Phase 3: the OSS/SOE Escape Knife (known officially as the “ALL-PURPOSE” KNIFE), circa 1942 – 1945

There has been much speculation regarding how the design of the OSS/SOE Escape Knife came about. The scenario that I favour is that Clayton Hutton was tasked by the SOE to produce an “all-purpose” tool (i.e. not a weapon) that would be part of the survival kit provided to allied ‘secret agents’ who operated behind enemy lines – assisting partisans in combating axis forces in France, the Balkans, Norway, etc. Clayton Hutton already had his own Joseph Rodgers “sawblade” knife (i.e. the one in the RAF museum mentioned above) and deemed it suitable for this purpose, albeit with some minor modifications; he may have also been familiar with the predecessor of the ”sawblade” knife, being the Joseph Rodgers “Military Knife P.1633”. To this end, my speculation is that Clayton Hutton proposed the following reasonably simple and practical modifications to the Rodgers “sawblade” knife:

1. The re-inclusion of the tin opener tool that was standard in the “Military Knife P.1633”. Interestingly, this style of tin opener was no-longer included in pocketknives supplied to British forces in WW2, having been superseded early in the war by a more efficient tin-opening tool. It is therefore assumed that Clayton Hutton re-introduced the older-style tin opener as a useful multi-purpose blade – including for opening tins.

2. the extension of the central liner to form a screwdriver as was common in the broad range of horseman’s and sportsman’s knives produced in Sheffield for at-least 80 -100 years prior and was also used on WW2 British Army and Navy clasp knives from 1939,

3. the replacement of the nickel silver scales with more utilitarian all-metal scales,

4. A ‘blued’ finish to all parts, and

5. The removal of all stamping so that the knife was ‘sterile’.

The illustration in Cole III (page 159 top) – see Appendix 2 to this Collector Note, clearly shows what an original “OSS/SOE Escape knife” should look like:

It is now generally acknowledged by collectors that there were possibly two Sheffield manufacturers of the Escape Knife, being Joseph Rodgers and Geo. Ibberson. It is assumed that knives produce by the two are almost identical – apart from one minor difference detailed in the section on Ibberson knives following.

Joseph Rodgers & Sons

The vast majority of the knives that are available to collectors appear to have been manufactured by Joseph Rodgers and Sons at their factory at No.6 Norfolk Street Sheffield. Collectors are fortunate that a well-known US collector William C. (Bill) Adams obtained several pre and post-production examples of the escape knife from the Joseph Rodgers factory in the late 1960s – which were then described and carefully illustrated by M. H. Cole[10] in his seminal series of books “U.S. Military Knives: Bayonets & Machetes” – specifically in “Book III” (published in 1979) – of which the relevant pages 158 (also annotated by me) and 159 are copied in full in Appendix 2 to this Collector Note. The dates of the illustrations appear to be 1971 and 1972. Cole’s description on page 159 is well-worth repeating here, as follows: “These knives belong to William C. Adams of Atlanta who obtained them from the Joseph Rodgers factory in Sheffield England. Mr Adams stated he talked to the old-time factory workers who told him these knives were made for the Americans during W.W. II and that Joseph Rodgers was the only maker of these knives”. More recent documentation as described elsewhere in this Collector Note (and as noted also be Cole) suggest that this latter comment may not be correct – see section on Geo. Ibberson following.

It is also important to note that the illustration numbering 1 – 5 of these pre and post-production knives (including the production “issue knife”) prepared by Cole – are for illustrative purposes only (i.e. by Cole) and are not part of any formal numbering system by Rodgers – as has erroneously been inferred by commentators/sellers in the past.

An interesting observation of the illustrations on Coles III page 158 is that the main blade of the knife in illustration 1 (which is described as being “made from parts on hand”) has the blade stamping “JOSEPH RODGERS & SONS” which is consistent with the stamping on the main blade of the earlier Rodgers “sawblade” knife discussed above, whereas the main blade of the knife in illustration 4 has the stamping “G crown R” together with the text “JOSEPH RODGERS & SONS CUTLERS TO HIS MAJESTY SHEFFIELD *+ ENGLAND”. This is a blade stamping that was in more common usage in post-WW2 – 1950s era Joseph Rodgers’ knives and is discussed further in that section of this Collector Note.

There are another two important documents relevant to the development of the escape knife that have been brought to my attention – courtesy of Ron Flook, as follows:

1. The first is an article “Knives of the OSS” by Adrian Van Dyk (a “noted military collector and military knife expert” in USA) in the May/June, 1975 edition of American Blade magazine[11] (see copy attached in Appendix 3 and 4), which shows a photo of seven of the knives believed to have been sourced by Bill Adams from the Joseph Rodgers factory in the late 1960s – four of which are illustrated in Cole III – see above, and which are also referenced elsewhere in this Collector Note where relevant.

2. The back cover of November 2000 sales catalog for North West Knives and Collectibles[12] which shows five of the knives from the Adrian Van Dyk collection that were available for purchase – see Appendix 5 which also includes details of the proposed sale items.

The following photo shows an unused unsharpened Escape Knife in my collection that is totally consistent with the detailed description of the “all purpose” knife in the “Secret Agent’s Handbook of Special Devices” referenced in the “DESCRIPTION” section of this Collector Note, and also with illustration 5 “all metal not marked issue knife” in Cole III page 158 (see illustration above).

Moyse and Shadbolt in their article: “The Elusive MI9 Escape Knife have also noted that there are examples of the escape knife with the letter Mstamped at the bottom of the inside arm of the wire cutter”. The knife in the adjacent photo is similarly stamped – see following photo. My other example of this knife (which is in ‘relic’ condition) is not so marked.

Note that the Adrian Van Dyk article (see Appendix 3) suggests that the M stamped knife “is thought to be a pattern piece that was used to check against production specimens to see if they conformed to specifications. The “M” is thought to stand for “model” or “master“. Also, Cole’s illustration of what is assumed to be this same knife refers to it as: “No.2 Factory Pattern – all metal is bright except the three saw blades”. Given however that one of my knives is similarly stamped, and to the best of my knowledge was the property of an Australian commando officer during WW2, it is probable that such M” stamped knives were not a one-off or factory pattern example.

Geo. Ibberson & Co.

In an on-line article: “The Fanciful World of OSS Weapons & Equipment” by Les Hughes (source: the author provides details on how to distinguish between Ibberson escape knives and Rodgers escape knives – as follows: “A number of years ago, Mr. Billy Ibberson told me the way to do it. He said: “The Rodgers knives have a pretty sharp point on the backs of the saw blades. We smoothed ours off; ours have a slight curve“. I have not physically inspected an actual example of an assumed Ibberson escape knife, and an on-line search of Google Images (search: OSS/SOE escape knives) indicates that most images are clearly of knives having “a pretty sharp point on the backs of the saw blades” (i.e. they are Joseph Rodgers knives).

There is however one obvious example – shown in Silvey’s book “Pocket Knives of the United States Military[13] (page 77) where all of the “backs of the saw blades … [have] a slight curve”. See photo following:

It is interesting to speculate whether most of the knives with a “slight curve” to the backs of the saw blades are held by US collectors, which could indicate that the Ibberson knives were supplied to the OSS. Such a conclusion is also supported by Cole III page 159 in the following terms “NOTE: it is also said that Geo. Ibberson of Sheffield made the O.S.S. Escape Knife”. Flook has advised that in-reality the OSS “obtained them from the British … with only very few being asked for or received”. Flook’s point being that OSS did not contract directly with a UK manufacturer but sourced the knives from the UK Ministry of Supply, and that the actual number supplied to the OSS was small.

To add to the confusion however, there are examples of Escape Knives found in a Google Images search that appear to show both the sharp and rounded condition on the hacksaw blades on the one knife. The adjacent photo is of an Escape knife in my collection. It is in ‘relic’ condition but two of the hacksaw blades have clearly been rounded on the topside – perhaps a field modification by the original owner?

A word of caution: my notes here regarding Ibberson are gathered from known sources (i.e. not from any original research by me) and therefore are not a basis for forming definitive conclusions. In line with other commentators, I concur with the view that Ibberson’s role in the manufacture of the escape knife is still a matter of conjecture. I am aware of research undertaken by Dr John Brenner regarding the OSS escape knife – and published in his book “OSS Weapons” but have not seen a copy. This is an issue that deserves more detailed research in term of the role of the Ibberson knife in the total OSS/SOE narrative.