A look at some WWI Compasses

IMG_20131219_082612

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.

The Hootchie – Part 1 – An Adventure Through Time

A current issue Australian hootchie shelter. Image from www.raymears.com. Uncle Ray loves the Aussie hootchie.

A current issue Australian hootchie shelter. Image from http://www.raymears.com. Uncle Ray loves the Aussie hootchie.

“Hootchie” or “hutchie” is the slang term for the Australian Army’s Shelter, Individual – NSN 8465-66-013-5032.

The hootchie is a sheet of 70D nylon or PU-coated cotton with various press snaps and webbing tape loops attached around the outside which allow it to be used in a variety of configurations such as –

  • Tarp tent
  • Hammock tarp
  • Improvised hammock (heavyweight ones only)
  • Swag (bedroll cover)
  • Sleeping bag (best used with a wool blanket or nylon poncho liner)
  • Groundsheet
  • Fighting position cover
  • Waterproofing sheet for bundling up equipment during water crossings
  • Trailer or open-top vehicle cover (when stationary)
  • Solar still sheet (so says the Australian army’s survival pam)

And that’s just the ones I’ve tried or heard about. If you have alternate uses for the hootchie or its NATO/ANZUS cousins, post ’em in the comments.

The hootchie concept is widely used by military forces around the world as well as by outdoor enthusiasts such as bushcrafters and recreational hikers.  Here’s some military users –

United States – Poncho and Field Tarp

The new USMC field tarps are flooding the surplus gear markets. It's a pity I don't use camouflaged equipment or I'd grab one to test it out.

The new USMC field tarps are flooding the surplus gear markets. It’s a pity I don’t use camouflaged equipment or I’d grab one to test it out.

In the US, service personnel, outdoor enthusiasts and bushcraft practitioners have been using the venerable rain poncho in place of the hootchie for decades. These do an admirable job, but are just that little bit too small to be an effective tarp tent or hammock tarp. Recognising this, the US Marine Corps has recently introduced the “Field Tarp” it has a digital woodland camouflage print on one side, and is coated with “coyote” tan polyurethane. By all accounts it works well, but is a little heavy.

Poncho Shelter ideas from a US military manual. These work great if you're a midget (no offence to any of our smaller-statured readers). But if you're tall like me, a hootchie format works much better. For more uses for the military poncho (and therefore the hootchie) see http://www.hardscrabblefarm.com/vn/poncho.html

Poncho Shelter ideas from a US military manual. These work great if you’re a midget (no offence to any of our smaller-statured readers). But if you’re tall like me, a hootchie format works much better. For more uses for the military poncho (and therefore the hootchie) see http://www.hardscrabblefarm.com/vn/poncho.html

New Zealand – Kiwi Hootchie

Like the Aussies, our Kiwi brethren have long been advocates of the simple utility of the hootchie format for their shelter sheets. The Kiwi hootchie is camouflaged and is bigger than a standard Aussie one.

The United Kingdom – Basha

A British military-issue desert DMP basha. Smaller and more shoddily made than an Aussie hootchie, but appear to do the job.

A British military-issue desert DPM basha. A little smaller and more shoddily made than an Aussie hootchie, but they appear to do the job. Image from http://www.zombiehunters.org – user Kommander

The British call a hootchie a “Basha”. In British service, the idea was copied off Australian and Kiwi troops operating in Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation in the early 1960s. Back in the early to mid 1960s British bashas were identical to Australian hootchies of the same era – solid green in colour. Later they were made in British jungle camouflage, which is a sort of yellow-tinged camouflage pattern. And for desert operations they were made and issued in British desert camouflage.

Cropped image of a current-issue British MTP basha showing the pattern.

Cropped image of a current-issue British MTP basha showing the pattern. As you can see, the pattern doesn’t work too well in hot/wet and cold/wet environments unless you set it up in the middle of the track. This will cause problems for the British, US, Australian and others who use Multicam-based clothing and equipment patterns if called upon to fight outside the arid zones.

They are currently being made and issued in the British Multi-Terrain Pattern (MTP) camouflage, a variant of American Multicam. Although never as widely used by the Brits as it is by the Aussies, the Basha/hootchie remains a well-loved piece of equipment for both tropical and arid climates, particularly since the British Ministry of Defence’s procurement people seem to have specified a much higher standard of materials and construction for the new MTP equipment.

Australia – Hootchie

The original and best, the Australian hootchie evolved from experience gained over decades of previous wars and other military operations.

SOurce - http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=157548

A British specification for the Commonwealth-issue WWI-era MKVII ground sheet/rain cape. Source – http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=157548

During the First and Second World Wars, Australian (and other British Commonwealth) troops were issued with a rubberised canvas ground sheet / rain cape. It was far from suitable as an individual shelter in the trenches, although a couple could be laced together to provide a shelter for two men, or as a cover for a fighting position. As a ground sheet and as a rain cape, it did sterling work despite it’s heavy weight.  It was state of the art for its time.

Along with the rain cape format, WWI and II era Australian and Commonwealth troops were issued with a ground sheet, which was essentially the rain cape without the triangular section and the collar accoutrements. Like the rain cape, an individual ground sheet was too small to be of much practical use unless used as a dry surface to bed down on or if laced together with another ground sheet as a cover for a sleeping or fighting position.

An Australian 1945-vintage groundsheet. Image from a now-defunct eBay listing.

An Australian 1945-vintage groundsheet. Image from a now-defunct eBay listing.

During WWII Australian forces fighting the Japanese in the Islands had an urgent requirement for a decent individual shelter. The rubberised canvas groundsheets and rain capes continued to be used (now issued separately), but these were less than effective in the tropics.

Groundsheet shelter from a WWII Australian jungle warfare manual. Great sun shade, but what if it rains?

Groundsheet shelter from a WWII Australian jungle warfare manual. Great sun shade, but what if it rains?

A better solution had to be found, and quickly.

Shelter Halves. From the AWM collection.

Shelter Halves. From the AWM collection.

To improve the troops’ individual shelter systems, large stocks of American shelter halves began to be issued. Similar in form to an Australian ground sheet, a shelter half was made from lighter water-repellent sateen cotton cloth and was fitted with press studs to connect to another “half” to make a two-man pup-tent. The shelter half was constructed in such a way that it resulted in a tent with a closed-in end. This is great for helping to keep rain and snow out of your bedding while you lay there freezing through a European winter, but  it reduced visibility and blocked ventilation in the jungle to unacceptable levels. As a consequence, US shelter halves were mainly used by Australians as fighting pit covers and as groundsheets. Ultimately the Australian troops were no better off than if they had retained their Australian-issue groundsheets.

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII - AWM collection

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII. This digger is an old hand, having kept his hammock slung low to reduce its visual signature and to better protect against errant gunfire or grenade fragments – AWM collection

A decent shelter was seen not as a luxury in these tropical malaria-infested areas, but as essential. Both the United States and Australia went to extraordinary lengths to try and prevent tropical diseases such as malaria and scrub typhus among the troops. As a result of this effort, the American Jungle Hammock was born.

An Australian-issued jungle hammock used by NX16053 Warrant Officer I Raymond Turrell in New Guinea during WWII - AWM collection

An Australian-issued US jungle hammock used by NX16053 Warrant Officer I Raymond Turrell in New Guinea during WWII – AWM collection

The jungle hammock was a revolutionary individual shelter system. It consisted of a canvas hammock protected by mosquito netting and topped by a waterproof canopy. It rolled into a bundle just a little bigger than a woolen army blanket but it was still portable and provided a waterproof, insectproof shelter for an individual soldier. In practice it was not a great idea to be using a jungle hammock in the front lines with the ever-present threat of an enemy artillery barrage or infiltration parties, but in larger camps back from the lines the jungle hammock was much appreciated. Keep a look out for a separate post on the WWII jungle hammock.

Towards the end of the war in the Pacific Australia began issuing its troops a lighter weight version of the groundsheet manufactured from polyurethane-coated cotton – the same material which formed the canopy of the US jungle hammock. Although issued too late to be truly revolutionary during WWII, the PU cotton material remained in the Australian Army’s institutional memory and became the basis for the first pattern “Shelter, Individual” – the hootchie.

Along with the jungle hammock, American ponchos began to be issued in quantity to Australian troops in the pacific. Made from a rubberised cotton, these were a turtle-neck format without a hood, but were lighter than the rain cape and larger than the groundsheet.

Australian soldiers' camp during the Malayan Emergency in 1956. Poncho shelters are in abundance. AWM collection.

Australian soldiers’ camp during the Malayan Emergency in 1956. Poncho shelters are in abundance. AWM collection.

During the Malayan Emergency of the 1950s, Australian troops were issued with hooded ponchos. Unlike the WWII US pattern ponchos which always had a hole in the dead centre of the poncho sheet, the Australian-issue hooded ponchos made an effective shelter – especially when two where clipped together. The problem of course is that the rubberised canvas ponchos were far too heavy for jungle use.

Malaya 1960. An Australian Long Range patrol on counter terror ops on the peninsula has been forced to rely upon gaudy commercial plastic shower curtains as shelters for their A-frame jungle beds. An unsatisfactory situation.

Malaya 1960. An Australian Long Range patrol on counter terror ops on the peninsula forced to rely upon ultra-lightweight but flimsy and gaudy floral commercial PVC plastic shower curtains as shelters for their A-frame jungle beds. An unsatisfactory situation. AWM collection.

The weight issue was critical for troops undertaking long range patrols in the jungle which could last for weeks. Some expedients such as the shower curtain idea used above were workable, but a lightweight and hardwearing shelter sheet was urgently required.In the early 1960s Australian units in Borneo hunting Indonesian infiltrators from Kalimantan were issued with the first pattern hootchies.

A lightweight hootchie. AWM collection

A lightweight hootchie. AWM collection

The hootchie was a sheet of PU coated cotton measuring approximately 2.7m x 1.9m (approx 8ft 10inches x 6ft 2inches) with press studs and loops sewn at intervals around the outside edge as well as various eyelets and grommets. A line of loops was sewn down the centre of the sheet to allow more options when pitching as a shelter. Although still a little heavy, the hootchie was a vast improvement over its predecessors, and was almost bombproof. Its one failing was its weight – still over a kilogram.

The hootchie became a standard piece of Australian equipment which was included in a new recruit’s initial clothing and gear issue. With Australia’s entry into the Vietnam war, a second pattern lightweight hootchie was issued. Made from nylon, but retaining the  hardware and loops, the lightweight hootchie weighed a mere 680 grams, still heavy, but suitable for tropical use.

A pair of hootchies used as a gun pit cover in Vietnam. AWM collection.

A pair of hootchies used as a gun pit cover in Vietnam. AWM collection.

In practice in Vietnam, the hootchie was rarely used as a slung tarp shelter. When wet it shone in moonlight and in the pre-dawn glow. Tying it to trees left “sign” and for exhausted troops on patrol it was simply a hassle to pitch the hootchie. It was often used in conjunction with a woolen “horse blanket” or a poncho liner as an open-sided sleeping bag or it was simply laid upon as a ground sheet with the soldier sleeping under a poncho. In more permanent positions such as patrol bases or fire support bases, the hootchie was widely used as a sun and rain shelter and as a cover for fighting pits.

After the Vietnam War the hootchie soldiered on and continues to form part of the equipment of the Australian soldier to this day. Modern hootchies are made of Australian camouflage (Auscam) nylon with khaki loops, but aside from this the size and pattern are identical to the green Vietnam hootchies.

British Outdoorsman and Campfire Cooking legend Ray Mears often uses a current Australian issue hootchie as part of his kit.

British Outdoorsman and Campfire Cooking legend Ray Mears often uses a current Australian issue hootchie as part of his kit.

That’s the evolution of the hootchie in a nutshell.

Next post in this series will look at types of shelters which can be pitched using a hootchie as well as an overview of a very decent commercial equivalent to the military issue hootchie – in environmentally-friendly green rather than “tactical” camouflage.

Field Sketching Outfit

Field Sketching was originally a military skill developed to a fine art in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

In a time of hit-and-miss topographic mapping, field panoramic sketches drawn/painted from a known point on the map were invaluable for allowing officers to visualise the terrain they would be working in. With the advent of portable photographic equipment and aerial photography in particular in the early 20th Century, it started to become obsolete as a military skill. By the end of the 2nd World War, the fine art of field sketching had all but died out, although it has continued to be used by snipers, intelligence personnel and special forces to a far lesser degree.

A stunning WWI panoramic field sketch in watercolour painted by a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Palestine in 1917. Image courtesy NZ Government Archives.

A stunning WWI-era military panoramic field sketch in watercolour painted by a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Palestine in 1917. Image courtesy NZ Government Archives.

Field sketches were drawn and sometimes were painted in order to illustrate subtle details and changes in vegetation and terrain. Destined to be used once and then discarded, it’s a miracle that any of these field sketches have survived the rigours of time and neglect. We’ll cover the actual art of field sketching in a later post.

To bring the lost art of field sketching back to life, it all starts with the equipment. In this case, a Field Sketching Outfit. Inspired by expeditionary artist Maria Coryell-Martin’s field-appropriate Art Toolkit (http://expeditionaryart.com/shop/product/art-tool-kit/) and knowing a little bit about the methodology of military field sketching from various 19th and early/mid 20th Century manuals on the subject, I have put together a period-style field sketching outfit.

Field Sketching Outfit with accoutrements.

Field Sketching Outfit with its accouterments – a compass and case, field glasses and mini-tripod. Mini-tripod is entirely optional.

The outfit is based on an Australian-made 1943 vintage No. 2 Mk.I General Service map case and it’s turned out to be the perfect size for this purpose.

The map case open, showing the general layout of the paper and equipment inside.

The map case open, showing the general layout of the paper and equipment inside.

Inside the map case cover are sewn loops and pockets which now contain the following:

  • Tin of watercolour paints
  • Vintage celluloid protractor with string
  • 6-inch metal ruler
  • 3 x assorted brushes
  • An HB pencil
  • A 2B pencil
Watercolour paints tin along with spare brush, short metal ruler and a protractor.

Watercolour paints tin along with spare brush, short metal ruler and a vintage protractor.

Clipped to the map board are the following:

  • A cello bag containing a small supply of general purpose paper towels
  • A field message notebook – contains gridded pages which are great for noting down fine detail before transferring to the paper
  • An A5 spiral-bound book of 30 pages of watercolour/sketch paper
To the mapboard are clipped a notebook, watercolour/sketch paper and a bag of paper towels.

To the mapboard are clipped a notebook, watercolour/sketch paper and a bag of paper towels.

An acetate map overlay sheet covers and protects the paper when the case is closed up. On the back of the map board has been fitted a jury-rigged tripod mount for use with a standard photographic tripod, or in this case, with an Ultrapod II compact tripod spraypainted green. This allows the case’s map board to be mounted as a plane table for sketching and watercolour painting. I find working with the outfit on my lap while I’m sitting to be the most comfortable method in the field, but a tripod mount gives some more options.

Back of outfit showing tripod mounting block.

Back of outfit showing tripod mounting block.

Other equipment used with the outfit includes:

  • Prismatic Compass with case and lanyard
  • Map
  • Field Glasses
  • Mini Tripod (optional, but useful for OP work)
  • Shoulder strap

Next post in this series will cover the methodology behind an accurate field sketch.