By: Phil Froom, Author of Evasion and Escape Devices Produced by MI9, MIS-X, and SOE in World War II
At the outbreak of WWII in September 1939, the British Government made a decision not to repeat the intelligence shortcomings of WWI, and established a military intelligence bureau dedicated to the preparation and execution of plans to facilitate the escape of British evaders cut off behind enemy lines and of Prisoners of War already in custody. This new organisation was tasked with arranging instruction to British troops in evasion and escape activities, and its work was later also adopted by the U.S. and the other Allies.
Based upon the total unpreparedness of the Allied Nations to make any provision to support evaders or escapers, or in most cases to even bother to debrief them following successful escapes during WWI, a new agency was established on 23 December 1939. The British Evasion and Escape agency (known as MI9) was responsible for the collection and dissemination of information from escaped British prisoners of war, “the facilitation of the return to the United Kingdom of those who succeeded in evading capture in enemy-occupied territory”, and to advise on counter-escape measures for German Prisoners of War in Great Britain, if required to do so.
MI9 was initially headquartered in room 424 of the Metropole Hotel London. Beyond the early training of British Officers and senior NCOs in evasion and escape, one of the most important tasks of MI9 was to devise purpose built ‘devices’ to enable those air crew or troops shot down or cut off behind enemy lines, to retain their freedom, or for those already in captivity to regain theirs.
Initial studies proved that evading or escaping troops could not hope of retaining or regaining their freedom for long, without a reliable compass or map, and these items would need to be sufficiently compact to allow them to be secluded in the uniforms and personal belongings of operational air crew and troops.
Led by a slightly eccentric but highly inventive ex Royal Flying Corps Major named Christopher Clayton Hutton, the MI9 ‘Devices’ team produced a variety of ever smaller escape compasses, varying from a single compass needle known as a swinger, which was simply suspended from cotton and allowed to swing north, to compasses concealed in military brass buttons or collar studs, until eventually they became small enough to conceal inside a pencil or cigarette.
Once compasses were mastered, MI9 began to look at how to provide maps which would not turn to pulp and fall apart in wet harsh conditions, would not be bulky (and so easily discovered upon a post capture search), yet be useful for long distance navigation across occupied Europe. After various failed trials with paper maps, Hutton decided that a perfect material would be silk, which did not rustle, could be compacted into the palm of a hand, would not rub or disintegrate when wet, and most importantly, could be sewn into the linings of uniforms to prevent discovery until required.
Next, MI9 set out to provide food and water rations to evaders, to sustain them during long periods of evasion. These ‘ration packs’ became known as ‘Aids Boxes’ and like the other devices produced by MI9, evolved through a number iterations before becoming an invaluable source of sustenance for air crews bailing out over occupied Europe (and ultimately all other theaters of operations).
In February 1942, U.S. Major General Carl Spaatz travelled to England to make arrangements for the U.S. 8th Army Air Force to transfer its headquarters there. During his visit Spaatz was briefed on MI9 and its role in aiding downed air crew to escape and evade back to England. Spaatz was extremely impressed with the idea and immediately set out to form a U.S. evasion and escape agency. In October 1942 the embryonic U.S. Military Intelligence Service X (MIS-X) came into being and was based at Fort Hunt in Virginia.
Upon its formation, MIS-X comprised five sections—interrogation, correspondence, prisoner of war locations, training and briefing, and technical. With British and American aircrew operating in the same skies over Europe, it was logical for MI9 and MIS-X to work in close harmony and to share knowledge on escape lines and escape and evasion techniques. Following its establishment, MIS-X began to mirror the procedures already established by MI9, and it was decided that all U.S. air crew in Europe would be supplied with evasion and escape devices by MI9, since it made little sense to ship them from U.S. to UK. However, MIS-X took the lead in all U.S.-led theaters of war–predominantly the Pacific. U.S. air crews were issued with evasion and escape devices including ration boxes, money purses containing foreign currency, maps of their operational area, a hacksaw blade, and a miniature compass.
Unfortunately, many men were already incarcerated in Axis PoW camps in Europe, and they too needed MI9/MIS-X support. Both agencies therefore turned their designers to providing E&E gadgets which could be shipped into PoW camps inside innocent ‘carrier’ devices, to enable PoWs to plan and then execute their escapes.
Eventually both agencies began to ship brushes, combs, shaving brushes, soap, razors, uniforms, games, smoking items, lighters, tobacco pouches, cigarette holders, sporting goods, books, shoes, and a variety of other innocent devices into the camps. Many of these items slipped past inexperienced censors and mail searchers. So successful were these infiltration methods, that by late 1944, some PoW camps were asking the agencies to stop sending E&E devices, as they had run out of space to store them.
By war’s end, MI9, MIS-X, and other Allied covert agencies were responsible for the repatriation of over 12,000 men (equating to some 1,200 B-17/B-24 or 1,714 Halifax/Lancaster bomber crews), had debriefed many thousands of men, gaining key intelligence, and had built up a huge amount of detail on Axis dispositions across occupied Europe, thereby preparing later crews to avoid enemy checkpoints and traps and to evade home. A fantastic achievement of the two agencies which pioneered a completely new military skill, which has now become the norm amongst air crews and Special Operations Forces globally and continues to bring our troops home from harm’s way.