Lynette Nusbacher: Button Compass

Lynette Nusbacher: Button Compass

How can a button save your life? It depends on who your tailor is. Military history expert Lynette Nusbacher and host Alice Loxton discuss an ingenious piece of covert pathfinding technology, designed for RAF pilots stranded behind enemy lines in World War II.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects, Episode 3 - Lynette Nusbacher: Button Compass

NARRATOR:: What are the forgotten tools of tradecraft? Which objects might unlock the hidden history of espionage? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. In the Second World War, Nazi Germany maintained a staggering one thousand prisoner-of-war camps. Germany had been a signatory to the 1929 Geneva Convention, which sought to guarantee the humane treatment of prisoners of war. But of course, the Nazi party was not known to abide by the rules of fair play. PoWs behind German lines sometimes endured unspeakable horrors. That’s why, when the war broke out, British Intelligence took pains to protect the wellbeing of Air Force personnel whose planes were downed by Nazi forces. They did so by thinking strategically. What were the practical challenges faced by PoWs, and what could be done in Britain to circumvent them?

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: When you're captured in a theater of war as a combatant, one of the things that happens is you get everything taken off of you except for the clothes on your back so that, if you managed to get away, you'd be stuck. You wouldn't have any money for bus fare. You wouldn't have a map to help you understand where you were. And you wouldn't have a compass to help you understand which way was which. So, if you've got a map that can be concealed inside your shoes, or your socks, or your hat, and if you've got a compass that is concealed inside one of the buttons on your jacket, maybe the Germans who've captured you won't find it.

NARRATOR: This is Lynette Nusbacher, former Canadian and British Army Intelligence Officer, current war historian and strategist. In the world of intelligence, it’s minds like hers that prevent worst-case scenarios from coming to pass.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: Strategy is the way we understand where we need to go and how we're going to get there. It's a way of envisioning the way the world should be, or the way we should be, and then planning out the pathways to get from where we are.

NARRATOR: The object Lynette has extracted from our archives is a tiny testament to the power of strategic thinking. It’s just 23 millimeters across. But its importance to the RAF officer who becomes a prisoner of war is hard to overstate.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: We're looking at a brass button that is clearly from a Royal Air Force uniform, and it's got the old king's crown from when King George was king. And it's got the albatross, the high-flying, long-lasting bird that is the symbol of the Royal Air Force. And this size of Royal Air Force button came from one place in one place only, and that is the pocket flap of a Royal Air Force service dress tunic. 

NARRATOR: The pocket flap. That’s noteworthy. Say you need to pull a button off your uniform, to use for something else. You’ll still want your shirt to stay fastened. Stealing a button off the pocket would be much less noticeable.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: Even if you examine this carefully, it just looks like every other button. If you know what you're doing, though, and you turn it backward as though you're trying to tighten something, something really special happens. The face of the button comes off.

NARRATOR: If you turn the face of this tiny brass instrument clockwise, the front and back of the button will detach. 

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: And what remains behind is a rotating compass with two glow-in-the-dark dots pointing north and a tiny little red pip, so that when it's light out you can see which way is north, and one little glow-in-the-dark dot pointing south. 

NARRATOR: Pair that tiny compass with a map concealed in the heels of your boots, and with any luck, you might just make a daring escape. If smart little spy objects like a button compass tickle your fancy, you’re in luck. British Intelligence produced many such crafty gadgets during the war  - with the help of MI9’s resident wizard of escape-and-evasion devices.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: Clutty Hutton was an expert at creating objects that a German field police soldier would look at but not see. 

NARRATOR: Christopher William Clayton Hutton, or Clutty for short, was a former RAF pilot turned film publicist. In 1940, he went to work for MI9, tasked with creating objects that British Air Force personnel could use to escape from enemy capture. And Clutty delivered.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: Clutty Hutton was able to create escape boots, which were meant to look like an ordinary flying boot, but you could then take the upper part of the boot off and suddenly it would look like regular shoes.

NARRATOR: From decked out in military garb to disguised as an ordinary civilian, within seconds  - pretty smart indeed. And that wasn’t the only disguise he concocted.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: Hutton created uniforms that were reversible. So that if you're on the ground in German-held territory, you can take off your flying tunic, turn it inside out, and suddenly it's an ordinary working man's jacket. 

NARRATOR: Clutty was able to contribute so many helpful designs and devices to the RAF because he carefully considered every material, every minute detail.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: Everybody had stubs of pencil stuffed into their pockets, especially pilots, for making notes while they were flying. Pilots and navigators all had to have grease pencils or plain pencils, and Clutty was able to put magnetized metal into little pencil stubs. And those magnetized bits of metal could be turned into compasses.

NARRATOR: All of these cunning little items Clutty concocted for MI9 served to help downed flyers escape from behind enemy lines and return to allied territory.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: One of the things that MI9 did was equip people with compasses just like this. They gave people maps disguised as playing cards or silk maps that could be folded up and sewn into their clothing. MI9 was really focused on helping people prepare for their missions overseas so that if it all went wrong, they could get back home again. And MI9, plus their friends in the French Resistance, were really good at getting downed flyers, pilots, other aircrew, out of German territory and back through France and Spain and Switzerland and wherever they had to go to get them back to their bases.

NARRATOR: But Lynette says the real value in those tiny button compasses  - the strategic advantage they gave Air Force personnel  - wasn’t so much the practical role they played, as the psychological one.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: All of these pilots and other aircrew were courageous people. No matter what happened in the sky, they had their plane, they had their guns, they had their bombs. They knew what they were doing. But if they had to cross the boundary from being a flyer in the sky to being a hunted man on the ground, those pilots knew that could be the death of them. 

NARRATOR: Those brass buttons were a form of insurance - a way not just to preserve their physical safety, but to provide some measure of peace of mind.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER: If their plane took a hit and they had to hit the silk and parachute down out of the sky where they were powerful, down onto the ground where they were nobodies, it really made a difference to know that they could turn their jackets inside out, strip away part of their boots, pretend to be Germans, and use a button to help find their way home.

NARRATOR: I’m Alice Loxton. More secrets from the archives await in A History of the World in Spy Objects. Explore them at your leisure. If you like this podcast, please give it a five-star rating, or leave a review. Ratings and reviews help other people discover the series and help us bring you more episodes like this one. Or  - why not forward the podcast to a friend? And thank you for listening!

Guest Bio

Lynette Nusbacher was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and lectured in the Army Junior Division at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. She was also a commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces and later in the British Army.

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