Button’s Wartime Secret

The Quartermaster (Q) in the Bond films, who produced and demonstrated gadgets for James, always intrigued me. It became an expected scene in the film when he demonstrated Bond’s assigned tools for the mission, and it was a near guarantee that each and every piece would prove to be invaluable.

I was reminded of those gadgets when I heard about the humble button’s wartime secret. Buttons are the bane of some detectorists; they don’t like finding them, but I hope this little story makes them stand back and take a second look. Picture Courtesy LOT-ART.

It was during WW II, that the British Directorate of Military Intelligence had boffins developing secret ways of concealing tools and instruments in everyday objects. Hopefully, maps and other objects hidden in or on uniforms wouldn’t attract attention.

Firmin of London was one of the manufactures making brass uniform buttons and many other military buttons found by detectorists, but this one was different for it contained an escape compass. The top can be unscrewed to reveal a compass. Clever, eh? They were issued to RAF pilots before they set out on an operation.[sortie] to help them find their way home if shot down over enemy territory. See report from ChronicleLive.

Firmin have been the Royal button makers to every monarch since King George II. They are the world leader in the design, manufacture, and supply of all types of uniform buttons, from fatigues to parade and ceremonial. They are able to meet any need; from a single set of 18ct gold blazer buttons to tens of thousands of electroplated buttons in many finishes. Firmin & Sons bring three and a half centuries of experience to every button they supply, and are the oldest manufacturing company in Europe.

Later war models, like the Canadian version shown below, had a top with a reverse thread, so to unscrew them, you had to twist the other way. It was said this was done after the Germans were found out about the existence of this compass.

Canadian ButtonKind permission of Wouter Has of http://www.paratrooper.be

ON THE FLYthis is ingenious

Most if us know that trouser fly buttons were used before zips. Still got some old *kecks in the wardrobe.The button type of escape compass consists of two nearly identical buttons that are removed from the trouser fly for use as a compass and was conjured up by WW II boffins.

The compass portion is given a brass plated finish to match the bottom button. The compass card is magnetised, becoming the Magnetic North seeking compass. As you can imagine,This type of compass requires a delicate touch to set up.

The pivoted portion is placed on a stable, level surface. The upper compass portion must then be carefully balanced on the pivot so that it sits level. The compass card will oscillate until it comes to rest, with the double dots on the card pointing to Magnetic North.

The component parts of the WW2 RAF escape and evasion brass fly button compass are shown below, and the super video explains how it is used. The video was posted on Twitter by Paul Kirkley and tell the amazing story of the tiny WW2 compass from his wife’s granddad’s WW2 RAF uniform.

Courtesy of ForcesNews… and Paul Kirkley?

Paul describes himself [rather disparagingly] as a “writer of stuff for things” – ‘Mostly accurate,’ says Hugh Bonneville. A cursory glimpse on Twitter will tell you that Paul is a  award-winning writer, interviewer, TV critic, columnist and composer of self-aggrandising mini blogs – and a multi-award-winning journalist with more than 20 years’ experience! And there’s more. This guy is so talented, it’s sickening!

Anyway, I try to credit people whenever possible, but have been unable to contact Paul. Twitter – no reply. FaceAche – no reply. If he sees that I have ‘borrowed’ his video, I hope that I get his permission in retrospect. 🙂 THANKS, PAUL.

The moral of the story is that when you find another military button, take a careful look – it could just contain a compass, but it’s highly unlikely; they were checked in after every sortie. But if you do find one, please let me know.

*Kecks – trousers or sometimes underpants – mainly used in northern England 

9 thoughts on “Button’s Wartime Secret

  1. Thank you for the explanation of kecks , John… I would have been asking you otherwise.

    As to buttons.. I love finding them over here on my side of the pond. They have a remarkable history; on top of being military related.. I will have to check some of mine to see if they have a compass in them.

    Monopoly was another secret method that prisoners were given by the red cross to assist in escape.. Some versions had silk maps concealed in them.


    Thank you again my friend


    Liked by 1 person

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