The secret compass hidden behind a pair of WW2 trouser buttons

What at first appear to be two innocuous-looking trouser buttons are, in fact, something entirely different.

The items belong to Sheila Webb, the daughter of a member of Bomber Command who was shot down during a bombing raid over Germany in 1943.

Almost 80 years later, her father's trouser buttons have become an internet sensation after a video of them was viewed more than a million times on Twitter.

Ian Crichton was shot down while returning from a bombing raid on Berlin. He survived thanks to a parachute but suffered a broken leg while falling to the ground.

Unknown to Ian then, his broken leg had very likely saved his life. 

Realising escape was unlikely, Ian handed himself in. He was eventually sent to the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III – the camp at the centre of the Great Escape. 

Nursing his broken leg in plaster for two months, he was not part of the escape but was aware it was happening.

As the famous film depicts, many of those who escaped were later rounded up and shot by the Gestapo. 

Sheila Webb at International Bomber Command Centre
Sheila Webb's father, Ian Crichton, kept the special trouser buttons after the war.

But how do the magic trouser buttons Sheila holds all these years later fit into her father's story?

The answer lies in a highly secret department that formed part of Britain's War Office during the Second World War.

Until 1945, Mi9 (the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section Nine) had a significant role in helping allied servicemen evade capture if they found themselves behind enemy lines.

But they also had a duty to the men, like Ian Crichton, who were being held as prisoners of war in places like Stalag Luft III.

Peter Jones is an archivist at the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln. He recently met Sheila to tell her more about her father's trouser buttons.

"The two masterminds of Mi9 were Christopher Hutton and John Fraser Smith, and they were the geniuses, as it were, that produced all of these gadgets," he said.

Ian Crichton's Belongings from WW2
Sheila keeps her late father's wartime belongings in a special box and hopes they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Ian told Sheila that Mi9 used to regularly make up fake charities and welfare organisations so they could send aid packages into the camps for the captured men.

Unknown to the German guards, they were secretly smuggling in items that could aid the prisoners in their escape.

Sheila's father's buttons were one such example of this.

Peter went on to describe how Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels and one of the most respected spy-writers in history, had links to Britain's secret services. 

He said: "It's not beyond the realms of science fiction to say that Ian Fleming may well have found them inspirational, and that's where Q came from."

Sheila's son-in-law, Paul Kirkley, recently shared a video of the buttons and their hidden talent on social media. The short clip of the Second World War invention was watched more than a million times.

Eighty years on, Sheila said she is proud her late father's buttons have secured so much interest.

She now hopes to make them available, alongside his other war belongings and documents, for future generations to enjoy again and again.