Aids Boxes

An MI9 photograph taken in 1942, showing two variants of Aids Boxes then available. The caption states: Centre – the ‘scratch’ fifty-cigarette tin hastily put into service. Right / left – the next model made of plastic which allowed users to see what was in the box, thus giving them confidence. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum

Soon after Clayton Hutton had joined MI9, he consulted another member of the MI9 staff, a First World War Officer and escaper, on the needs of escaping or evading troops in enemy territory. Squadron Leader A.J. (Johnny) Evans MC told him, “My own view is that every serviceman should be issued with three basic escape aids; a map, a compass and food in concentrated form, before he goes into battle, and if you can think of a way of concealing the map and compass, so much the better.” 

Clayton Hutton had already made great strides in the sourcing and production of concealable escape compasses and maps, so now turned to Johnny Evans’ third requirement – “food in a concentrated form.” He recognised that aircrews – since at this time most escape and evasion devices were being delivered solely to aircrews, as there were very few ground operations taking place in Europe – would require a compact food package, which could be carried upon their person, and provide sufficient protection for its contents. 

Clayton Hutton therefore set about sourcing a compact container which could be used to provide crews with food and useful evasion aids, which could also be conveniently carried on operations for use in the event that they were shot down. These items became officially known as “Aids Boxes.” 

Clayton Hutton listed the items Jonny Evans suggested, and began to work out the volume needed to store them in a container which aircrews could carry in their uniform pockets – since they had to be on their person should they need to bail out, as there would be no time to grab them when the time came.

Hutton decided that an existing W.D. & H.O. Wills cigarette tin (the Flat 50) would come close to meeting his needs, especially since they were designed to fit in a suit pocket, and purchased a batch of twenty thousand tins – complete with cigarettes as Wills would not sell the tins alone. He sold the cigarettes to the Armed Forces NAFFI stores at cost, and was left with twenty thousand of his first AIDS box container. These were populated with the supplies Evans suggested, were taped around the seam and began to be issued to aircrews.

Mk.1 Aids Box based on a ‘flat-fifty’ cigarette tin. Rubber water bottle not shown. Courtesy Clive Bassett – RAF Harrington Covert Warfare Museum. View ‘the Items for Sale’ page to see a museum quality replica of this scare item.

Throughout the war, Aids Boxes issued to British, US and Commonwealth troops by MI9, and those provided by MIS-X to U.S. crews, evolved both physically and in their usefulness. And, while numerous publications and archives discuss these various boxes, there seems to be no single document which lists them chronologically. Some boxes are well documented and can therefore be confidently placed in their order – if not date – of manufacture and issue, but there are others for which the chronology is far less clear. 

Mk.2 Aids Box showing its match-box like construction. Most of these boxes seem to have been painted red (possibly to highlight their importance). Courtesy Mick Prodger
Another image of a Mk.2 Aids Box from Per Ardua Libertas, showing the contents of the box. Courtesy Per Ardua Libertas
Mk.3 Aids Box. Notable inside are matches, chocolate, chewing gum, malt tablets and sealed packets of Benzedrine and Halazone. Courtesy David Farnsworth, Historic Flying Clothing Company

Mk.4 with flask-like construction, protecting rations and meeting the needs for a water bottle – successfully replacing the rubber water bottle found in earlier aids box versions. Almost all Mk.4 boxes encountered are badly decayed. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum
MI9 concept drawing for the Mk.5 Aids Box. The original plan may have been to produce this in metal, however, the box was eventually produced in plastic. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum
Mk.6 Aids Box. A radical redesign, gone is the water bottle concept and the box is now concave to fit the contours of the body. A razor and soap is now included in response to feedback from evaders. Steve Milnthorpe, Air Ministry Militaria
USAAF E-17 Personal Aids, Emergency Sustenance Kit. The kit was standardised on 31 July 1944 and comprises two flasks, a map and signalling mirror. One flask contains medical supplies and the other flask contains rations and evasion items. Like the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces, the USAAF also provided their crews with their own aids (when not supplied by MI9 as part of the cooperation agreement between MI9 and MIS-X). Courtesy David Farnsworth, Historic Flying Clothing Company

Today, early MI9 produced Aids Boxes still appear on the collecting market, but they are becoming more scarce, since the cellulose they were manufactured from (following Clayton Hutton’s original Flat 50 tin) is now breaking down naturally. Many boxes are extremely fragile, or are simply disintegrating. There seems to be no way to prevent this, so it seems that inevitably, in years ahead these boxes will simply cease to exist. However, the contents in many cases remain viable, so can be saved and can be transferred to replica Aids Boxes – which can be purchased via this website.