Monday, 23 September 2013

The Camp Intelligence Officer – Compasses Part One

From The 'Ideal Camp Organisation' Flowchart

German Officers at Stalag Luft 111 - IWM
In an ideal POW camp organisation, the Camp Intelligence Officer (CIO) or IO would have overall control and accountability for:
Compasses being made in the camp
Compasses entering the camp concealed in welfare packages from the various fictitious prisoner of war welfare organisations.* (*Next week’s post)
These operations would be delegated to individuals and teams who reported to the CIO. Responsibility for stooges and lookouts in the camp (who were positioned as an early warning system to protect the manufacture, receipt and hiding of items) went to ‘X’ under his remit of ‘Security’ of the escape service (see full diagram on earlier posts). No one else apart from ‘X’ and the ICO would have knowledge of the whole picture.

The CIO and/or his immediate subordinates often had a lever on certain German guards and ‘ferrets’. They were able to obtain items and intelligence useful for escape work from ‘the goons’, via blackmail, ‘persuasion’ or bribery. In Stalag Luft 111 during the run up to the Great Escape, Flight Lieutenant Arnost ‘Wally’ Valenta was in the author’s view the ICO. He was proactive in the role and far from being just a figurehead, used his expert knowledge of Czechoslovakia to accumulate and head intelligence gathering for that area. Valenta had also been able to use his influence on certain Germans within the camp tas regards obtaining materials and intelligence. E.g. luminous paint for compass needles so they could be used at night without the danger of striking matches.
Flight Lieutenant Arnost ‘Wally’ Valenta  -

Manufacture of Compasses in a Camp
The best recorded examples of this are arguably in Stalag Luft 111 where Valenta oversaw the manufacture of compasses by Australian Flight Lieutenant Albert Hake who headed the British, Commonwealth and European Allies effort from Block 103. In effect, he let Hake get on with the job as the Australian was a master of his craft.

Flight Lieutenant Albert Hake

Captain John M Bennett led the US equivalent. He had learned his trade from Hake before the two were split up when the Americans were housed in a separate compound and Bennett went on to adopt certain variations of his own in the ‘manufacturing’ process. The details of how the two men made up the compasses are a testament to their skills in craft, ingenuity and improvisation.

Bennett’s Compasses – A Step by Step Guide
Heat up a section of a broken phonograph record (made from Bakelite) until soft and moulded.
Put the soft Bakelite over a moulded hole in a bed board about one and a quarter inches in diameter and push a section of the Bakelite into the hole to form a ‘cup’ about one and half inches deep.
With the ‘cup’ still in the hole, press it on to an ‘engraved’ metal disc below which has the imprinted words on it ‘made in Stalag Luft 111. (This would show on the bottom of the ‘cup’ of every compass made.)
Glue a bunch of old razor blades into a double line on a board in such a way that two legs of a child’s horseshoe magnet could be drawn across each line of blades simultaneously.
Stroke the blades in the same direction for three to four hours. At the end of that time, the blades would have been permanently magnetised.
Use a window hinge as a precision vice and break the blades into precisely sized magnets. 
From a piece of cardboard cut some compass cards of an equivalent size to the Bakelite cup and make a hole exactly in the centre. Cards will already have had the key compass points drawn on them.
Push some warm Bakelite through the hole of the card so as to extend out of the top of it. Create a tiny cavity in the point with a lead pencil, so that the compass card could be suspended on a phonographic needle.
Using broken window glass; cut a top for each compass under water with a pair of scissors, so that the glass does not chip or break.
Cut a short strip of cardboard to serve as a spacer for the glass to sit on,  and position.
Compass is complete.
Hake’s Compasses

Hake’s original design was similar to Bennett’s adaptation except:
A gramophone needle was sunk in the centre of the ‘cup’ base for the needle pivot.
The direction needle itself was part of a sewing needle which had been rubbed against a magnet.
A tiny pivot socket was soldered to the centre of the magnetised direction needle. (Solder came from the melted joints of bully-beef tins and resin for the soldering out of pine trees, and when they were cut down out of the resinous wood of the huts)
Artists painted the points of the compass accurately in white on a little circle of paper and it fitted neatly into the base of the casing. The ends of the needle were painted with luminous paint.
After the glass for the compass tops had been cut in the same way as Bennett outlined, it was fitted on to the ‘cup’ or casing by an interesting method. Hake made a small blow lamp out of a fat-lamp and some thin tubing rolled out of old food tins. Through the tube he blew a gentle jet of air against the flame playing it around the rim of the Bakelite compass ‘cup’. When it was melting soft he pressed in the glass and it set tight and waterproof.
Hake was able to produce one compass a day with this method.

Once the compasses were made, X assumed responsibility for hiding them along with other aids. In Stalag Luft 111, Roger Bushell directed they were hidden behind various false walls in huts and cupboards, down tunnel ‘Dick’ and outside at the earth latrines.

Both Hake and Valenta escaped from Stalag Luft 111 in The Great Escape but were tragically two of the fifty executed by the Germans.

More rudimentary compass used by Oliver Philpott who escaped from Stalag 111 via 'The Wooden Horse in Oct 43 - IWM

Compass with razor blade Stalag Luft 1 - Roy Kilminster

Next Week - Compasses smuggled into the camps via MI9 & MIS - X
National Archives

The Great Escape – Paul Brickhill

The Escape Factory – Lloyd Shoemaker

The Great Escapers – Tim Carroll

MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 M.R.D. Foot & J. M. Langley

Personal notes

©Keith Morley
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  1. An informative read as always from Keith, and amazing what the POWs were able to build from everyday objects around them. There is a phrase about necessity being the Mother of invention and never more so than during the War here. The earliest compasses were most likely invented by the Chinese in around 1050 BCE. They were created first for the purposes of spiritual life or developing a feng shui environment and then later used for navigation. It is disputed whether other cultures, such as some Mesoamerican societies, may have developed the idea for the magnetized compass first, also in accordance for spiritual aligning and not navigation. Compasses were originally developed when lodestones, a mineral that has naturally magnetized iron ore, were suspended above a board with the ability to pivot and turn. It was discovered that the stones would always point in the same direction, and align themselves with the north/south axis of the earth. During WW2 the Francis Barker model 1605 NATO Survival Button Compass was worn sewn into coats and it really was the size of a button. They are still available today. Look forward to reading about more activities of the POWs.
    “History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.”
    John Henrik Clarke

    1. Thanks Helen. The compass could often make the difference between life and death, freedom or capture. That might sound dramatic, but it was true. However primitive the model, it essentially did the same thing.