will. If he wanted to strike you with lightning then you’d better turn the other cheek after the first one has been fired. I’m guessing they drew the line at 2,500 cheeks needing to be turned.
13. DELFT EXPLOSION, 1652
This is another big one that apparently happened unintentionally. Apparently it happened when the keeper of the gunpowder magazine went to inspect it and it just… blew up. I understand that he wasn’t exactly the choice for hottest dude at the prom, but apparently it was enough to freak out the gunpowder and cause it to explode. I kid, it wasn’t his looks. We actually don’t know what happened, but let’s just say in the days before electrical lighting existed, they needed torches for a light source. Don’t drink and drive, but also don’t carry a naked flame near gunpowder for obvious reasons.
The resulting explosion destroyed 1/4 of the city, but didn’t have the death toll of Brescia because most of the town was away on holiday (no joke, they were at a fair in The Hague or a large market in Schiedam) but it didn’t stop over a hundred people from dying. The biggest tragedy? The explosion killed Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt’s most talented student, and destroyed much of his art. He was almost on par with Rembrandt but sadly the blast cut short his life and his best work was probably well ahead him. The art world suffered a great loss because of it.
12. PARTHENON BLAST, 1687
This one was deliberate, not an accident. In 1687 the Turks and the Venetians were at war and the Turks controlled Athens at the time. The Parthenon, despite being preposterously old even at that point, was almost completely intact, surprisingly enough. During the battle the Turks used the Acropolis as a fort and the Parthenon as their gunpowder magazine. The Venetians bombarded them with mortars when a single lucky shot hit the Parthenon and set off the entire magazine. The Parthenon was not shattered, but a large part of the Acropolis was also damaged. I went to the Acropolis in 2008 and it was just amazing… it makes me wonder just how it must have looked before.
11. PALACE OF THE GRAND MASTER EXPLOSION, 1856
Remember how we mentioned previously that the Church believed that interfering with God’s will was wrong and it took the deaths of 2,500 people to make them change their minds? Well the Ottomans felt that religion was also enough to protect them. But there’s a saying that God helps those who help themselves (but not those who help themselves to the last chicken wing… you know who you are!), so in 1856, another lightning bolt struck the magazine and set off an explosion that nearly destroyed the entire medieval fortress and killed no less than 4,000 people. It seems like lightning and gunpowder don’t mix.
10. FLOOD ROCK, 1885
OK enough military mayhem, let’s talk about the peaceful use of explosions. No… we’re not getting to Michael Bay yet, but this one is actually constructive and doesn’t involve the destruction of childhood memories. In 1885, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers exploded 135 tons of explosives on Flood Rock and basically wiped an island off the map (I didn’t even know that was possible!) to clear a river canal for shipping traffic. If that wasn’t good enough for trade, they even used the rubble to make an artificial Island called Mill Rock.
9. CABO MACHICHACO, 1893
On 3 November, 1893, the steam ship Cabo Machichaco caught fire in port. Now firefighting techniques might not have been as advanced as they are today, but they probably knew that if they were going to fight a fire with a potentially explosive component, they would either need to deal with it in a special manner or just evacuate everyone in the area and immediately call up their insurance demanding a payout… even before the ship blows up, since you know for sure that house you bought near the docks just won’t exist in the next ten minutes.
But unfortunately they didn’t know the full extent of the contents of the ship, which had tons of sulphuric acid and 51 tons of dynamite. Almost all previous explosions on our list were black gunpowder. We’ve already seen just how deadly black gunpowder can be, but there’s a reason why it was replaced… Black gunpowder has a detonation velocity of 600 meters per second… TNT has a detonation velocity of 6,900 meters per second.
Long story short, this explosion cost the lives of 590 people, one of those people who died was killed as a result of a piece of flying debris… 8 kilometers away. It also caused a massive wave that washed over the seashore and destroyed most of the port district.
8. MINES OF THE SOMME, 1916
To be honest, this was one of the most incredible things I had ever heard at the time. So apparently on the 1st day of the Battle of the Somme (future fantasy pioneer J.R.R Tolkien was a veteran of this battle and the hellish landscape of the trenches inspired the blasted lands of Mordor), the British blew up no less than 27 tons of ammonal explosive. Not quite as power as pure TNT, but it’s a hell of a lot louder. In fact, this explosion is probably the loudest ever made in the war.
How loud was it? It was heard (and probably felt to a minor degree) in London. It might not seem like a great deal, until you realize that London is 270 kilometers away from the Somme. Imagine driving at highway speeds (and not breaking the speed limit) for more than 2 and a half hours and still hearing a blast from where you first started your trip. I’m guessing Skrillex should take a note of that for his next concert.
7. SILVERTOWN EXPLOSION, 1917
Speaking of London, Silvertown in West Ham, Essex (part of Greater London, but enough geography) had a munitions factory that probably produced the explosives used in the Somme earlier. In 1917 a fire broke out and ignited 50 tons of TNT.
The sheer magnitude of this explosion was awe inspiring even by Michael Bay standards. Not only did it utterly obliterate an entire factory and the surrounding area, sending red-hot debris as for many kilometers, but it also ignited a gasholder on Greenwich Peninsula nearby that exploded 200,000 cubic meters of gas and created a massive fireball that was visible as far as 48 kilometers away. The explosion was also so loud it was heard 160 kilometers away. Not quite as loud as the Somme, but it probably rendered the City of London more deaf than a Rolling Stones concert.
6. MINES OF THE BATTLE OF MESSINES, 1917
I said no nuclear explosions at first, but this one was actually largest non-nuclear explosion of all time. In fact, it was at one point the biggest planned explosion of all time. British forces had secretly planted 455 tons of ammonal explosive underneath the German lines and set them off. The ensuing explosions produced 19 massive craters, killed 10,000 Germans… and was heard as far away as Dublin. Forget London, they were still deaf from the last blast, this one crossed the English Channel, heard across England, made its way across the Irish Sea, and gave the people of Dublin a kicker. Wow… just… wow.
5. Hirakata Ammunition Dump Explosion, 1939
This one happened in Japan, where anime comes from. There’s been a joke since the 90s about how everything in Japanese cartoons is explosive, and Tokyo is called the matchstick city because of how easily everything blows up. Even if it was designed specifically NOT to blow up. That being said, this incident is the closest thing to a cheesy 80s explosion flick (we’re giving Mr. Bay a break here) since there wasn’t one singular explosion… no, that would be boring. There were 29…
On March 1st, 1939, Warehouse No. 15 of the Imperial Japanese Army ammunition dump exploded and in the ensuing fire and destruction continued to burn uncontrollably and burn the remaining parts of the ammunition depot. The blast caused no less than 29 total massive explosions that destroyed over 821 houses in the entire region and killed 94 people and injured 604 more. I’m starting to think explosions aren’t really as cool as the movies make them out to be…
4. HMS HOOD & HMS BRAHAM, 1941
So now it’s the time for the two for one special… and a change of pace. Pretty much every blast we’ve had occurred on land or about land, but the sea isn’t exactly devoid of massive explosions. I didn’t know which one to put on the list, so I added them both as a tie.
In 1941, during the pursuit of the Bismarck, the HMS Hood was struck by a single shell from the Bismarck’s guns and exploded spectacularly in the North Atlantic. Out of a crew of 1,325, only 3 survived. Ted Briggs was one of them and the last of the three to pass away in 2008. He was interviewed extensively about his experiences, but no one was ever really able to determine exactly WHAT caused it to explode as it did. Ships, even military ones, don’t just blow up like that so easily, especially when they’re specifically designed to take a massive pounding.
Later in 1941 the battleship HMS Braham was prowling for Italian convoys in the Mediterranean when… I swear, the single most Hollywood-esque explosion happened. It was struck by three torpedoes from the German submarine U-331. The torpedoes all hit at the same time and threw up a massive wave in the air before the ship capsized (that’s turning upside down if you didn’t know) and then… as you probably guessed, blew up. Seriously… a 33 ton battleship turning on its back and just blowing up isn’t something Michael Bay would do, it’s something that Beavis and Butthead would write that even Bay would find objectionable.
3. USS MOUNT HOOD, 1944
The British have the HMS Hood which blew up, but the Americans were not to be outdone! They had a hood of their own that they wanted blasted… OK that was terrible. But anyway, the ammunition ship HMS Mount Hood was docked at Seeadler Harbor at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. I’m guessing by now that you realize that ‘ammunition ship’ and ‘list of biggest bangs ever’ go together like matches and a dynamite stick.
No one really knows what caused it to explode, but the 3,800 tons of military ordnance exploded into a mushroom cloud that rose to a height of 2,000 meters and damaged all ships within a 500 meter radius. An explosion that high up in the atmosphere would be visible from an extremely long distance without the need for binoculars or other gear.
2. British Bang Test, 1947
So far we’ve seen lots of bangs and blasts and whatever. They’ve destroyed cities, ships, massive buildings, and all sorts of stuff. But the British weren’t quite happy with that. After WW2 they got a little depressed from not having to bomb stuff for a while and decided to destroy an entire island… I’m not kidding, they actually tried to wipe an island off the map by using as much surplus WW2 explosives as possible.
On April 18th, 1947, the Royal Navy detonated 6,700 tons of high explosives on the Island. The blast was so powerful it is listed as the most powerful non-nuclear detonation ever. It broke the record that was set by the Somme and Messines. It failed to destroy the island, but it did crack it in half, almost making two islands. There’s got to be a better way of dividing up rental property…
1. Ripple Rock, 1958
After WW2, the US, Britain, the USSR, and others tried to simulate nuclear explosions without necessarily using nukes in order to test their effects on nearby objects. So far all of these explosions, except for the HMS Braham, were not filmed. Photographed, yes, but not filmed… and none were shown on TV. This was different. Not only did they use 1270 metric tons of nitramex 2H, they buried it deep inside Ripple Rock, and after detonation, it moved no less than 635,000 metric tons of rocks and water and spewed debris as high as 300 meters into the air. Not bad for an explosion that was buried 720 meters deep within the mountain itself.
What made this one different, however… is that it was shown on TV. The first ever explosion to be broadcast live on the CBC in Canada. Thus giving a world a peek into the future that is Michael Bay’s filmography…
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