Archival Navigation Gear – WWII British Map Case and Compass

Back in the olden days, when mobile phones didn’t have outdoor GPS apps, we were forced to navigate from Point A to Point B using a piece of paper with coloured squiggles on it and a magnet on a pivot. These were known as a “map” and “compass”.

Compass

Ridiculously primitive? Sure, north wasn’t even proper north on the map, but at least they didn’t require you to take a solar charger or a Biolite stove to keep them running for more than a days’ heavy use in the bush.

They also required a good deal of knowledge and skill to be able to use effectively. The old books like to talk about things called “declination” and “resection” and such. This was the navigational sorcery which allowed a subaltern to occasionally march his troops to their objective with a shockingly high degree of accuracy. You will discover exactly how this old school navigation theory was applied in practice in later posts on The Jungle Is Neutral.

Heavily-mustachioed British officers on a Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT) in the UK during WWII using standard vehicle map cases. In 1940, one's Manliness Quotient™ was measured not by the breadth and loft of one's mustache, but also the size of one's map case.

Heavily-mustachioed British officers on a Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT) in the UK during WWII using the larger vehicle-pattern map cases. In 1940, one’s Manliness Quotient™ (MQ) was measured not only by the breadth and loft of one’s mustache, but also by the size of one’s map case.

In this post we’ll be looking at the general service navigation equipment used during WWII by British and Commonwealth infantry officers and NCOs. The same basic equipment was later used by a generation of field surveyors, explorers, pastoralists, archaeologists, speleologists and recreational walkers, simply because it was simple, well-designed, well-constructed and reliable.

Australian-manufactured, 1944-dated British Map Case No. 1 Mk. II with Canadian Pattern compass pouch.

Australian-manufactured, 1944-dated British-pattern Map Case, General Service No. 2 Mk. I with a Canadian Pattern compass pouch.

The Map Case

This is a hard-backed map case consisting of a shoulder strap, a canvas (or webbing) cover with various loops sewn in, a fibre-board base and an acetate sheet. Measuring just 27cm x 23 cm it was compact and lightweight for its day. Although not completely waterproof due to the open-sided design, it gave reasonable protection to maps or other documents against rain showers.

Map Case, General Service No. 2 Mk. I with complete equipment - map, service protractor, normal BH graphite pencil, and green,blue and red chinagraph pencils used for non-permanently marking the acetate sheet covering the map.

Map Case, General Service No. 2 Mk. I with complete equipment – map, service protractor, normal HB graphite pencil, and green,blue and red chinagraph pencils used for non-permanently marking the acetate sheet covering the map using the standard military symbols of the day.

Maps were typically folded to the required size showing the required map section and slid under the clear sheet which was then clamped down using the four attached spring clamps. British tactical maps of the day were 1-inch to 1-mile scale (1:63360) and fit nicely into this map case when folded.

A section of a 1:63360 scale WWII-era map section covering an area of Northern Australia. Click for actual size.

1:63360 scale (1 inch to 1 mile) WWII-era map section covering an area of Northern Australia. Click for actual size.

Aside from the map, the map case contained the following standardised items:

1. A Service Protractor. This was a rectangular rule typically made from ivorine (celluloid) or box wood. The protractor provided not only angle measurements, but also had a variety of map scales including 1:50,000, 1:25,000 which are two of the most common “on-the-ground” map scales used around the world today. The service protractor was also important for field sketching and its use is covered in a later post on that subject. The correct Service protractor for this map case is the “Protractor, Rectangular, 6-Inch, Ivorine, ‘A’ MK. IV”, but any of the earlier 6-inch rectangular protractors from the Great War or the 19th Century will fit in this map case.

2. Standard HB or 2B utility pencil. Wartime pencils of this pattern were usually unpainted.

3. A selection of chinagraph pencils. These are a wax pencil suitable for marking smooth surfaces, cloth as well as paper. Standard colours were green, blue and red. These were also used to highlight terrain features on map sketches and field panorama sketches.

British pattern Mk IV Rectangular Service Protractor.

British pattern Mk IV Rectangular Service Protractor.

The British WWII-pattern MkIII Prismatic Marching Compass is covered in a separate post.

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