Every R.A.F. man who had to bale out over enemy territory hung on to his compass to the very last – as a means of helping him to find his way across unknown country to safety. Special compasses for this purpose were issued to all air crews who might at any time find themselves in that predicament, it was recently revealed. Of necessity they had to be very tiny – smaller than a farthing – for the intention was that the compasses should be hidden on the person of the airman concerned.
Places of concealment were ingeniously chosen. A diminutive compass would be fixed to the back of a collar stud or trouser button, or hidden in the bottom of an automatic lighter, or beneath the dottle in a pipe. A photographic reconnaissance pilot who crashed in Germany and was taken prisoner owes his escape to a compass so tiny that he was able to conceal it inside his ear; there were many of this design and the lives it has saved have yet to be counted. For they were neither toys nor mascots.
Some of the compasses were probably discovered by German intelligence officers when air crews were searched. But there was an equally ingenious standby, in the form of magnetized buttons. Sewn on battledress, to the casual eye they were indistinguishable from ordinary buttons. But the fact that they were magnetized enabled them to be used to indicate the way to freedom and home.
Removed from the battledress, the magnetized button would be mounted on another button which served as a pivot on which the first one could swing freely. In the darkness of night a luminous patch painted on the magnetized button would be clearly visible as the latter swung towards the north.