MI9's Secret Silk Mapmaker

Posted on March 20 2016, by Nick Taggart

I found this interesting account on the CIA website about the 1939 production of silk escape and evasion maps by MI9, British Military Intelligence. It's interesting to note that the World War Two spies used these maps for the same reasons we use them for our topographical maps: waterproof, thin, lightweight, durable, crease resistant, easy to pack.

 

An MI9 officer by the name of Clayton Hutton created the silk map. Hutton was known for being a determined, passionate go-getter. In 1940, Hutton met with famous Edinburgh mapmaker John Bartholomew. He obtained maps of Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and the Balkans. When Hutton told Bartholomew how he intended to use the maps, the mapmaker waived all copyrights in support of the war effort.
 
Hutton’s next task was to find a material on which to print the maps. He needed a fabric that met the following requirements:
 
  • Silent when folding and unfolding
  • Waterproof
  • Thin
  • Lightweight
  • Durable
  • Crease resistant
  • Easy to conceal
 
The answer came in the fabric used to make parachutes: silk. However, the material was difficult to print on because the ink ran and smeared. Hutton was about to give up when he tried adding Pectin — a type of wax — to the ink, which prevented it from running or washing out in water. The maps and text were crystal clear.
Rayon, Nylon and a type of tissue paper made with mulberry leaves — all very durable — were also used to make maps.
 
In 1940, the British began issuing the silk escape and evasion maps to aircrews in case they were shot down over hostile territory. The maps were a great success and served many uses. Hutton called the maps “the escaper’s most important accessory.” They not only helped a soldier escape, but could protect him from the cold in Europe or swarms of mosquitoes in Burma.

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