Escape Purses & Maps Only Pouches

Escape Purses

As the war progressed and based upon feedback from returning evaders and escapers and from various Services and Commands, it became apparent that men needed to carry foreign currency so as to be able to buy aid when evading. This could be simply to purchase food from helpers who could not afford to give away the only food they possessed, or in less hospitable areas, literally to buy local support from those reluctant to provide it in any other way.

A green-blue purse (F -France, I – Italy) complete with compass, thin hacksaw, French and Italian currency, and five maps of France, Italy, and North Africa. R.E. Baldwin Collection Image

Following agreement by all departments of MI9, currency was initially inserted into the first generations of Aids Boxes. This practice continued until September 1941, when MI9 advised Bomber Command that they would from that point onward, be issuing two ‘Aids to Evade’ an “Aids Box” containing survival rations, and a “Purse” containing currency. At which point MI9 began to provide coloured ‘Purses’ to all RAF and Commonwealth Squadrons (and later to USAAF Groups) for issue to aircrew prior to take off on operations over enemy territory.

Money purses and E-3 Aids Boxes being distributed to fighter pilots of the 332nd Army Air Force Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen at their air base at Ramitelli, Italy (near Naples) in March 1945. Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

Purses were constructed of a form of mustard coloured rubberised cotton fabric approximately 4½ by 6½ inches and around ½ inch thick, depending upon the contents. The purse contents were sealed in a clear, sealed cellophane outer package, which kept the entire package clean and dry until required.

As the name suggests, these purses contained currency for any country which was to be over-flown during that operation. Relevant silk maps, a standard half inch brass compass and a hacksaw blade inside a waxed cardboard or moulded rubber protective sleeve were also sealed inside the purse. Whilst the contents of this ‘escape purse’ could certainly be used in the event of capture – secreted about the user’s uniform – it was ostensibly a pre-capture aid to evasion; the foreign currency was intended to allow evaders to pay for food, drink and assistance, the maps and compass to provide them with navigation aids, and the hacksaw to facilitate access or escape where relevant.

A mauve purse marked ‘N’ for Norway, with compass, a hacksaw encased in rubber, FGS series maps, and Norwegian currency. R.E. Baldwin Collection Image

Purses carried a number of identifying markings to clearly indicate the maps and currency held within. This identifying information included a colour coded diagonal stripe and indicative letter(s) to indicate the nationalities of the maps enclosed, for example, “F” (France), “I” (Italy) “B” (Belgium), etc. Simply put, if the purse contents pertained to France the country designation letter and diagonal strip were printed in the same colour – Red stripe, Red ‘F’ for France. Purses were referred to by their colour(s), so a Green/Blue purse would have a green stripe and letter and also a blue stripe.

In a memo dated September 1941 MI9 list the requirements for Purses for the following six months as:

1 Group 1,500 Yellow
2 Group 2,400 Yellow
100 Green
200 White
3 Group 4,800 Yellow
4 Group 3,000 Yellow
500 Red
5 Group 2,200 Yellow
6 Group 1,100 Green
600 Yellow (Nickels)


14,500 Yellow
1,200 Green
200 White
500 Red

16,400 = approx. £196,800 at the time.

In 1943 a new series of maps came into being, logically known as the ‘43 Series, which replaced the Bartholomew designed maps contained in the earlier purses. This new map series was notable by the vivid colours used in their printing and were produced by J. Waddington & Son Ltd. and their subcontractors in Leeds. As a result purses containing the new pattern maps were also marked with a prominent ‘43’ on the top left of the purse.

A yellow “Plus” purse, Mk. II, carried by F/Lt. G.S. Irving of Newfoundland, a pilot with 125 (Night Fighter) Squadron RAF. The Purse is complete as can be seen from the inner waterproof pouch, illustrated on the right. It contains two maps, a compass, a hacksaw, and French, Belgian and Dutch currency (FBD). R.E. Baldwin Collection Image

Purses continuously evolved as the tactical situation, changes in operations, or new issues of maps or currency took place. These changes like all others in the field of evasion and escape were notified in Mercury notices, which would then update The MI9 Bulletin.

One such update in Mercury Series No. 14 dated 18th September 1944, advises that in view of the withdrawal of Red, Red/Yellow and Yellow purses, a new Purse would be available for operations over Holland, known as the “Dutch Purse”. It then outlines its contents with regard to maps, currency and other items. This change would be advised to Senior Intelligence Officers (SIO) and MI9 would issue the new Purses when they became available.

A ‘Dutch’ purse, containing 43 Series maps; 43C – Holland, E & Central Belgium, N.E. France, West and Central Germany. 43D, S.E. France, Switzerland (Except S.E.) S.W. Germany, Belgium & German Frontier. Also 100 Dutch Guilders. Courtesy Royal Air Force Museum

Purses were accountable items which were audited on quarterly returns for each quarter ending 31st March, June, September and December. They were classified Secret and were to be handed to the Senior Intelligence Officer (SIO) unopened during the crew post-operations de-brief, and this was generally the rule. However a memo appears in MI9 minutes reminding air crew that the practice of opening purses and signing bank notes must cease forthwith as this renders notes invalid for use by other crews in the future.

In an MI9 Bulletin Advice Memo No 9, issued post D-Day, crews were advised forcefully that Purses were only for use when forced down in Enemy or Enemy occupied territory, stating that cases had occurred where crews had bailed out or force landed in Allied liberated territories and had used the contents of their purses to buy food and drinks. It went on to say that foreign currency was scarce and every Purse opened and returned to MI9 must then be replaced – often with difficulty, since a further update In Bulletin No. 20 dated March 1945, states that “The Danish currency for Black Purses is now in very short supply, and only a very limited number of these purses are now available for issue”.

To close on the subject of misuse of Purses, there is a famous story of the SIO of a Polish Squadron who upon completion of his squadron’s tour of duty, sent the currency from all of his squadron purses to the local bank and exchanged it all for Sterling, whereupon he used the not insignificant amount of money to throw an expensive party for his Squadron.

Maps Only Pouches

In 1944 “Maps only” pouches (as officially named by MI9) began to be issued to Allied aircrews in place of purses. Since by late 1944 the landings in Normandy had proven to be successful and the Allies had a good foot hold in Europe, therefore it now seemed only a matter of time before the Allies liberated occupied Europe. With Paris already liberated by August 1944 and the remainder of France by February 1945, the need to carry French currency to pay for assistance for example, had passed.

These pouches were made from the same beige rubberised cotton material as the purses and are of approximately the same size, but were referred to in official MI9 records as ‘maps only wallets or map wallets’. Map wallets still contained a small brass escape compass and a hacksaw blade inside a waxed cardboard or rubber protective cover, but no currency. The front of the wallet normally has “MAPS ONLY” printed on it in black, to differentiate it from a Purse.

Maps Only pouch containing maps C/D and E/F. Courtesy Royal Air Force Museum
Another Maps Only pouch, this time containing maps C/D only. Courtesy Royal Air Force Museum

Since map wallets were all issued after 1944, those issued in Western Theatres all contain ’43 series escape maps, with the type of maps contained within indicated on the front, such as “A/B”, “C/D”, “E/F.” etc., as unlike Purses map wallets contained no currency, they were not accountable so were less of a burden to issue before, and retrieve after operations. Map Wallets were also classified only as Restricted.

MI9 sources state that between 1st January 1942 and 25th August 1945 some 275,407 Purses of various types were issued by MI9(d). This number may or may not include those issued to US forces or those issued for D-Day.

Various examples of money purses and Maps Only pouches used by Allied air-crews and special forces during World War II. R.E. Baldwin Collection Image