Before becoming a collector’s item, silk scarves adorned with map prints were actually distributed in World War II to allied pilots, who would hide them under their collars and use them to find their way through occupied territory.
In 1939, the British secret service created a covert organization — MI9 — responsible for giving Royal Air Force pilots flying over Germany and occupied territories a way to escape if they found themselves on the ground. An ingenious arsenal of objects was developed under the supervision of Christopher Clayton Hutton, a former R.A.F. pilot in World War I employed as a military intelligence officer in the new subsection of the British intelligence service.
Known as “Clutty” to his friends, he inspired the fictional character Q, the renowned inventor of James Bond’s gadgets in the series of novels written by Ian Fleming. His own creations included boots with hollow heels used to hide various objects, cigarette cases with false bottoms, cigarette holders that were in fact telescopes, and miniature compasses designed to fit in pens, pencils, and jacket buttons. Another, lesser-known gadget was the “escape and evasion map,” a piece of fabric printed with the warzone over which the pilots were flying.
These maps included the occupied and free areas, along with roads, railway lines, crossing points, and a scale. Most of these maps represented parts of France, Germany, and Italy. They were first printed on silk, then on rayon, and were easily hidden under clothing or tied around the neck like a scarf. Unlike traditional paper maps, these gadgets could be unfolded silently, were waterproof, and didn’t tear.
Sported by U.S. Soldiers for D-Day
After the United States joined the war, the American secret service in turn founded their own intelligence subsection known as MIS-X, which began producing fabric maps for troops in the airborne divisions. The escape scarves were distributed to U.S. paratroopers leading up to the D-Day landings in Normandy. They were generally given to soldiers along with a compass the size of a cent, and a small file capable of sawing through metal bars.
The use of escape scarves continued after the war and throughout the 20th century. The French founders of fashion brand Bonhomme have a passion for period clothing, and managed to lay their hands on two stocks of mint-condition scarves from the British army. One of them was from World War II, another from the middle of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. The designers were inspired to recondition them by adding a little hem to avoid fraying, a patch with their brand name (Bonhomme), and an applique stitch.
The scarves are available to buy on their website, and are delivered in a midnight-blue box containing a short history of escape scarves. This find has delighted collectors of military memorabilia, as these scarves are increasingly rare.
Article published in the February 2018 issue of France-Amérique.