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.

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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 It’s all pretty common and has been superseded so ALICE gear can probably be found on ebay or in surplus stores for cheap.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.