Friday, 22 February 2013

Escape Aids and Codes

Canadian Chess Set

German Reichmark in Gramaphone Record

Playing Cards With Maps

Magnetised Razor Blades

Christopher Clayton Hutton

Under the Geneva Convention rules of war, POW’s had the right to receive recreational devices approved by the holding power, in parcels that would be carried postage free by all nations. The Allied and Axis powers adhered strictly to this protocol and German POW’s held in Britain, Canada and the United States received the same privileges. This provided an ideal outlet for MI9 (Britain and Commonwealth Secret Branch) and MIS- X (The American equivalent) to conceal escape aids in items shipped out to prisoners in German POW camps.

Such practices were never used by the Allies within Red Cross parcels, as these contained food and provisions which were the POWs lifeline, supplementing inadequate German rations. Instead, fictitious humanitarian societies were created, and under these guises, secretly marked parcels and items would contain concealed escape aids, often in sports equipment, games or everyday items such as shaving brushes and razor blades. The POW’s would often be aware in advance of what was arriving by way of a system of coded messages contained in correspondence between the prisoner and home. Some POWs were known code users and information would be slipped into an innocently written letter to a friend, wife, sweetheart or family member.

Red or purple German postmarks with an accompanying swastika signified an incoming letter from a POW. MIS-X had a record of known code users and relevant addresses which they used. Sorters on the fifteenth floor at 90 Church Street New York (censoring department for all mail to or from American POW’s in Europe) sifted the letters from these individuals out, diverting them to MIS-X where they would be decoded, stamped with a censor’s stamp and routed on to the destination address. This process was double edged as the decoders also wrote back to the POW’s posing as fictional family members and friends etc. Each decoder had up to twenty POW’s to correspond with and a separate set of stationery for separate prisoners to avoid suspicion from the German censor.

British practice in MI9 went along similar lines and had first been in operation on a smaller scale in 1940 courtesy of a code developed called ‘HK.’ Simple to use, and in skilled hands difficult to detect, the user had to initially complete two prerequisites. They would indicate by the fashion in which they wrote the date on a letter that a code would be used and then show by the opening words which part of the code they were using.  After this a normal chatty piece of correspondence would be written, which was subsequently then decoded by the cryptographers. (more on MI9 and MIS-X in future posts)

The names of fictional humanitarian societies created by MI9 and MIS-X to ‘sponsor’ and despatch the parcels were interesting in themselves. MIS-X primarily used The War Prisoners Benefit Foundation, whilst MI9 had up to thirty six national bodies including, The Licence Victuallers Sports Association, The Prisoners Leisure Hours Fund and The Welsh Provident Society. Great care was taken to ensure that authentic post marks were used, and that newspaper which formed part of the wrapping material was printed near the parcel’s origin.

The Germans became experienced in detecting suspicious objects and once an item containing a hidden aid was deemed to have been discovered, it was withdrawn and a fresh approach made. The POW code writers would inform home if they had not received specifically marked items, or found out they had been located by their captors, although a five week delay existed between despatch of a letter and arrival.

Parcels were usually opened and examined in the camp Vorlager by the German censor or often a Feldwebel with POW witnesses, who would be there to carry out the necessary administration for their own purposes. Often sleight of hand or diversion was used to sneak a parcel through without full check or an item that might be spotted or X-rayed. As the war progressed and the numbers of prisoners grew, so did the parcels. German manpower sometimes had difficulty coping and items got through.  

After the Great Escape and the execution of ‘The Fifty’, items continued to arrive, but with Hitler’s new orders on dealing with servicemen who broke out of POW camps in Europe, getting under the wire or through a tunnel had become a greater risk to life. With the course of the war changing after D Day, escaping decreased and the angle on getting back home or at the very least tying up enemy resources in searching for missing POW’s had changed. At one point in 1943, an American officer sent a coded message back to request that no more aids were sent in the immediate future because the prisoners had run out of space to hide them.

A dedicated team of American experts worked on creating ingenious ways of concealing escape aids. In Britain, the leader in this field was Christopher Clayton Hutton (known as ‘Clutty’ who was also instrumental in aids for evaders. The RAF Escape Kit is a good illustration of this. (See 13 March 2012.)

The list of concealed aids is ingenious and extensive. I have listed below ten favourites of my own:

1) Canadian ‘Ajax’ Chess Set (see picture) – Ajax alludes to The Trojan Horse. Compass contained in the white bishop when prized open , silk map concealed in the cardboard tube which has a coded message written on the outside. ‘Many Happy hours. All my love Dorothy xxx.’ (Possible clue that there is something concealed within the third piece – bishop is third position on a chess board). Also the phrase ‘Patent applied for’ with a large full stop indicated an aid inside.

2) Playing cards which contained a map inside when peeled apart. (see picture)

3) Gigli saws (minute strong fine wire with a serrated edge used by surgeons) concealed inside a bootlace.

4) German Reichmarks inside a gramophone record. (see picture)

5) A quarter inch brass cylinder which had a luminous needle balanced within it under a protective transparent cover. This was hidden in a small object such as a tobacco pipe, fountain pen or behind a cap badge. 

6) Magnetised razor blades to be adapted as compasses. (see picture)

7) Maps and money inside chess or Monopoly boards.

8) Compasses and two part files in game playing pieces such as Monopoly.

9) Blankets for adapting into civilian clothes. These would be impressed with cutting patterns or invisible ink, the latter showing once soaked in water.

10) The publication of an RAF pamphlet announcing a new mess dress which was to be worn once supplies became available. With the aid of the Wool Association, a cloth was used that would convert to a Luftwaffe dress.

Escape and Evasion – Ian Dear 

The Escape Factory – Lloyd Shoemaker

MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 – MR D Foot & J M Langley

©Keith Morley

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  1. How interesting. I didn't know that. What clever people. I wonder what jobs they did before the War and indeed after the War during peace times.

  2. Another example of ingenuity in this interesting post by Keith. A remarkable catalogue detailing top-secret designs for James Bond-esque gadgets used by British soldiers during the Second World War was snapped up by a private collector in Canada.
    The extraordinary designs, which sold at auction for £5,250, included coat buttons and gold teeth containing hidden compasses, cameras disguised as cigarette lighters and concealed hacksaws.
    The catalogue was put together by inventor Christopher Clayton-Hutton, the real-life 'Q', who was an intelligence officer for MI9, a secret department of the War Office as stated in this blog.
    MI9 provided British troops with potentially life-saving equipment that looked like ordinary everyday objects.
    Hutton's designs shed light on the inventive methods some British prisoners of war adopted to fool the enemy. The highly creative designs included cloth maps - printed on silk with non-running ink - and uniforms which could be tucked and folded into business suits.
    An estimated 400,000 maps were printed during the war and about 17,000 Allied escapees carried them around.
    Lionel Willis, collectors specialist from Bonhams auctioneers said: "Very few of these catalogues are known to have survived and the remaining copies form rare pieces of secret service history.
    "They give a fascinating insight into the ingenuity employed to assist the war effort." The 79-page catalogue, titled 'Per Ardua Libertas' - which means Liberty Through Adversity - was put together especially for American intelligence officers in 1942.
    “Thought is the original source of all wealth, all success, all material gain, all great discoveries and inventions, and of all achievement.”
    Claude M. Bristol

    What’s next for our Escape and evaders ?!