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This guide to being a mechanic-saboteur could teach you to be a better tech

by | Mar 3, 2022

Almost 80 years ago, the United States Office of Strategic Services, which eventually became the CIA, created a pamphlet to help people living in Nazi-occupied countries discretely undermine the enemy. This Simple Sabotage Field Manual was published in 1944 and finally declassified in 2008, and it outlines a fascinating strategy for encouraging everyday people to fight back in subtle ways.

“Acts of simple sabotage are occurring throughout Europe,” the introduction reads. “An effort should be made to add to their efficiency, lessen their detectability, and increase their number. Acts of simple sabotage, multiplied by thousands of citizen-saboteurs, can be an effective weapon against the enemy. Slashing tires, draining fuel tanks, starting fires, starting arguments, acting stupidly, short-circuiting electric systems, abrading machine parts will waste materials, man-power, and time. Occurring on a wide scale, simple sabotage will be a constant and tangible drag on the war effort of the enemy.”

Cover the Simple Sabotage Field Manual

Cover of a copy of the manual. From Wikimedia Commons.

From there, it provides creative ideas for rewiring the way you think to maximize inefficiency. Because it’s often hard to actively think about the wrong way to do things, it provides all kinds of tips and techniques. Some can be employed by anyone in everyday life, like prank calling military offices, while others are specific to people working in certain industries, like drawbridge operators acting slowly to jam up boat and vehicle traffic. Many tips are related to machinery and transportation, since both are critical to a war effort, then and now.

Unfortunately, much of this is still highly relevant today. Russia is currently invading Ukraine, despite untold numbers of Russians opposing the war, leaving millions of Ukrainians facing the threat of Russian occupation. Reports of poor Russian truck performance underscore how much of a difference proper maintenance can make in a situation like this.

But even if you aren’t in a position to impact a conflict, many people have since pointed out that thinking about the wrong ways to do something is actually a brilliant way to reverse engineer the right way to do things. In that way, some of these worst practices might actually be insightful, whoever or wherever you are.

Here are some of our favorite acts of sabotage from the manual that are especially relevant to auto repair and general shop operation. All of these are direct quotes from the official government publication itself, some of which you can tell were written in the ‘40s, while others seem like they could’ve been written yesterday. By reading some of these descriptions of how to be mechanic-saboteurs, you could be inspired to be a better tech.

  • Let cutting tools grow dull. They will be inefficient, will slow down production, and may damage the materials and parts you use them on.
  • Using a very rapid stroke will wear out a file before its time. So will dragging a file in slow strokes under heavy pressure. Exert pressure on the backward stroke as well as the forward stroke.
  • Power-driven tools like pneumatic drills, riveters, and so on, are never efficient when dirty. Lubrication points and electric contacts can easily be fouled by normal accumulations of dirt or the insertion of foreign matter.
  • You can cause wear on any machine by uncovering a filter system, poking a pencil or any other sharp object through the filter mesh, then covering it up again. Or, if you can dispose of it quickly, simply remove the filter.
  • Using a thin oil where a heavy oil is prescribed will break down a machine or heat up a moving shaft so that it will “freeze” and stop.
  • A water cooling system can be put out of commission in a fairly short time, with considerable damage to an engine or motor, if you put into it several pinches of hard grain, such as rice or wheat. They will swell up and choke the circulation of water, and the cooling system will have to be torn down to remove the obstruction. Sawdust or hair may also be used to clog a water cooling system.
  • If very cold water is quickly introduced into the cooling system of an overheated motor, contraction and considerable strain on the engine housing will result. If you can repeat the treatment a few times, cracking and serious damage will result.
  • Remember that dust, dirt, and moisture are enemies of electrical equipment. Spill dust and dirt onto the points where the wires in electric motors connect with terminals, and onto insulating parts. Inefficient transmission of current and, in some cases, short circuits will result. Wet generator motors to produce short circuits.
  • “Accidentally” bruise the insulation on wire, loosen nuts on connections, make faulty splices and faulty connections in wiring, to waste electric current and reduce the power of electric motors.
  • Mechanics can ruin batteries in a number of undetectable ways: Take the valve cap off a cell, and drive a screw driver slantwise into the exposed water vent, shattering the plates of the cell; no damage will show when you put the cap back on. Iron or copper filings put into the cells i.e., dropped into the acid, will greatly shorten its life. Copper coins or a few pieces of iron will accomplish the same and more slowly. One hundred to 150 cubic centimeters of vinegar in each cell greatly reduces the life of the battery, but the odor of the vinegar may reveal what has happened.
  • Remove the lubricant from or put too light a lubricant in the transmission and other gears.
  • In trucks, tractors, and other machines with heavy gears, fix the gear case insecurely, putting bolts in only half the bolt holes. The gears will be badly jolted in use and will soon need repairs.
  • It is easy to damage a tire in a tire repair shop: In fixing flats, spill glass, benzine, caustic soda, or other material inside the casing which will puncture or corrode the tube. If you put a gummy substance inside the tube, the next flat will stick the tube to the casing and make it unusable. Or, when you fix a flat tire, you can simply leave between the tube and the casing the object which caused the flat in the first place.
  • In assembling a tire after repair, pump the tube up as fast as you can. Instead of filling out smoothly, it may crease, in which case it will wear out quickly. Or, as you put a tire together, see if you can pinch the tube between the rim of the tire and the rim of the wheel, so that a blow-out will result.
  • In putting air into tires, see that they are kept below normal pressure, so that more than an ordinary amount of wear will result. In filling tires on double wheels, inflate the inner tire to a much higher pressure than the outer one; both will wear out more quickly this way. Badly aligned wheels also wear tires out quickly; you can leave wheels out of alignment when they come in for adjustment, or you can spring them out of true with a strong kick, or by driving the car slowly and diagonally into a curb.
  • If you have access to stocks of tires, you can rot them by spilling oil, gasoline, caustic acid, or benzine on them. Synthetic rubber, however, is less susceptible to these chemicals.
  • Don’t order new working materials until your current stocks have been virtually exhausted, so that the slightest delay in filling your order will mean a shutdown.
  • Order high-quality materials which are hard to get. If you don’t get them argue about it. Warn that inferior materials will mean inferior work.
  • In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that the important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers of poor machines.
  • Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not visible to the naked eye.
  • Make mistakes in routing so that parts and materials will be sent to the wrong place in the plant.
  • When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.
  • To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
  • Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.
  • Work slowly. Think out ways to increase the number of movements necessary on your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one, try to make a small wrench do when a big one is necessary, use little force where considerable force is needed, and so on.
  • Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can: when changing the material on which you are working, as you would on a lathe or punch, take needless time to do it. If you are cutting, shaping or doing other measured work, measure dimensions twice as often as you need to. When you go to the lavatory, spend a longer time there than is necessary. Forget tools so that you will have to go back after them.
  • Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.
  • Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.
  • Snarl up administration in every possible way. Fill out forms illegibly so that they will have to be done over; make mistakes or omit requested information in forms.
  • Mix good parts with unusable scrap and rejected parts.
  • Be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible without getting yourself into trouble.
  • Act stupid.
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