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How MI9 helped thousands of Allied POWs escape

How MI9 helped thousands of Allied POWs escape

Compasses hidden inside pens and collar studs, maps printed on silk handkerchiefs, flexible sawblades disguised as bootlaces—all designed by the British military intelligence to give Allied soldiers the best chance of avoiding capture and escaping captivity

In December 1939, three months into the Second World War, a new intelligence department began operating out of a large hotel room on Northumberland Avenue in central London.

It was given the designation Military Intelligence, Section 9 (MI9) and had two main tasks: to help Allied prisoners of war (POWs) to escape from the camps in which they were held; and to assist people on the run in occupied territory—for example, downed aircrews—to reach neutral territory and return home.

Introducing… Norman Crockatt

How MI9 helped thousands of Allied POWs escape - Norman Crockatt at a deskCredit: Jestin Family 

The head of this new organisation was Norman Crockatt, a decorated veteran of the First World War who had spent the intervening years working as a stockbroker. He began by clarifying and refining the remit of his section.

It seemed to Crockatt that RAF officers ought to know how to cope if they found themselves stranded in enemy territory, so his department began training them in escape and evasion techniques—knowledge that they were then expected to pass on to the men in their units.

To this end, MI9 officers routinely debriefed servicemen who had managed to return to Britain from occupied lands. The department then disseminated the intelligence that they gathered to other agencies. One section specialised in devising codes that could be used to pass information clandestinely to and from the POW camps. Above all, Crockatt sought to foster what he liked to call “escapemindedness”. He instilled the message that it was a soldier’s duty to try to evade captivity.

"Crockatt instilled the message that it was a soldier’s duty to try to evade captivity"

All the prison-camp tunnellers, the men who carved fake official stamps from the heels of shoes or fashioned radios from biscuit tins and bits of wire, or who laboriously sawed through metal bars with razor blades, were acting in the spirit of Norman Crockatt and MI9.

Mapping hankies

Yet if MI9 is remembered today, it is mainly for the inventions of one of Crockatt’s subordinates, the ingenious and energetic Christopher Clayton Hutton. His job was to procure and devise aids for escape and evasion.

His gadgets fell into two categories: pre-capture and post-capture. The first were supplied to air crews and other servicemen despatched to hostile territory, and were intended to be used only if things went wrong; the second were smuggled into POW camps in concealed form.

Hutton started by getting hold of a copy of every real-life First World War escape story that he could lay his hands on. He had the plots summarised by sixth-formers at Rugby School, where Crockatt had studied.

The first conclusion that he drew from the schoolboy abstracts was that maps are vital when evading capture, so he contacted Bartholomews, a well-known firm of map-makers, and experimented with printing their products on squares of silk, which could easily be bundled up and hidden.

The solution lay in adding pectin to the printer’s ink, which then produced a stable impression. Later, he achieved good results with rice paper, which was extra thin and did not rustle.

Finding a way

How MI9 helped thousands of Allied POWs escape - Soldiers in the second world war marching walking along forest road Credit: bruev

Servicemen on the run in unfamiliar territory needed to be able to orientate themselves, and that meant using compasses. Here, Hutton showed particular ingenuity. Tiny devices barely 6mm long were hidden in smokers’ pipes, fountain pens and cap badges. Collar studs revealed directional needles when paint was scraped off their bases. Others were sewn into shirt collars and belts.

"Collar studs revealed directional needles when paint was scraped off their bases"

In all, well over two million such devices were produced in the course of the war. Some did not even need to be disguised. Hutton experimented successfully with magnetised razor blades that indicated north when hung from a piece of thread.

Lace up your knives

The stories that Hutton collected suggested that cutting tools were always a necessity, so he turned his mind to knives. He took his inspiration from the Gigli saws used by surgeons for cutting bones. These consisted of little more than lengths of wire with abrasive edges.

Hutton sheathed such wires in textile covers, converting them into boot laces. He also supplied hacksaw blades that could be suspended on a length of string down the inner leg of a pair of trousers.

Fitting in

Escaped POWs seeking to avoid detection needed suitable civilian clothing. Hutton helped provide it by sending blankets to the camps with tailoring patterns printed on them in invisible ink. These showed up when the blankets were washed, making it relatively easy to cut out the material needed to sew a passable non-military overcoat.

MI9 also experimented with convertible boots for flying crews, which came equipped with a tiny knife that could be used to cut away the leggings, thus making the boots resemble everyday walking shoes. The leggings could then be sewn together to make a fleece waistcoat.

Life-saving hampers

MI9’s most successful product for aircrews was the escape box, eventually issued to all those flying over hostile territory. It looked like a cigarette tin and was packed with useful items: boiled sweets and chewing gum, compasses, razors, matches, needles and thread, a rubber water bottle, water-purifying pills and even Benzedrine tablets for energy. Hundreds of thousands of these life-saving hampers were produced.

MI9 devoted much effort to finding ways of getting its goods into the camps where Allied prisoners were held. Hague Convention rules, accepted by the Germans as well as the Allies, specified that prisoners of war should be allowed to receive letters and parcels. MI9 seized upon this channel, though, scrupulously, they never used the cover of Red Cross packages for such purposes, so as not to compromise that organisation’s neutrality.

Screwdrivers were hidden in cricket bats, serrated wires were sealed inside combs and toothbrush handles. When the Germans, growing wise to such ruses, took to X-raying all incoming mail, MI9 found more devious ways to smuggle in supplies.

"Screwdrivers were hidden in cricket bats, serrated wires were sealed inside combs and toothbrush handles"

Maps and money, for example, were sandwiched between the inner and outer skins of condensed-milk tins, where they would not show up on the radiographs. In 1941 and 1942 alone, MI9 despatched more than 6,800 packages to POW camps. Almost a quarter of those contained concealed equipment. Coded instructions would be sent in advance, advising prisoners what to expect and where to look.

An estimated 25,000 British and Commonwealth escapers and evaders managed to find their way back home from enemy territory during the course of the war. Many of them would never have made it without MI9 and Christopher Hutton’s ingenious devices.

Banner credit: bruev

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