Escape Maps

For many hundreds of years military forces have possessed or produced maps in support of their various global campaigns, some more accurate than others, but still a means to navigate, and to conduct military operations. At the onset of World War I, the area of operations in Western Europe became predominantly France therefore, numerous maps were produced by all combatant nations in various formats, albeit mainly of France.

However, the issue for MI9 was not simply to acquire maps of France – which were numerous – or other soon-to-be-occupied countries, their need was for a very specific type of map. One that could be carried easily and unobtrusively by aircrew or special operations personnel, not burden them, nor detract from their operational role. But beyond this, these maps also had to be of a useful scale to evade or escape by, be durable, lightweight, and hopefully be able to be secreted in the uniform of the user without discovery upon capture. Finally, the maps needed to be relatively simple to produce in huge quantities in time of war, to allow their widespread issue. These were to be but some of MI9’s many daunting challenges in their quest for what came to be known as the escape map.

One of the main drivers of MI9 escape devices was WWI RFC veteran, Major Christopher Clayton Hutton. In seeking a way to generate maps fitting this challenging description, he decided that he needed a material, which was lightweight, very low volume, extremely strong, and made little or no noise when used. After some experimentation with various types of paper, and a little historic research, he came to the conclusions that what he needed was silk.

Clayton Hutton set off to talk to a parachute factory on the outskirts of London, leaving the factory with a number of rolls of high quality silk in the boot of his car. He visited a printing firm in London (believed to be C.E. Layton) setting them to work producing his first escape maps. After various challenges, the first ever purpose-made silk escape map manufactured specifically to guide airmen and ground forces home to freedom, had been born. 

Very soon Clayton Hutton and his team had perfected a way not only to produce single-sided maps, but how to print on both sides of the fine silk, thus providing users with a map of Germany on one side and Northern France and the Low Countries on the other.

An Bartholomew map series example – the first maps to be mass produced from 1940 onwards were printed single and double-sided and early maps has sown hems. Printed at a scale of 1:1,000,000 they were of little use for actual navigation, but were intended to provide rough direction. Courtesy David Farnsworth, Historic Flying Clothing Company
A doube-sided 1943 series silk map, showing sheet K (Spain France) on one side and sheet K (Spain Portugal) on the other side, illustrating the vibrant colours of the 43/44 series maps. Courtesy David Farnsworth, Historic Flying Clothing Company
Sheet Y – A three coloured silk map detailing the escape route from Germany to Canton Schaffhausen in Switzerland. Note the map is marked “Secret.” R.E. Baldwin collection image

Silk maps were a huge leap forward for evaders, but for those already incarcerated, MI9 needed to be able to ship maps into the POW camps, secured within various compact ‘carrier’ items. Whilst silk was robust and provided a sharp usable escape map, it was not compact. So through other intelligence contacts, Clayton Hutton was able to secure a huge shipment of Japanese maple leaf pulp which he believed could be used to produce very fine and strong ‘tissue’ maps.

After more experimentation, Clayton Hutton was able to have a paper mill produce gossamer thin maple leaf tissue paper and soon, his printers were producing a wide variety of these new tissue escape maps, which were so fine, they could be folded into a volume sufficient to conceal them inside gaming dice, dominoes, pens and a wide variety of other innocent items which MI9 were shipping into the POW camps.

Sheet A tissue escape map showing Northern Germany, made from Japanese Mulberry leaves, gossamer thin and incredibly strong. These maps could be packed into the tiniest of places. Courtesy David Farnsworth, Historic Flying Clothing Company
The MI9 concept drawing of the Jacques of London ‘Hookit’ game, which was to be doctored to conceal various escape devices. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum
An RAF thermos flask showing how the insulation gap between the inner and outer walls of the flask has been packed with tissue with tissue escape maps. Courtesy the Charles Fraser-Smith collection, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
This shaving brush contains both a half-inch compass and a bundle of tissue escape maps. Courtesy Brian Fraser-Smith Collection at Beaulieu’s Secret Army (SOE) Exhibition