An amazing piece of WW2 army gear an officer’s compass Armée Belge

IMG_3948 I inherited this brass army compass from my dad, in its original container marking: “ARMEE BELGE”, reserved for officers or any NCO-platoon commander. The compass itself bears the following letters and numbers engraved at the back: AB n°1/12104. It uses degrees. You can move the direction pointer to where you want to go, to get orientated. You’ll find it for sale in the Woo Hoo Cuties’ shop. Of course my mind wandered off to the history of compasses, its use, its origin.

A compass, the must-have for survival, the indispensible navigation tool, offering you precision and reliability, is the item you should always have on you when hiking or camping, travelling. They need to be read at rest, and perfectly horizontal, require some time to adjust to a turned platform, and may suffer interference from local magnetic fields. Loads of problems, that had to be solved when used at sea, not to speak of the influence of the ships’ steel affecting the compass needle.


An army’s marching compass is the best and the most accurate in the world, but recently it uses mils and not degrees, as mils are a lot more accurate than degrees. There are 6283.2 mils to a circle (as opposed to 360 degrees). A mil is “a metre at a kilometer” and it makes calculations easier for artillery and the like, but you and me, the average walkers, don’t need that degree of accuracy.

U.S. Army compasses are marked off in 6400 milradians. Obviously, this is not quite correct but was done for simplicity. Russian Army compasses are marked a bit differently.


Artillery uses it for pinpoint accuracy and soldiers really need it in the jungle (taking the right path) and the desert (finding water).

Other common even smaller measurements that were used in the army for shooting at range, were “a gnats knacker”, “half a gnats knacker” and “a gnats baw hair”.

The RAF apparently uses degrees.


During the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.) the compass made its first appearance in China, in Europe a refined version showed up in Italy in Amalfi, made by Flavio Gioia (a monument erected for this invention can still be seen there) in the 14th Century. Sea traders and the military jumped on it for its strategic importance and its technology was pushed forward. The Portuguese sailors popularized it in the 15th century and Nuremberg and Bruges became the places for the best European compass makers.


The difference between the geographic North and the magnetic North was relatively small across the Mediterranean, but in the Atlantic (northern latitudes) it was considerable and varied greatly! Columbus, during his first voyage (North America to Spain 1492) knew and observed it, but didn’t dare to spook his crew with this knowledge.

The magnetic compass was a combination of the wind rose and the lodestone (a naturally magnetized piece of the mineral magnetite ) and led to the evolving of the compass rose. The 32 points (marking the four cardinal directions: N, E, S, W, the four inter cardinal directions: NE, SE, SW, NW, and the other sixteen secondary inter cardinal directions: NE by N, N by E, etc.) indicated on the compass rose, were originally drawn to correlate to the Temple of the Winds, devised by the ancient Greeks and used by sailors in navigation.

In Christopher Columbus’ time the elaborate stylish “Fleur-de-Lys” replaced the initial letter T (tramontane = north wind) and the cross replaced the initial letter L (levanter= east= direction Holy Land), to ensure that maps were oriented correctly during low lighting conditions (oil lamps, candles).

When coloured, your compass will show red, blue, black and green, the most common colours, as in the old days even with the low light, they were the easiest ones to be distinguished.

Nowadays the 360-degree system of indicating direction on the compass makes navigation more accurate than the use of the compass rose.

(to be followed by part 2)

Hoping you’re navigating your world in all the best directions


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