My history hero: Christopher Clayton Hutton (1893–1965)

Chosen by Dennis Wheatley, BBC History Magazine reader

Christopher Clayton Hutton smuggled everything from currency to forged ID discs into German PoW camps. (Public domain)

This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Christopher Clayton Hutton, known as ‘Clutty’, was born in Birmingham in 1893. Fascinated by escapology as a young man, he challenged Houdini to escape from a box built by one of his uncle’s carpenters. Houdini succeeded, but only by bribing the carpenter.

In 1940, Clutty was recruited to join MI9, the intelligence organisation responsible for facilitating escape and evasion. In this role Clutty devised methods of helping aircrew avoid capture if brought down behind enemy lines and found ways to smuggle escape aids into PoW camps. His memoirs of his wartime exploits were published in 1960.

When did you first hear about Clutty?

I first read about him in an illustrated history of the Second World War, published by Reader’s Digest. It gave examples of escape aids smuggled to Allied PoWs – silk maps hidden in playing cards, forged passes inside chess pieces and capsules of dye hidden in toothpaste tubes. Clutty was the man behind it all. The book referred to him as “one of the secret war’s great eccentrics”.

What kind of person was he?

He was innovative, always thinking outside the box, and brilliant at convincing others to support him. He had no time for military discipline or established procedures. He was determined to get his own way and would often bypass the “pettifogging bureaucrats” of the ministries and go straight to the top. His commanding officer wrote that, although eccentric, “he is too valuable for his services to be lost to this department”.

What made Clutty a hero?

The range of gadgets he invented to help downed airmen and other troops was staggering. Aircrew flew with silk maps inside the linings of their uniforms. These wouldn’t rustle or tear and could even be read after soaking in water. Tiny compasses were hidden in buttons, collar studs, cap badges, and pencils. Flying boots were developed which could convert to civilian shoes, while the removable leg covers zipped together to form a waistcoat.

Clutty devised emergency food rations in small, waterproof packs containing chocolate, tablets of malted milk, Benzedrine, a water bottle, fishing line, a magnetised razor blade, and water purification tablets. Gigli saws – long, flexible surgical blades that could be used to cut iron bars – were hidden in bootlaces or waistbands. Around 600,000 servicemen were equipped with such items, and some 35,000 personnel cut off behind enemy lines found their way to safety – around half of them using Clutty’s ‘toys’.

What was his finest hour?

Smuggling 1,500 parcels containing escape aids into PoW camps. Parcels containing games, records, books, musical instruments, razor blades and toiletries were sent to PoWs from invented donor charities. Concealed in some of these were maps, compasses, currency, forged passes, ID discs, dyes, knives and other useful items. Not all avoided detection and Clutty’s department had to constantly think up new methods of concealment.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Clutty?

I suspect he was obsessive about his work and a difficult boss. His autobiography, Official Secret, suggests he liked to take the credit, although many worked with him. However, his reluctance to name collaborating companies – such as Bartholomew’s, the map publishers; Waddington, board game makers; and Gillette, razor blade manufacturers – was probably because officials at the time insisted on keeping these wartime secrets under wraps.

If you could meet Clutty what would you ask him?

In his book, Clutty says: “One officer in each camp knew precisely what stuff had been forwarded, how it was disguised, and in whose possession it ought to be.” I would like to ask him more about this interesting assertion.

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Dennis Wheatley is a retired IT manager living in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire with his wife, Eileen. Dennis enjoys history and travel and, since taking early retirement five years ago, has been fortunate to spend more time on all of these interests.