Whether it’s bagpipe flame-throwers, spear-wielding umbrellas or sports cars that turn into submarines, everyone has a favourite James Bond spy gadget, courtesy of the ever-resourceful ‘Q’ Branch.
While it has long been assumed that novelist Ian Fleming used an MI6 department as the inspiration for 007’s brilliantly bonkers gadgets — exploding shark capsule, anyone? — credit should actually go to MI9, or ‘Military Intelligence 9’, as revealed in a new book, MI9: A History Of The Secret Service For Escape And Evasion In World War Two, by Helen Fry.
A department so top secret that most people have never even heard of it, it relied heavily on the inventions of a prematurely balding maverick called Christopher Clayton Hutton.
‘Clutty’, as he was known, was a former soldier, airman and journalist, who had been obsessed with escapology and illusions since boyhood.
Christopher Clayton Hutton, the genius inventor behind gadgets that helped British and Allied troops escape during the war
He was once described as ‘mad and brilliant’, and would have given today’s Q a run for his money when it came to inventiveness.
Set up in 1939 and run by Major Norman Crockatt (later Brigadier) and Clutty, MI9 was responsible for helping airmen and prisoners find their way home from behind enemy lines.
To this end, it supported resistance networks and encouraged a philosophy of ‘escape-mindedness’, drumming into every soldier that it was their duty to try to escape.
A single airman took three months to train at a cost of £15,000, so the War Office needed them back.
In turn, the boffins at MI9 did everything they could to support them, designing and supplying countless gadgets including pencil cameras, daggers hidden in pens, wire saws hidden in shoe laces and playing cards containing maps of Europe.
Clutty, in particular, was relentless in his task. He hired a magician to help devise hidden compartments and built himself an underground bunker in the middle of a field — in the grounds of the MI9 headquarters in Wilton Park, Beaconsfield — so he could work undisturbed.
'Q' the ever-resourceful fictional character was portrayed by actor Desmond Llewelyn (pictured) and appeared in the James Bond film series from 1963 to 1999
A British bakelite shaving brush, dated 1945, fitted with a hidden escape & evade compass. One of the remarkable collection of 'secret weapons' sent to British soldiers behind enemy lines in World War Two
Such was his disregard for protocol that he was frequently in trouble with the police and authorities for helping himself to Army stocks without permission, and would have given today’s Health and Safety executives multiple coronaries.
But he was a genius.
It was he who persuaded Waddington to adapt their Monopoly sets into escape kits, complete with maps of Europe and compasses. He also helped design the standard issue maps, nearly half a million of which were printed on non-rustling silk with non-running ink, which could be hidden inside a chess piece.
Naturally, it was also Clutty who came up with a compass concealed in a jacket button with reverse screw threads, on the