Compass Pretending to be a Button

During World War Two, the British Directorate of Military Intelligence developed a great number of secret means to conceal tools and instruments in harmless looking objects for everyday use. For example, the tunic button shown below conceals a compass.

The Humble Buttons Wartime Secret

RAF Tunic Button. Kind permission of Wouter Has of

The Quartermaster (Q) in the Bond films, who produced and demonstrated gadgets for James, always intrigued me. It became 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 buttons wartime secret. Buttons are the bane of some detectorists; they don’t like finding them, but I hope this little story makes them stand back and take a second look.

Compass in a button: Miniature compasses were hidden inside uniform buttons.  Courtesy Imperial War Museum.

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 and many other military buttons found by detectorists, but this 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.

© COMPASSIPEDIA Button of the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force)

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 RCAF button pictured above was supplied from the excellent Online Compass Museum COMPASSIPEDIA (with permission) and is worth a look. If you are on Facebook, a page has recently been started, and announces news recently published on the website of COMPASSIPEDIA, which displays hundreds of antique compasses and the history of their invention, development, usage etcetera.

Courtesy of Wouter Has of PARATROOPER.BE

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.

Rating: 5 out of 5.


Some of you may not know this but I once manned a helpline for distressed detectorists. I remember a caller who contacted me late one night with a very distressing tale.

“Hi, I need your advice on a serious problem. I live in Thornley County Durham, not far from Randy Dee, and have suspected for some time now that my wife Tracy has been cheating on me. The usual signs: If the phone rings and I answer, the caller hangs up. She goes out with ‘the girls’ a lot, and let’s me go detecting whenever I want. I try to stay awake to look out for her when she comes home, but I usually fall asleep.

Anyway, last night about midnight, I hid in the garage behind the car. When arriving home, she got out of someone’s motor, adjusted her dress and proceeded to walk nonchalantly to the front door. It was at that moment, crouched behind the car and in amongst my detectors, that I noticed a hairline crack in the Deus coil. Is that something I can weld with some kind of Epoxy resin, or do I need to replace the whole unit? Please advise.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

15 thoughts on “Compass Pretending to be a Button”

  1. The genius of hiding things in plain sight. My late father-in-law was quite the WWII history buff, and would share many stories with me.

    I’m now going to have to look extra carefully at his military collection that we have here at home.

    Fantastic reminder John, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
    As a new comer to your Blog it sounds as if Tracey was a working girl and Randy very interested!

    Liked by 1 person

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