Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail

How to Use the UK Military’s Survival Compass to Tell the Time

A guest blog by John Hudson FRGS, the UK military’s Chief Survival Instructor.

John Hudson

Direction finding in the military these days uses lots of technology, but there is still a firm place for knowing how to orientate yourself if the tech is down or you are without it. In my day job I teach UK military survival instructors the skills they need to pass on to the rest of our armed forces, and survival navigation is a vital part of all that. The students we train may find themselves in very remote areas without access to resources and possibly dealing with that whilst simultaneously being hunted by enemy forces. To avoid capture and get rescued they need to know which way to go and importantly what time to move or signal.

This is not new; when MI9’s kit developer Clayton Hutton (the inspiration for James Bond’s Q) was deciding what was crucial to give to potential World War 2 evaders he managed to create and conceal over eleven million escape compasses. 11 million; it’s better to carry a spare if you can! These were sewn into flying uniforms, hidden in buttons, cap badges, belt buckles, pencils, razor blades and even chess boards sent by MI9 via bogus charities like “The Travellers’ Association” to prisoner of war camps – including Colditz and Stalag Luft 3, the one of ‘The Great Escape’ fame.

When I teach our new instructors survival navigation techniques we touch upon this important history, and then look at how they can train their students lifesaving navigation skills using the very basics of their kit. We magnetize needles and sketch out improvised maps, and then I explain how to read direction from the landscape, sea, sky and sun (I think I was Tristan’s guinea pig on his first natural navigator instructor course way back – a brilliant day if you want to take your own natural navigation skills further and your brain and body to the gym).

When the myths about the sun always rising due East and setting due West (just on Solstices) are busted, we have normally covered enough year-round theory for everyone to appreciate that the local solar time when the sun is South will be midday. From that alone we can orientate, and then pennies start to drop as to where the sun is at 9am, 3pm, 6pm etc as it moves steadily across the sky at 15 degrees per hour. So, if you know time you can work out direction but equally usefully to us, if you know direction you can work out the local time.

One feature of the current UK military survival compass is the ‘Sun Watch’ on the back, but few folk know how to use it. It’s really simple when you know how, here you go:

Step 1: Line up the printed red orienting North arrow in the bezel (compass needle housing) with the compass base plate and “START” arrows. Now move the whole device until the compass needle is also lined up within the printed red arrow (not the aerobatic kind) as seen above. (In practice, so long as the magnetic needle is pointing the same way as the “START” arrows it’ll work, meaning you don’t have to remove any bearing you’ve set, but this is the easiest way to explain it!)

Step 2: Note or mark the direction of the sun. To make it obvious in the photo I placed a small desert twig so that it cast its shadow across the centre of the bezel.

Step 3: Carefully so as not to misalign anything, close the hinged part of the compass baseplate to reveal the watch and tell the time. Here, the shadow crosses the outer circle at the point marked “SE 9” standing for 9am. Remember, unless you live somewhere like Greenwich, solar time will be slightly different from what’s on your watch, if you know by how much you can use any compass to tell the time. But hopefully your watch won’t stop as you eject… hopefully you won’t eject… a nice skill to know anyway, enjoy!

You might also enjoy:

John has written an excellent book that does what it says on the tin:

My personal copy of How to Survive