Escape Aids

Following MI9’s formation, Norman Crockatt began to build his team and tasked them with devising and producing the doctrine which would define their role in equipping Allied Forces with the training needed to master the basics of evasion and escape. Having defined initial training of just a small number of air crews and troops, it then became obvious that they needed to devise and produce the tools of the trade they would require to facilitate evasion after being forced down, or cut off behind enemy lines, or to escape from captivity.

An early recruit into MI9 was an ex-WW1 Royal Flying Corps pilot, Christopher Clayton Hutton, who became known to those within MI9 as “Clutty”. Upon the outbreak of WW2 Clayton Hutton had attempted to re-join the RAF as a pilot, but had been told he was too old, and after attempts to join other organisations, he had become aware of an organisation looking for staff in London. He applied, and due to his own personal interest in escapology (and little more it seemed), he was offered a role and a Commission in the Intelligence Corps.

Brigadier Norman Crockatt DSO, MC, head of MI9 from its formation until the end of the war. Courtesy ACR Archives via Graham Pitchfork

Christopher Clayton Hutton, pictured here in the uniform of a captain in the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) during World War 1, prior to transferring to the RFC. Courtesy Royal Air Force Museum

It was possibly the best decision that Norman Crockatt and MI9 made, as whilst undoubtedly eccentric, Clayton Hutton was inventive, resourceful and when necessary, devious. His initial remit was to devise a range of aids, which were undefined and did not previously exist! Undaunted, and with this challenging remit in mind, Clayton Hutton took to his task, and with help from other WW1 veterans, began to make notes on the types of items WW1 escapers had needed and how they could be produced.

Pre-Capture

An RAF poster encouraging aircrews to carry their escape aids; the poster is marked “To be displayed in operations and crew rooms only.” The poster shows two essential pre-capture aids, a Map Purse (containing currency, compass, hacksaw and maps) and an Aids Box (principally containing food). Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

Understanding that anyone attempting to navigate from one unknown location towards another, he decided that a compass would be the first item needed, closely followed by a map. After discussions with producers of conventional versions of these items, he outlined his needs for much modified versions of both. In a very short period of time, he had suppliers of what became known as ‘Swinger’ compasses, and then an ever expanding range of silk, and then tissue escape maps.

From that point, Clayton Hutton and his colleagues began to refine and miniaturise their escape compasses, then to conceal them in numerous ingenious ways. Eventually producing over a dozen variants of compasses alone, ranging from one centimetre in diameter, to just 4mm. 

A post war advert showing the more common concealed items of escape kit developed by MI9. Incidentally, at the end of the war, the Ministry of Supply sold off their stocks of escape and evasion equipment – much to Clayton Hutton’s disgust. Courtesy John Ensor

The issue was always going to be concealment of these escape devices. Their general carriage during operations was not an issue, but if shot down and captured, these devices needed to survive rudimentary post-capture searches, then the more stringent searches expected during processing at one of the Dulag Luft PoW induction centres in occupied Europe. So Clayton Hutton and his team began to experiment with concealing compasses – and later maps – in personal items, so as to attempt to evade German searches post capture, and allow PoWs to carry their escape items into captivity with them, for later use. Such items as buttons, pens, pencils, cigarette lighters, pipes, tobacco pouches and the men’s uniforms themselves, were all used to conceal a multitude of escape aids.

‘Escape Corner’ inside the base library at ‘Wendling Air Base, Station 118, USAAF’ close to Beeston, Norfolk in 1944, home to the 32nd BG. Noticeable is the Circular Rotator (shows flags, escape routes, people to trust, etc.), silk maps, phrase cards and penguin escape books. Courtesy Annette Tison www.B24.net

Post Capture

As more and more air crew failed to return from operations, and following the capture of 50,000 Allied troops after Dunkirk, more and more Allied troops became POWs of the Axis powers. This posed a number of additional challenges to MI9.  How to ship covert escape material into POW camps without being able to warn the recipients it was coming? How to conceal these items from German scrutiny upon arrival, and how to provide sufficient numbers of devices to actually be of use in supporting escapes?

But equally, it also offered MI9 some advantages, in that the material permitted to be sent to POWs extended to some fairly large items; including board games, sporting goods, books, and clothing. All soon to be exploited by Clayton Hutton and his team. 

From the conception of the plan to ship escape material into the camps, it was decided that Red Cross parcels were sacrosanct and must not be touched. If MI9 had used Red Cross parcels and they had been discovered to contain escape material, there was a very real danger they would be withdrawn from issue by the Germans, resulting in potential starvation for Allied POWs.

Therefore, under Clayton Hutton’s leadership, MI9 established 32 bogus charities, all based in England and each with its own genuine postal address – generally bombed out buildings. Therefore if the German Abwehr agents suspected of being active in England were sent to investigate the validity of any such charity, the building would have been seen to exist, but had since been destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

Each charity was run as a very home spun affair. With everything being dispatched by the charity having a local regional origin. From packaging, to all of the goods inside. Clothing would have local manufactures labels, foodstuff also, newspapers would be centred on the HQ of the charity and even the playing cards or games enclosed would be regionally themed.  This then gave the entire package a ‘genuine’ feel and in parallel, allowed MI9 to manufacture bogus items which could be loaded with escape material. As an example, a game of cards in a charity box from Brighton, may have locally themed images on the backs of the cards – in the case of Brighton, Brighton Pavilion – lending credence to their genuine locally donated charity guise. But these packs of cards were actually specifically manufactured by MI9 and would contain laminated map tiles, to allow escape maps to be duplicated from them.

Once the charities were in place, MI9 began to employ British manufacturers to produce often modified but existing material (games, sporting goods, books) which had escape material embedded within them during manufacture, resulting in items which looked completely legitimate and with no signs of having been tampered with. But in effect, the majority contained numerous escape aids. 

The items

Games

Quite early on, MI9 employed the games and sporting goods manufacturer Jaques of London to produce escape material for them. Jaques was (and still is) a major provider of board games such as chess, draughts, and snakes and ladders. These were carefully modified to conceal a number of escape aids, mainly tissue maps, currency and counterfeit identification papers, but also compasses and other necessary items. Jaques also manufactured cricket bats, tennis and badminton racquets, croquet sets and a multitude of other sporting goods. By late 1940, Jaques was equipping a wide variety of their games and sporting goods with deeply concealed escape material. 

The MI9 concept drawing for what Jacques of London call their “Whittington Chess Set.” The sides of the set have been hollowed to include a variety of escape and evasion items. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum
Prisoners of war relaxing somewhere in Germany, in the background a group play chess, more than likely with a Jaques chess set, shipped in via one of the many bogus MI9 charities. Courtesy Steve Milnthorpe

As well as Jaques of London, Waddington, the British provider of the world famous Monopoly game were also a notable part of the MI9 covert supply chain. Waddington installed similar material into Monopoly games, mainly within the board itself, where currency, false papers and some small flat items such as Swinger compasses could be easily concealed inside the quite thick playing boards. These too were shipped via Clayton Hutton’s charities to the POW camps, and already being a world famous game, initially, Monopoly received little attention from the censors and guards. 

The games maker J. Waddington of Leeds was the British distributor for the famous monopoly board game. MI9 has these games manufactured with a variety of maps and compasses concealed within the board, the types of map indicated by full stops (periods) after certain words on the game board. Author’s collection

As well as Monopoly, Waddington was also the manufacturer of silk escape maps and sets of playing cards with map tiles within each card. When the cards were soaked in water, the back and front separated to reveal the map tile. One set of cards produced one complete map, which could be laid out by the POWs and copied onto tissue paper. Waddington actually became one of the major producers of escape maps, and eventually sub-contracted another manufacturer to assist them as demand increased. Later, Waddington was involved in the manufacture of Aids Boxes and the packaging of hacksaw blades used in the Aids Boxes, in waxed sheaths to keep them from rusting.

Playing Cards produced by Waddington’s in Leeds with each deck containing a full escape map cut into tiles and concealed between the two faces of the playing cards. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum

Sporting goods

Jaques was a well-established provider of games and sporting goods, so once again, if investigated by the German authorities, appeared to be a genuine and innocent provider of items for Allied POWs. However, they were actually anything but. Any item made of wood was easy to equip with escape material. Shove Halfpenny boards were hollowed out and filled with escape material, then invisibly sealed, concealing the items from the POW camp Censors.  Tennis and badminton racquets had their handles and on occasion their shafts hollowed out and filled with material, chess pieces and their boards were also hollowed and concealed compasses, maps, foreign currency, tools and other useful escape material inside, all under the guidance of MI9.

Another MI9 concept drawing of contraband being concealed in the handle of a tennis racquet. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum
One of the MI9 images produced by Clayton Hutton to illustrate the MI9 Per Ardua Libertas manuals. This shows a Jacques of London ‘Rapier’ squash racquet seated on a bed of silk escape maps and was included in the manual as an example of the items provided to the camps. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum

Clothing

One of the challenges of arranging a major POW escape, such as that of Stalag Luft III – dubbed The Great Escape – was the sourcing of sufficient civilian clothing to equip such a large group. Once again, MI9’s resourceful team provided solutions. Army blankets were shipped into the camps for the prisoners, these were provided in slate grey, and brown and appeared to be standard heavy woollen blankets. But once unfolded and wiped with a damp cloth, these ‘escape blankets’ were seen to have patterns of civilian overcoats printed onto them. Each blanket providing one overcoat. 

Some prisoners may have been POWs since 1940, so as time moved on, their uniforms would begin to literally wear out and fall apart. So replacement RAF tunics and trousers were sent out to the camps. But once again, these proved not to be all they appeared to be. If the uniforms were turned inside out, they became a civilian suit. In order to provide the volume of jackets and trousers needed, MI9 also shipped concentrated dyes into the camps, allowing both Army and RAF tunics to be adapted and then dyed black or dark grey, to resemble a civilian suit. 

MI9 also began to ship some of their charity items inside small pressed cardboard suitcases. These aroused little suspicion from the German authorities, and they were used quite innocently in the POW barracks, to secure and store each prisoners meagre belongings neatly and safely. However, come a POW escape, these suitcases became perfect props for the escapers. Giving them the appearance of foreign workers travelling across Germany or the occupied countries to their place of work. Or perhaps on leave – MI9 would provide the necessary leave papers for a number of local businesses near to each camp, which could then simply be completed and used to pass through any German checkpoints en route to freedom.

‘Charity’ suitcase parcels sent to British prisoners from the prisoners Leisure Hours Fund, almost certainly containing a variety of escape devices. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum