The escape and evasion material for Allied airmen

By Edouard Renière

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are from the RAF Museum

During missions over Germany and the occupied countries of Western Europe (the area we are covering in the frame of the activities of COMET), the crews of the Allied air forces were faced with three options. Either they were able to return to base, injured or unharmed, which latter of course everyone hoped for, without cherishing too many illusions given the extent of losses incurred over the raids. Or they were killed during the action or its immediate aftermath. Or, lastly, if they had to bail out, they could either be arrested on the ground by German troops and militias in their pay, or, if they had more luck, manage to evade capture by the enemy and attempt to return to England - the starting point of all missions - at least until the liberation of France and Belgium in the summer of 1944.

The Royal Air Force (RAF), engaged in the conflict since the air war began in 1939, and the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) from the Spring of 1942, have never placed much emphasis on a sufficiently thorough training of flight personnel in the techniques specific to trying to avoid capture and to the managing of all aspects of the evasion context. If hundreds of thousands of aviators received basic training on the matter, the bulk of their instruction was obviously about the primary tasks of each of them, be they pilots, co-pilots, navigators, bombers, radio operators or gunners. Few of them were sufficiently informed of the many potential dangers in occupied territories and the ways and tricks to avoid them better. No training, for example, gave sufficient attention to the importance of learning by heart at least the most applicable common phrases in the language of the occupied countries in question here (the Netherlands, Belgium, France).

As the aerial war developed, the number of aircraft involved in raids on the military installations, industrial sites and transport facilities of the enemy steadily increased. A fortiori, the number of aircraft shot down began to grow also and the attention of policymakers became more focused on aids to evasion, though never becoming a priority.

The major problems faced on the ground by downed crews in order to prevent their capture was firstly to hide their parachute and flight gear which might attract too much attention. Then, to determine where they had landed so they could move as far away as possible from areas with the highest concentration of German military. And then to travel, generally further south, with for the majority of them, Spain - "neutral" country - as the ultimate destination to head for on their way back to England.

The crews of RAF bombers, flying at night in accordance with the policy of Headquarters aiming to ensure a better coverage of the target areas as well as a lower risk of detection by both Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft gunners on the ground, had the advantage, dropping by parachute or once on the ground, to be less easily spotted in the darkness by German patrols searching for them. That same darkness being an obvious handicap in their orientation and movements, most of them waited until dawn to check their position before moving away from their hiding place.

As for USAAF officials, they had opted for bombing by day, which according to their basic premise would ensure a better visibility of the targets and thus enhance the accuracy of bombing as well as reduce the number of civilian victims (something which didn't always turn out to be as effective as was hoped for). American airmen forced to bail out of their aircraft or to leave it after a forced landing had the advantage of being able to better locate and orient themselves, but also the great disadvantage of being more easily seen and tracked by the enemy, who was never very far away from the crash place or the supposed area where parachutists would land.

The stories of evaded airmen are full of episodes, many tragic, most tinged with heroism and efficiency in the face of danger, others dealing with occasional recklessness or negligence (cf the lower discipline and the apparent nonchalance often attributed to Americans in comparison with a somewhat more rigorous attitude on the side of Commonwealth servicemen ... but let's beware of generalities and too easy caricatural excesses.) There sometimes were humorous events also but first and foremost the stories reveal the awareness of the vast majority of evaders of the huge risks taken, both by themselves and especially by those who courageously and to the extent of their capabilities, had decided to help them. The majority of evidence from both sides of the Atlantic rightly honour the memory of those many helpers.

In order to facilitate their escape, multiple means were made available to airmen leaving on a mission and the stories of evaders also refer to the use of maps, compasses, banknotes, various small things they could use to facilitate their escape. We will not develop here the history of this type of material, whose origins go back to what had been delivered to French soldiers in case they had to evade the enemy during the First World War (compasses, maps, etc.. ,.) and which have inspired the armed forces of the Second, especially on the Allied side.

By definition, this type of material had to be compact, lightweight, efficient, and many engineers and scientists worked over the years to develop and to improve them in their various aspects. Evidently, the first of these men were, before the war and in conjunction with civilian technicians and engineers, the specialists in British intelligence and later more specifically the MI9. Military Intelligence - Section 9 was formed in December 1939 and its role during the war itself was to deal with escapes in Holland, Belgium and France. Treasures of ingenuity were put forth to imagine those aids, to put them into concrete form and finally to produce them, sometimes to the rate of millions of copies.

One of the pioners in such research was British Christopher William Clayton-Hutton (1893-1965), a pilot during the First World War and set on magic and illusion. Among his early applications, in collaboration with two companies, one active in texiles, the other in printing, were geographical maps printed on thin white silk and that airmen could easily slip away inside their flight equipment for use on the ground in case of need. Those maps, printed on both sides, were of a square format and their size grew with time to reach 68,5 x 71cm. Silk, better waterproof, easily foldable, noiseless when unfolded, advantageously replaced the paper maps formerly used. Other maps were made of rayon and tissue paper.

carte en soie

A silk map, the side visible here showing parts of France, Belgium and Germany



Subsequently, Hutton, with the help of a London firm well-known in the manufacture of instruments, managed to have the company produce miniature compasses of various types and whose sole use was entirely devoted to escape and evasion. More than 2 million copies were produced for distribution to the services, mainly airmen. These miniature compasses, of various shapes and sizes, were hidden inside uniform buttons, penholders, smoking pipes, etc.


RAF uniform jacket (compass hidden inside)

Standard RAF uniform button with crown and eagle (compass hidden inside - ca. 1942)

RAF uniform jacket button with compass hidden inside

Trouser braces with map and compass (ca. 1942)

Standard pipe with its box and bag of felt. Hid a compass (ca. 1942)

Lighter, with small compass hidden inside

Belt buckle concealing a compass

Box of powdered toothpaste, hiding a compass

Individual compasses were also distributed, including such as those shown hereunder:



Miniature compass, set in plastic, with tag and a string for hanging around the neck

Besides these compasses, other elements for orientation were incorporated into various everyday objects. These were mainly needles or metal objects enabling one to find Magnetic North. Some examples:

Toothbrush with compass needle hidden inside (ca. 1942)

Cufflinks, attached to a chain. The end of the bar is magnetized. Pairs. (ca. 1942)

Safety pins, magnets for guidance

Hacksaw, magnetized

bouton de colbouton de colbouton de col
Collar buttons concealing a compass

Pliers, penholders, magnetized

Magnetic needle
By tying a string passed through the hole, then dipping the whole in some water, the needle began to turn, the side with the smallest single hole indicating the North.

aiguille aimantée

Trouser buttons
Same operating principle as the needle above. The single yellow dot indicated the North.

bouton aimanté

Among the many other articles, the one more clever than the other, were shoe-laces made of jagged strings that could be used for sawing; specially adapted boots, a part of which could be removed so they became ordinary walking shoes. These boots also had a removable lining which could be used as a woolly vest and had secret compartments inside the heels. Examples of boots and special heels:

Escape boots - Could be used as civilian shoes after removal of the upper part (1943) [Photo by Victor Schutters at the Musée Royal de l'Armée et d'Histoire Militaire, Brussels]





One of the most notable contributions to the full panoply of aid to escape is undoubtedly the "escape kit", the initiator and champion of which was "Clutty" Hutton. The kit was distributed to each airman leaving on a mission over occupied Europe and Germany, from the fall of 1940 to the men of the RAF, since mid-1942 to those of the USAAF. Different models were made, in collaboration with the MIS-X, the US equivalent to the British MI9, bringing over time many improvements and adjustments. Kits later comprised some gauze, morphine and a syringe, a tube of sulfamide, a hacksaw, more cigarettes, etc... It often happened that in the rush in having to leave the aircraft, airmen forgot to get the kit they had put away somewhere on board and many of them bit their fingers afterwards for their understandable moment of forgetfulness.


Escape kit:
This pouch of clear acetate, about 13.7 cm long, 11.2 cm wide and 3.3 cm thick, could easily be placed in the bottom pocket side of the uniform jacket, or in a special pocket in the battle-dress trousers. It contained sufficient high-energy food to sustain one through 2 or 3 days.
(Photo: Imperial War Museum, London)


Contents of the "ESCAPE KIT":
A: Malted milk tablets
B: Liver toffee
C: Matches
D : Chewing gum
E: Fishing line
F: Boiled sweets
G: Compass
H: Sewing needle and thread
I: (underneath) Razor and soap
J: Halazone tablets (water purification)
K: Benzedrine tablets (for energy)
A soft plastic water bottle (under the Benzedrine tablets)

(Illustration taken from "downed Allied Airmen and Evasion of Capture: The Role of Local Resistance Networks in World War II" - Herman Bodson - McFarland & Co., Inc. - Jefferson, NC - USA - 2005)

Besides the escape kit, each crew member received purses with maps, usually three in number, and with money in bank-notes of the countries the evader would have to travel through. For example, in the middle of 1942, this money was made up of French franc notes (7 notes of 100 FF, 5 of 50 FF and 5 of 10 FF), of Belgian francs (3 notes of 100 FB and one of 50 BF ) and one note of 25 Dutch guilders.


RAF escape purse (for maps) + hacksaw blade and a concealed button compass

Purse for personal documents and maps (RAF - ca.1942).


Finally, it is to be noted also that from a date unknown, multilingual language cards were distributed to each airman leaving on a mission. Here's an example:

Four-language card French / Italian / German / Spanish
(Private Collection Edouard Renière)

Despite the existence of these small leaflets, the language barrier proved to be one of the biggest obstacles during evasions, both in communication with the helpers as well as, for example, when traveling "incognito" in public transport and going through controls while moving around in the occupied countries. This proved more of a problem in France, where knowledge of English was less developed than in the Netherlands and Belgium. Furthermore, knowledge of French, the language spoken in the major part of the evasion routes, while somewhat higher on the side of British and Commonwealth members, notably the mostly bilingual Canadians, was especially lacking, with very few exceptions, on the American side.

Edouard Renière – December 2011.

The text above is but a short summary about some of the devices supplied to flying personnel on missions over enemy-occupied territory. For more than 10 years, the Englishman Phil FROOM, passionately interested in the subject, had done exhaustive research, examining the most diverse sources in the United Kingdom, building up numerous contacts, notably in Australia, the United States, with collectors, museums and historians. He was finally able at the end of 2015 to see his monumental book, the result of all his painstaking research, published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd : « EVASION & ESCAPE DEVICES – Produced by MI9, MIS-X, and SOE in World War II ».

The Book of Phil Floor.

We vividly recommend Phil FROOM’s book to all who would wish to expand their knowledge on the subject, which covers one of a lesser-known aspect of the Second World War. With more than 600 illustrations, the great majority of them in colour, this unique book traces the origins and the development of the secret services, the story of the problems and solutions brought to all aspects of evasion and escape (evading capture by the enemy or escaping from enemy prison camps); the decisive role played by people of genius, Christopher Clayton-Hutton among them; the cleverness in conceiving, perfecting, manufacturing and distributing, in utmost secrecy, a wide array of devices and documents of incredible variety.

This work abounds in details about all those different devices. Compasses, maps, survival kits, language cards, photos for false papers; toilet, sewing, sporting articles as well as material for assembling radios; diverse games concealing compasses, maps, etc. for use to prisoners planning to escape from camps, everything is meticulously explained, in amazing detail, with corresponding illustrations. The many appendices at the end of the volume, among other data, give a synthetic view of all devices that were created and distributed, in what quantities and by which companies. They also mention the names of personnel in the different sections of MI9 as well as the list of the rescue operations by the MTB flotilla of the Royal Navy of evading Allied servicemen from Brittany to England (which allowed the return of many evaders having a page on this website and who had been handed over in France by Comète to other evasion lines, like the Shelburn one for example.)

Details about the book:
Author: Phil FROOM.
ISBN: 978-0-7643-4839-6
384 pages – Index at the end of the volume.
Published by : Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 4880 Lower Valley Road, Atglen, PA 19310 (USA) – 28 December 2015 -
Available from all good booksellers, or direct from Gazelle Book Services
Tel. : +44-1524 68765 - e-mail