ESCAPE COMPASSES 

During 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, short Offlag 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 called dove and the "hot" ones naughty. You could buy imitations in the Imperial War Museum (but this link is now dead...)

Operation Escape Gadget
The mastermind behind the invention and production planning of these gadgets wrote his story in Official Secret, Clayton Hutton, 1961. A short description of most items can be found in an internal report established in 1942 (Per Ardua Libertas i.e. to Freedom through difficulties). Visit also the website Paratrooper.

A very good article about the compasses (The Art of Escape and Evasion in WWIIEsc. & Ev. Tools of World War Two) written by Phil Froom was published in The Armourer in 2001-2002 (Iss. 46-50, copies of text alone w/o pics available, ask the Curator).
Picture at left: A water-bottle containing food, pills, a watch and a compass - (Click on image for enlarged view)

We describe here only the orienteering aids like maps and compasses (see also the website Florizel for good colour pictures of silk maps).

There 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 item out 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)

Picture at right: WW1 escape compasses made by F. BARKER & Son (pictures courtesy of TradeMarkLondon)

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 boots' laces.
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.
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The most well-known: escape compass as part of a uniform button.
(Click on the pictures for enlarged views)


The 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.
(Pictures courtesy Michael Curtis)

Below: Button of the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force).

(Foto courtesy Kerry Foster)
The original system was designed by BLUNT for the MI9*. Several manufacturers produced them afterwards. The classical design: a square plate with two dots of radoum oaint. Here with additional red paint.



Technical Data
- Diameter: 15 mm
- Depth: 4 mm
- Weight: 2 gr.


* Quoted from "Official Secret"
Another design aimed at saving scarce material: four big holes and  two tiny ones aligned on a radial line pointing North (in the right part of the disk):


Below: Reproduction probably made for a museum.
Note the thread's shape and the missing manufacturer's name on reverse:




(Picture courtesy John)
(Click on the images for enlarged views)
Picture below and at left: Escape compasses in private collections



(Picture courtesy John)
US-type button. The upper part was hinged and not screwed.

 

(Picture "Official Secret").

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Bakelite button hung on a thread:
the two dots point North



Trouser's fly compass card (upper) button. Another one was the pivot.
Razor blades





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.
Contemporary NATO miniature compass.


NATO Stock Number and radiation warning sign on reverse
(Click on the pictures for enlarged views)
Technical Data
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.
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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 pole".


Compass folded

Photo courtesy Kerry FOSTER



Click on the picture for a detailed view of buckle open
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Concealed maps

(Pictures of prints: Per Ardua Libertas)


Peelable playing cards (set of 48 for 1 map). The joker was the key.


Map in a cigar

(Click for enlarged view)

Map in a pencil. Maps were also concealed in flying boots' heels.

Silk maps of FRANCE and GERMANY.
(Pictures by courtesy of J. Greatbatch)

See other pictures of silk maps HERE


Handkerchiefs:
the maps were visible when
"washed" with a concealed chemical

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Concealed compasses




Swinger (magnetic needle) in a tooth brush and a pencil


These needles were used hung on a thread


A fountain pen concealed two "baby compasses".The filling lever, the clip and the nib were also magnetized and would swing north when suspended on a piece of thread.

(Picture by courtesy of J. Greatbatch)

Pict. at r.: Fountain-pen compass





Compass in a stud

(Pictures of prints: Per Ardua Libertas)


Magnetised pencil clip
The escape aid organisation also 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.


U.S.A.F. escape compasses?
(Picture at left courtesy Doug Rulon)
 A visitor sent us this picture together with the following information:
"My 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 on the inside, and a threaded bolt on the other side."
This could be a compass case like the one displayed above (fountain-pen) 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 information?
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HONG KONG EVACUATION AFTER THE JAPS ATTACKED IN 1941 - JUST A HOAX?
After the Japanese attacked Hong Kong in 1941, the pilots of the China 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 (pdf).
(Pics and text sent by P. Gully).

Comments from pilots: A hand-held 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 compasses
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