I recently wrote an article on escapees and selected a few individuals and their stories. Throughout history people have escaped from captivity and, from these, many lessons were learned. This came to a climax in World War Two, with the advances in air warfare.
Training air crew is an expensive business and to lose those men for the duration when they were shot down was extremely serious. Therefore, it was decided everything must be done to get them back and this became a high priority.
There were two types of escapees, the ones shot down and never captured and those who were captured and held in POW camps. It was necessary to not only train these men to fly but also train them to know what to do when shot down. Both from an escaping prospective but also what to do or say during an interrogation. Such training was started in WW2, continued after 1945 and is still on going in the 21st century.
In fact I, myself took part in one such exercise in 1952 when, as a member of an army unit, we had to patrol a large area looking for aircrew from an RAF station who were scattered around the area. We did manage to capture quite a few during this exercise. A new department was established to decide what tools they would need to assist them in their escape and the allies were fortunate to recruit an officer, named Christopher Clayton Hutton (known as Clutty) who became responsible for arranging for the items which would be needed for an escape. Firstly, compasses and maps would be essential. He arranged for small compasses to be made and hidden in buttons of the airmen’s jackets. For the POW’s it was necessary to get them a compass and one such item was a magnetic razor blade which, when suspended on a piece of string, pointed to north. Maps, for the most part, were made out of paper and if the airman happened to land in water, the maps became useless. So after some trials silk maps were developed and they could be folded very, very small or concealed in the lining of a uniform. A German report on British escape methods said they were remarkably impressed with the clarity and completeness of the maps. Various studies on escaping showed that food was a problem. When a person gets hungry, he is apt to take risks. Clutty then arranged for special concentrated foods to be developed and water purification tablets also were developed.
When flying, aircrew wore special flying boots but these were a dead giveaway to the enemy. Clutty then developed a flying boot which could be cut at the ankle so the bottom half looked like shoes and the upper two parts could be sewn together to make a fleece lined waistcoat. The heels of the boots were hollowed out which made an ideal storage place for food, compasses and maps. For POW’s a saw would be a great asset so a fine wire saw was developed which was so fine it could be used as a bootlace when covered with cloth.
The next problem was how to design uniforms which could be converted to look like civilian clothes and various trials were carried out.
Another invention was blankets sent to the POW’s in Red Cross parcels which were impregnated with an overcoat pattern, and when the blanket was washed, the pattern became visible and when cut out, could be used to make an overcoat.
This brief article really only scratches the surface of the subject but for those interested it will give you a start on your research. Much more of this subject is in Chapter 2 of “Escape and Evasion”, published by History Press.