The Quartermaster (Q) in the Bond films, who produced and demonstrated gadgets for James, always intrigued me. It was always an expected scene in the film when he demonstrated Bond’s assigned tools for the mission, and it was a near guarantee that each and every piece would prove to be invaluable.
I was reminded of those gadgets when I heard about the humble button’s wartime secret. Common buttons are often the bane of detectorists; they don’t like finding them, but some can be extra special. I hope this little story makes them stand back and take a second look, especially at the military button. The story is fascinating …
It was during WW II, that the British Directorate of Military Intelligence had boffins developing secret ways of concealing tools and instruments in everyday objects. Hopefully, maps and other objects hidden in or on uniforms wouldn’t attract attention.
Firmin of London made the brass uniform buttons (as did Gaunt) and many other military buttons found by detectorists, but this particular one was different for it contained an escape compass. They were issued to RAF pilots before they set out on an operation to help them find their way home if shot down over enemy territory.
The Canadian Air Force also had a version and it is shown here courtesy of Jean-Patrick Donzey, curator at the Online Compass Museum, where you can see more examples.
The button unscrews, revealing the compass. The story goes that when the Germans became aware that the compasses existed, changes were made with the screw reversed so any attempts to find them would simply tighten the thread!
There were also Bakelite buttons with magnetised metal fixings with dots on the back. When hung from a thread, they pointed north.
The moral of the story is that when you find another military button, take a careful look – it could just contain a compass, but it’s highly unlikely; they were checked in after every sortie. But, if you do find one, please let me know!
UPDATE MARCH 2018
Did Gary James find one in Ireland? He tells me that his button was found in the same field as a WWI Inniskilling regiment badge.
Gary tells me that he knew something was inside. When shaking and poking, he thought it was just a rock. After reading the above, he took another look. There was good news and bad news. The button was made by Firmin, but he had to crack open the button as it wouldn’t unscrew … there was nothing inside to suggest it was a compass. Ah, well. Thanks for your input, Gary!