World War Two, the Department 9 of the British Directorate of
Military Intelligence (M.I.9 - Escaped British Prisoners of War/POW,
Debriefing, Escape and Evasion) developed a great number of secret
means to conceal tools and instruments in harmless looking objects for
everyday use. The means the pilots carried with them during the air
raid were called pre-capture
These comprised many items like uniforms or shoes, that could easily be
converted in civilian plain clothes but also see saws, food, etc. This
department also sent to the POW's in the Offizierslager
called camps (using fancy organisation
names) parcels with escape aid items (called post-capture
About one in 5 parcel contained such materiel concealed in
tooth-brushes, pencils, playing cards, etc. The "empty" ones were
and the "hot" ones naughty
You could buy imitations in the Imperial
(but this link is now
The mastermind behind the invention and production planning of
these gadgets wrote his story in Official
Clayton Hutton, 1961. A short description of most items can be found in
an internal report
in 1942 (Per Ardua Libertas
i.e. to Freedom through difficulties). Visit also the website Paratrooper
A very good article about the compasses
Art of Escape and
Evasion in WWII
& Ev. Tools
World War Two
by Phil Froom was
published in The
in 2001-2002 (Iss.
46-50, copies of text alone
w/o pics available, ask the Curator).
at left: A
containing food, pills, a watch and a compass - (Click on image for
We describe here only the orienteering aids like maps and compasses
(see also the website Florizel
for good colour pictures of silk maps).
at right: WW1 escape
compasses made by F. BARKER & Son (pictures
courtesy of TradeMarkLondon)
were several types of
escape compasses used by British Airmen to help them to escape capture,
and to aid POW's ‘on the run’. They were just one
of many in the escape packs issued by the Sqd Intelligence Officer
before each raid. (left: an early WWII RAF escape ration and survival
pack containing a compass. Because of the value attached to them
(especially the money packs), they were collected on the crew members
return. They also had to be up-dated with light-weight maps printed on
silk for the relevant mission areas (right: map of France and Italy,
FI). They apparently were issued to Army Special Forces as well.
(Pictures at l. & r. by
courtesy of Kerry FOSTER)
The different types of escape compasses could be:
1. A small compass (in one piece) that was concealed in the hollow-out
heel of a flying boot (see picture 1).
2. One that formed the bottom half of a standard RAF Brass Button for a
no. 1 uniform (see note).
This button had a screw top with a reverse thread (i.e. unscrewed by
turning clockwise - see picture 2).
There were several manufacturers of these buttons: B'Ham Buttons Ltd.,
FIRMIN and J. R. Gaunt. The first one used smaller compasses which left
a space between the rim and the compass.
Nowadays, many fakes are being offered, BEWARE!
3. A compass consisting of 2 trouser fly buttons: the lower one had a
pivot and the upper one was magnetised.
4. A button made of bakelite with a magnetic element in it.
5. A compass concealed in the belt buckle.
6. A razor blade type used by sailors of the Royal Navy.
7. The magnetised tags of the flying
NOTE: The R.A.F. No. 1 (Home Dress) uniform was for parades and smart
occasions; it comprised a belted jacket with brass buttons for breast
and patch pockets, and a brass buckle for the belt. Strangely, this was
used by both bomber and fighter air crews in the early part of the war.
It was later replaced by battledress (No. 2 dress) that had a waisted
jacket that buttoned on to the back of the trousers, and had black
plastic buttons. The escape compass for battledress was hidden in 2
buttons (i.e. it had no crystal); one for the base and pivot, and the
other had the needle. Airmen and aircrew serving in hot climates had KD
uniforms with black buttons and belts. No. 5 Dress was the Mess Kit.
most well-known: escape compass
as part of a uniform button.
on the pictures for
photo at right shows a typical
Bomber Command crew in their No. 1 Uniforms. The compass button would
have been one of the central ones. Over this uniform would have been
the heavy fur-lined leather jacket, flying boots etc. Their aircraft
behind is a Vickers Wellington V-Victor - 1940.
Below: Button of the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force).
courtesy Kerry Foster)
original system was designed by BLUNT
MI9*. Several manufacturers produced them afterwards. The
classical design: a square
plate with two dots of radoum oaint. Here with additional red paint.
- Diameter: 15 mm
- Depth: 4 mm
- Weight: 2 gr.
design aimed at saving scarce material: four big holes and
two tiny ones aligned on a radial line pointing North (in the right
of the disk):
Below: Reproduction probably made for a museum.
Note the thread's shape and the missing manufacturer's name on
(Click on the images for enlarged
below and at left: Escape
compasses in private collections
button. The upper part was hinged and not screwed.
Bakelite button hung on a thread:
the two dots point North
Trouser's fly compass card (upper) button. Another one was the pivot.
Note on the fly button compass in the book "Official Secret":
This razor blade was a magnetic needle. It had to be laid on the
surface of a liquid (like water in a glass) and would then turn around
so that the War Department arrows pointed north. Date : World War Two
Navy soldier equipment.
NATO miniature compass.
NATO Stock Number and radiation warning sign on reverse
on the pictures for enlarged
Manufacturer: Waltham C. Co.
- Diameter: 17 mm
- Thickness: 4 mm
- Weight: 2 gr
- Luminous lubber line on the crystal
The same compass also was offered in a wrist band.
Blouse Buckle Compass
The above mentioned website THE PARACHUTIST writes about this device:
"Early RAF uniform blouses used a toothed buckle for securing the belt
section on the bottom of the blouse. (...) The buckle was made of a
non-ferrous metal. The compass element was an arrow shaped piece of
magnetized material concealed on the back portion of the buckle. The
compass pivot was staked on a small swivel joint and when not in use
was folded flat against a cross bar. The compass portion was stored on
the opposite side of the same cross bar. A slider mounted on the same
cross bar retains both the pivot pin and the compass needle assembly.
To use as a compass, the slider is moved to release the compass element
and the pivots swung to a vertical position. The buckle is placed on a
stable horizontal surface and the compass needle assembly placed on the
pivot. The pointed end of the compass points toward the North Magnetic
on the picture for a detailed
view of buckle open
(Pictures of prints: Per Ardua
playing cards (set of 48
for 1 map). The joker was the key.
in a cigar
for enlarged view)
Map in a pencil. Maps
were also concealed
in flying boots'
Silk maps of FRANCE
courtesy of J. Greatbatch)
See other pictures of silk maps HERE
the maps were visible when
"washed" with a concealed chemical
(Picture at left
courtesy Doug Rulon)
(magnetic needle) in a tooth
brush and a pencil
needles were used hung on a
two "baby compasses".The
filling lever, the clip and the nib
magnetized and would swing north when suspended on a piece of thread.
by courtesy of J. Greatbatch)
Pict. at r.: Fountain-pen compass
in a stud
of prints: Per
sent to the POW's rests of pencils collected in schools in which a
portion of the lead mine was replaced by a magnetized steel needle.
visitor sent us this picture together with the following information:
grandfather gave me
these before he died in 1990. He was in the 8th
Army Air Force in 1944. He said he kept them between his toes. I'm
pretty sure he said they were tiny compasses. They have a needle pivot
inside, and a threaded bolt on the other side."
This could be a compass case like the one displayed above
but w/o the magnetic needle/card. The screw being maybe
intended to fix it inside the filler.
Can anyone confirm this and give more
HONG KONG EVACUATION AFTER THE JAPS
ATTACKED IN 1941 - JUST A HOAX?
the Japanese attacked Hong Kong in 1941, the pilots of
National Aviation Corporation
made many flying trips back and
forth, evacuating refugees from HK to the safety of Chongqing. One of
the pilots, Captain Hugh Chen, was obliged to make his evacuation in a
derelict old Vultee that was scarcely airworthy and had been stripped
of most of its instrumentation. After he took off, the few remaining
instruments ceased to function, but even though it was dark and he was
helpless, it was too dangerous to return to Hong Kong. Suddenly he
remembered a small 10-cent compass he had in his pocket, and it was
this that he used to fly 700 miles into the heart of China! At least,
this is how the story was reported in the Daily News,
Jan. 1, 1942
(Pics and text sent by P.
compass, surrounded by the metal and electrical systems in an aircraft
compass, simply will not
work. The other thing is that
small warplanes in WW2 had propeller engines directly in front of the
cockpit, which would have driven a compass just 1.5 metres or less
away, completely wild. It's
a challenge to fly an a/c on an accurate heading using only the
calibrated, high quality magnetic compass, with crosswinds
etc…. 700 miles at night across unknown territory, without
visual reference to the land below, even with a high quality
magnetic compass, would be impossible… but with a toy*?
No… it's a hoax :-)
* See ads for toy