A look at some WWI Compasses

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Through my recent eBay adventures, my vintage compass collection has increased dramatically. Some of my favourite new acquisitions are a pair of 1918-vintage US Corps of Engineers military marching compasses both made by Cruchon & Emons in Switzerland. These are the types of compasses that Horace Kephart might have used had he not considered compasses to be a waste of time outside of a field emergency.

Left: US Corps of Engineers Verner's Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic marching compass. Right: US Corps of Engineers mirror sighting compass.

Left: US Corps of Engineers Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic marching compass. Right: US Corps of Engineers mirror sighting compass.

The Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII Prismatic Marching Compass

Signed “C-E” for Cruchon & Emons (NOT “Corps of Engineers” as you would expect), the 1918-dated Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic was an absolute basket case when I purchased it. Incomplete, and with a heavy layer of dirt, staining and filth (inside and out) it looked like it had lain in a swamp for 50 years. A trip to a local hobby store saw me secure some brass bar for the replacement lid-opening tab and an assortment of correct-size replacement slot head brass screws.

Despite the complexity of the design, which includes both a dial-locking mechanism as well as a manual dial-damping button,  the teardown for cleaning wasn't difficult and only took about five minutes.

Despite the complexity of the design, which includes both a dial-locking mechanism as well as a manual dial-damping button, the teardown for cleaning wasn’t difficult and only took about five minutes.

The inside of the case under the dial was absolutely filthy – it went WAY beyond patina. After cleaning all the brass parts and giving them a mild polish with Brasso, the compass began to look great. Internal parts such as screw threads and the dial jewel were lubricated with pencil graphite and the missing parts fabricated and fitted until I can secure a junked case from which to cannibalise those parts.

Having polished the lid, it was hit with a light coat of black lacquer to imitate the brass blacking (an actual oxidization process) used on the compasses at the Swiss factory in 1918. You can see some strong remains of the original blacking on the mirror-sighting compass below.

Due to the potential radiation hazard from the remains of the radium illumination on this compass, all cleaning and restoration work was carried out while wearing a military-grade S10 respirator and surgical gloves.

The restored Verner's Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic compass.

The restored Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic compass.

It’s worth noting that the Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII compass was the standard British Commonwealth field compass for most of the First World War. British-marked wartime examples are common, but the US-marked ones less so due to America’s later entry into that conflict.

Cruchon & Emons Mirror Sighting Compass

This compass operates in a similar fashion to modern mirror-sighting baseplate compasses. One ring of indices on the dial is printed back-to-front and mirrored. To take a bearing, the user reads the mirrored bearing off the highly polished brass plate set into the lid.

The Cruchon & Emons mirror sighting compass. Note the highly-polished brass mirror which was the beating heart of this system.

The Cruchon & Emons mirror sighting compass. Note the highly-polished brass mirror which was the beating heart of this system.

Manufactured in Paris, France and in Berne, Switzerland by both Plan Ltd and Cruchon & Emons from 1915, the mirror sighting compass was never as well-regarded as the prismatic models. When introduced into US Army service in 1916, this mirror sighting compass was the most accurate marching compass ever fielded by US forces.

This example is a Berne-manufactured compass which dates to mid-late 1918. Although there are no date stamps, we can narrow it down due to the use of an aluminium dial (until mid 1918 they were enameled) and the brass mirror (brass mirrors were phased out in late 1918 and replaced by nickel-plated mirrors which wouldn’t tarnish under field conditions).

Like the Verner’s Pattern prismatic above, the compass is still highly accurate down to about half a degree when compared against a 1943 MkIII Marching Compass and a 2000s Silva 4/54 military baseplate compass

Instructions for use of the mirror-sighting compass. Image courtesy http://www.compassmuseum.com/images/hand3/plan_doc.jpg

Instructions for use of the mirror-sighting compass. Image courtesy www.compassmuseum.com

Despite the failure of any of the major militaries of the world to adopt the mirror sighting compass as standard (the US standardised on the Verner’s pattern prismatic compasses after WWI before adopting the lensatic pattern in the 1930s), the mirror sighting compass became a favourite amongst outdoor enthusiasts and wilderness travellers – particularly in North America. In the 1920s and 30s, outdoors outfitters Abercrombie & Fitch retailed a very similar compass, also made by Cruchon & Emons, proving that the type’s popularity as a general purpose direction-finding instrument did not wane for decades.

With index lines on the thumb-ring, the sighting window and the top of the lid, the mirror sighting compass is well-suited to field navigation with a map - of course, you do need a protractor to navigate effectively.

With index marks on the thumb-ring, the sighting window and the top of the lid, the mirror sighting compass is well-suited to field navigation with a map – of course, you do need a protractor to navigate effectively.

Marking on the base of the mirror sighting compass (L) and the prismatic (R).

Markings on the base of the mirror sighting compass (L) and the prismatic (R).

A Photo Comparison of the 1918 Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII Prismatic Compass and the 1943 Mk. III Prismatic Compass

Sometimes it’s interesting to see the evolution of pieces of equipment over the years. Both the compasses shown below were state of the art for their day.

The Verner's Pattern (left) with polished case and blackened lid. GEC Mk. III prismatic compass (r) is in mint restored condition - all radium removed and replaced with Tritium and a mint-condition black lacquered case.

The 1918-vintage Verner’s Pattern (left) with polished case and blackened lid. the 1943-vintage GEC Mk. III prismatic compass (r) is in mint restored condition – all radium removed and replaced with Tritium and a mint-condition black lacquered case.

The Verner’s Pattern is a “dry card” type which means it can take a while for the north indicator to settle and give an accurate reading. Dial movement can be arrested by a damping button, which slows the movement without affecting accuracy. When the case closes, a tab on the lid engages a mechanism in the case which lifts and locks the dial to protect it from shock and damage.

The Mk.III prismatic has a liquid-filled capsule within which the dial card can move freely, but provides effective damping for quick readings when time is of the essence. As you can see from the photos, the beefy Mk.III is a monster when compared to the fine-featured Verner’s Pattern

This angle illustrates the size difference nicely.

This angle illustrates the size difference nicely.

Aside from the dissimilar damping mechanisms and the indexed rotating ring on the Mk. III, the basic theory of operation for both compasses is almost identical.

Aside from the dissimilar damping mechanisms and the indexed rotating ring on the Mk. III, the basic theory of operation for both compasses is almost identical.

The dials.

The dials.

The compass bases. The fibre friction ring is missing from the Verner's Pattern. Note the data on the Mk.III - The "B" prefix indicates this compass was manufactured by Francis Barker & Sons, while the lack of a date mark indicates it was one of a small batch of undated examples manufactured by F Barker & Sons in 1943 - a rare bird.

The compass bases. The fibre friction ring is missing from the Verner’s Pattern. Note the data on the GEC Mk.III – The “B” prefix on the serial number indicates this compass was manufactured by Francis Barker & Sons, while the lack of a date mark indicates it was one of a small batch of undated examples manufactured by F Barker & Sons in 1943 – a rare bird.

ALICE Compass Pouch Hack – Accommodating the Baseplate Compass

ALICE is a friendly-sounding designation for an obsolete American military load-carrying system. It stands for “All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment”. Sure, it should be APLWICE (pronounced “Appleweece”) but I won’t tell if you don’t.

ALICE gear was made of a nylon packcloth, which was around 250D to 300D for the gear junkies out there. It was relatively light weight and it dried quickly after being wet. It was perfect for jungle use. Indeed I still have a couple of ALICE rucksacks as well as a few ALICE compass pouches and maybe a canteen cover or two stashed away. It’s all pretty common and has been superseded so ALICE gear can probably be found on ebay or in surplus stores for cheap.

The venerable ALICE compass/field dressing pouch is a bit of a crap design. Sure, it holds an obsolete American field dressing OK, but it fits compasses very poorly – even the Cammenga M1950 lensatic compass for which it was supposedly designed. The compass bounces around inside the case and the metal alloy belt clip on the back of the compass is ferrous. Everyone knows that ferrous metals and compasses don’t mix and a compass certainly should not be stored next to a clip which can affect the magnetic field of a compass. That leads to a compounding inaccuracy of the compass over time.

The compass pouch was not designed with baseplate compass pouches in mind. But since I wanted to securely carry a baseplate compass in one of these pouches, I’d have to find a way.

Standard ALICE compass pouch. My trusty old Swedish Silva expedition compass for scale.

Standard ALICE compass pouch. My trusty old Swedish Silva expedition compass for scale. The press snap is bronze and is non-magnetic.

Rear view of the ALICE compass pouch showing the metal "keeper" which just happens to be made of a ferrousmetal alloy and attract a compass needle. Bad juju.

Rear view of the ALICE compass pouch showing the metal “keeper” which just happens to be made of a ferrous metal alloy and attracts a compass needle. Bad juju.

Being a committed tinkerer who wanted to affix an ALICE compass pouch to the lefthand shoulder strap of my UL backpack, something had to be done to correct the many shortcomings of the ALICE compass pouch, and quickly.

Although a little longer than the Silva Expedition 5 model pictured above, my military Silva 4/54 baseplate compass still fits the ALICE compass pouch comfortably. It feels terribly unprotected so the pouch would need to be padded. Then there was the matter of the metal clip. I’d have to make one out of brass or aluminium or maybe even use plastic.

Components for the hack - ALICE compass pouch, piece of foam sleeping mat and a plastic clip (not shown)

Components for the hack – ALICE compass pouch, piece of foam sleeping mat and a plastic clip (not shown)

Dipping into the spares crate I found a piece of foam from an old fold-up German sleeping mat which I cut to the correct size and folded appropriately. After folding the foam around the compass it was inserted into the pouch. The compass was now beautifully protected from shock and from being scratched by the the press snap. Just had the belt clip to go.

 

Compass in the open pouch. Foam is held securely by the shape of the pouch and the compass can be extracted and inserted without risk of the foam working its way out.

Compass in the open pouch. Foam is held securely by the shape of the pouch and the compass can be extracted and inserted without risk of the foam working its way out. Note the drainage grommet has been removed from this pouch. It was sticking up and was in the way so I went after it man to man with a pair of pliers.

Case closed. The compass is very secure and well protected in this pouch after the hack.

Case closed. The compass is very secure and well protected in this pouch after the hack.

I was all ready to use a large zip tie or a plastic MALICE clip to replace the metal belt clip, but then I stumbled across a nylon Aussie ICLCEclip which is compatible with the ALICE gear out of the box and has no magnetic effect on compasses.

Problem solved - nylon clip on hacked compass pouch at left. Metal clip fitted to unhacked compass pouch on right.

Problem solved – nylon clip on hacked compass pouch at left. Metal clip fitted to unhacked compass pouch on right.

 

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.