Escape Compasses

Once Clayton Hutton had the maps he required, he turned to compasses. Although it is generally thought that MI9 developed the miniature compass, this is not the case. For many years they had been available, but were manufactured individually by craftsmen for low volume sales, or for personal use. Clayton Hutton’s challenge was that he needed tens of thousands of these devices – immediately.  

Having approached the Blunt Brothers (Pre-war theodolite manufacturers) on the Old Kent road, Clayton Hutton explained his needs and the particular application for these compasses. As a result, Blunts came up with a revolutionary ‘compass’ which became known as the ‘Swinger’, since it was simply a compass needle with a hole at its centre, suspended from a length of cotton. Once it settled, the Swinger would faithfully indicate north. Clayton Hutton had thousands produced and began to ship them to RAF Stations, and Special Forces bases for issue.  

An example of a Swinger compass, of such a design that it could be secreted in almost any item of military equipment or clothing. R.E. Baldwin Collection Image
An MI9 photograph indicating how a Swinger compass could be ‘damped’ by suspending it in a glass of water. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum

Example of combs with swinger compasses concealed in their spines. The lower image shows an X-ray of a single concealed compass (Author’s collection). The upper image shows an MI9 training comb, transparent for demonstration purposes. Courtesy Marion Park

From this point on, Clayton Hutton worked closely with Blunts and with other manufacturers such as E R Watts to produce ever more compact compasses. Perhaps the most frequently encountered is the “half-inch escape compass”, which was widely manufactured and as well as being issued in its standard form, was also incorporated in numerous other escape devices, such as buttons, cigarette lighters, shaving, and various other brushes, etc. And, eventually, these manufacturers were able to produce ever smaller compasses, eventually producing a compass just 4mm in diameter, small enough to secrete inside a cigarette. 

Compasses were also openly concealed. Everyday metal objects were cleverly converted and magnetised to form swinging compasses.

The MI9 concept drawing of various compasses available for issue, which includes an early concept sketch of the BD belt buckle compass. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum
Perhaps the most commonly encountered MI9 ‘half inch’ escape compass. Author’s collection
The smallest escape compass produced for MI9. One disassembled and once complete are shown here beside a period postage stamp for size comparison. Author’s collection

An image of both types of Parr lighters disassembled. The red topped lighter has a slightly shorter sleeve that that allowed a compass to be secreted between the inner sleeve and outer red sleeve. Courtesy John Ensor
A brown Bakelite shaving brush manufactured by LENG that forms the basis of a number of different escape enclosures encountered. Shown with its base with escape compass fitted. Author’s collection
A Royal Canadian Air Force brass button compass with star compass inside. R.E. Baldwin Collection Image
A collar stud compass, the compass was concealed by white paint which was scratched away to expose the compass when required. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum
A pencil clip compass shown balanced on a pencil, the clip is punched to provide a compass pivot point and is magnetised. An innocuous item which could be carried by all member of Allied aircrew or openly walked into a camp.
A group of fly button compasses, showing them as issued. Also as an assembled pair in black showing how the upper magnetised button balances on the lower button with its centre spike to form a swinging compass. Courtesy John Ensor