The experience of United Nations troops in the present
war has proved the necessity of every soldier's being
able to find his way over all types of terrain. The
chances of individuals or small groups becoming separated
from their units are much greater than in past
wars because the use of modern weapons forces a wide
dispersal of troops on the battlefield. Small groups
also must be sent out on reconnaissance and security
missions, and the safety or success of our forces depends
on the ability of these groups to find their way
back to their units--without much delay.
If you get lost, the worst thing you could do would
be to lose your head and get into a state of panic.
Sit down and think the situation over calmly. Where
could you have mistaken the way? Were your compass
calculations correct? Where could you get back on
your route? Nine times out of ten you can discover
where you have gone wrong, and find your way back.
This section deals with various ways and means of maintaining
direction. Most of the information is based on a lecture given
at the British Commando School by Maj. Lord Lovat, the British
officer who led the Commando raid against the Norwegian
island of Vaagso.1
2. WAYS AND MEANS
a. For Day or Night
Most of the practical ways and means to help in maintaining
direction may be used at night as well as during
the day, provided some form of light is available (and
no patrol should ever go out without some form of light).
(1) Compass.--The compass is the most valuable aid
in keeping direction, although experience shows that
it is usually impossible to use it when under enemy fire.
It also is unreliable in areas where there are lodestone
deposits, as in northern Norway. The compass needle
may also be deflected by such local objects as cap ornaments,
gas masks held in the ready position, and so on.
An oil compass which is remarkably accurate under
all conditions has been developed recently. It can be
reset on successive bearings at night without the aid of
a light--a great advantage over other compasses.
At night, during bad weather, among mountains, or
when under enemy observation, it is usually impossible
to unfold and examine a map. It is therefore better
to prepare a traverse card giving the distance and
compass bearings from point to point along the route. The
bearings should be taken off the map with a transparent
protractor and then converted. The distances
should be measured off the map in yards. By day and
by night every man should compare his paces against
a measured distance, up and down hill and along the
level. Distance can also be checked by estimation of
time--for instance, a man may know from experience
that he travels at 4 miles per hour on a level road
and 2 1/4 over rough country.
In thick mist, the party, if small, travels in single
file so that each man keeps in sight of the man in front
of him. The last man takes a bearing and sees that the
leader sets off in the right direction (the leader marches
on a definite point, or line of points, if visibility allows).
The man with the compass frequently checks the
distance and, after getting the attention of the leader,
signals him to the right or left by pointing. When the
leader is on line again, the man with the compass holds
his arm above his head. In this manner, a surprising
degree of accuracy can be attained, especially if each
leg of the traverse ends at some easily recognized place,
such as the top of a hill, a small lake or pond, or the
junction of two streams. An error of 50° often throws
one off only 150 yards to a mile.
(2) Maps.--From a map a soldier can memorize a
route by noting the outstanding features, such as ridges
and water courses. Much practice is needed in using
maps. It is very helpful to work out the easiest route
between two places over rough country, and then to
follow it exactly to see if it really is the best way. A good
map reader can actually visualize the country by
examining a map of it. He knows from the direction
of a slope what vegetation to expect, and whether a certain
route will be dry or wet underfoot.
(3) Trees.--The branches of trees grow away from
the direction of prevailing winds in exposed countries
and their roots are much more prominent on the windward
side. Therefore, by knowing the direction from
which these winds come, it is easy to determine the
approximate position of north, south, east, west, and
In many countries moss and lichen grow only on
the north (sunless) side of trees and rocks, and the
bark of trees usually is thicker on the north side.
(4) Wind.--The wind usually is fairly constant
at certain times of the day and year in most localities. One
of the best ways to find the exact direction
of the wind is to toss up a handful of dried grass or
a few loose strands pulled from a woolen garment
and allow them to float down. If clouds are used to
indicate the direction of wind, only those directly
overhead show the true direction. Even then, the
wind may be different higher in the sky. In country
covered with snow or sand, the angle of the drifts
shows the direction of the prevailing and subsidiary
winds. (Always move upwind if possible, because
you can hear the enemy better and he has greater
difficulty in hearing you. You can also detect suspicious
(5) Marks.--Following streams or ridges until you
reach an area in which you know your way is one
method to use if you are lost. If you are searching
for your camp, which you know lies on a river or trail
in a certain direction that you know roughly, do not
try to go directly toward it, but go definitely to one
side, so that when you reach the river or trail you
will know which way to turn for your camp.
A knowledge of tracking is a valuable asset and
provides much pleasure. A good tracker, on suitable
ground, can tell exactly what has occurred out of the
ordinary. He knows the number and formation of
the enemy, the speed of his movement, and many other
details that the average person would not be able to
determine. If you are following enemy tracks, be
careful that they do not lead you into an ambush.
At night there are various points to remember.
When a bearing has been taken, it is helpful to hold
a whitened (chalked) stick at about 45° as a prolongation
of the axis of the compass needle. The stick
will cut the horizon at a spot which can then be used
to march on. The compass reader then sends out an
assistant on the line until he is barely visible. Say,
for instance, he stops 160 yards out. The man with
the compass checks to see whether his assistant actually
is on line, and then proceeds to the new point. From
this spot another point on the horizon is selected,
and the assistant is directed to go 150 yards
in that direction and stop without any signal. The
compass reader repeats the same procedure as before,
and the group keeps on its bearing—advancing 150
yards at a time. To check the hundreds when counting
paces, it is a good idea to carry 10 pebbles or
matches in one pocket and transfer one to another
at the end of each hundred.
(6) Altimeter.--This instrument is useful as a check
as long as it is set at a known height. For example, if
a man is lost and finds himself at the top of a mountain,
at a crossroad, or some other spot which would be
shown on the map, a knowledge of the height of the
mountain or crossroad would help to identify it on the map.
b. For Day Only
(1) The Sun.--The sun, in the Northern Hemisphere, is
due south at midday. Since it moves 360° in 24 hours (15° per
hour), the south point can be found if the time is known.
A more accurate method is as follows: Stand a
pencil upright. (This can be done by sticking its base
onto a penny with sealing wax or wax from a candle.)
Draw a circle around it with a radius about as long as
the pencil. The shadow of the pencil will fall outside
the circle in the morning, will shorten as the sun rises
higher, will fall well within the circle at midday, and
will lengthen during the afternoon until it cuts the
circle a second time and again falls outside it. Mark
the point at which it cuts the circle (this will occur at
about 1000 hours and 1400 hours), bisect the line joining
these two points, and the true north line will run
from the base of the pencil through the center of this
line. This method is accurate within a few degrees.
(2) Sun compass.--The sun compass is essentially a
shadow compass, and must be reset at frequent intervals
as the sun's declination changes. It has immense
advantages over the magnetic compass for land navigation.
Entirely unaffected by its surroundings, it can
be made as accurate and precise as the operator desires.
It gives true bearings, is easy to read, and is more
sturdy. On the other hand, this compass can only be
used when the sun is shining and when so mounted that
the sun can fall on it unobstructed. Hence the compass
is the complement of, and not a substitute for, the magnetic
compass. Both must be available for the navigator,
who uses the sun compass whenever possible,
reserving the magnetic compass for sunless periods.
All types of sun compasses consist essentially of a
vertical needle set at the center of a horizontal plate
upon which the needle's shadow falls. The sun compass
has no deviation, but the direction of the shadow
(which corresponds to the variation in the magnetic
compass) changes widely, though in a definite way,
throughout the day, and at the same time of day from
week to week and from one latitude to another. The
sun compass, being liable to no errors, has long been
used at sea for checking the deviation of the ship's
magnetic compass. The sun's azimuth throughout the
day for all latitudes and declinations are given in azimuth
tables.2 The original setting and the corrections
on the sun compass are obtained from an almanac.
(3) Watch.--If you have a watch, point the hour
hand at the sun and bisect the angle between the hour
hand and 1200 hours. This will give you true south.
(After 1600 hours this angle must be measured in the
direction that the hour hand has already traveled.
(4) Study of Terrain.--Any group to be sent out over
terrain unfamiliar to them should make a careful study
on the map of the areas it may cover, fixing in mind
the general and prominent features and taking notes
on these for study en route. Members of the group
should observe the terrain carefully as they go out, in
order to become familiar with landmarks or any other
c. For Night Only
At night the sense of sound largely takes the place
of sight, and the sense of smell may also prove
valuable--especially with practice--in identifying the
presence of animals, or certain kinds of vegetation, or
the vicinity of water. At night, observe and remember
the shape of skylines.
Stars are an excellent aid in maintaining direction--the
greatest, in fact--and an intimate knowledge of them
relieves the loneliness and strangeness of solitary
work at night. A specialist's knowledge is needed to
find direction by the moon and planets.
The pole star is never more than 20 degrees away from
True North (the error is at its maximum when a line
joining the pole star to a point midway between
the two end stars of the handle of the plough, is vertically
above, or vertically below, the pole star). The
pole star can be seen from the pointers, from Cassiopeia, or--if the
north stars are all hidden--from Orion, although
Orion is out of sight from May 20 to July 20.
If stars are being used in a compass march, take one
at about 30 degrees altitude. If it is low, it may be lost
in mist and will disappear if you descend into a valley; and
if it is higher, you will get a crick in the neck by
constantly observing it. Do not forget that a star is
liable to swing in a counter-clockwise direction as much
as 15 degrees per hour.
d. In the Desert
One of the most striking resemblances of desert warfare
to naval warfare is in the widespread use of navigation.
Landmarks are few, and at night even these
few are practically impossible to see. Desert navigation
consists essentially of setting a course by compass
and following it by dead reckoning--that is, by
traveling a measured distance. Before commencing a
march, the destination is selected on the map, its compass
bearing is measured with a protractor, and its distance
is scaled off. The compass bearing is then set on
a sun compass, which is mounted on each vehicle.
Distance is measured on the odometer (a mileage indicator),
which must be carefully calibrated and kept
in adjustment. The odometer is geared for a tire of
a particular size. The navigator must therefore check
his mileage indicator against a measured distance along
a road with mile or kilometer marks, especially when
using oversize "sand" tires. He then obtains a correction
factor to be applied to all indicated distances. For
ordinary work this factor may be small enough to be
disregarded. In addition to the above constant-distance
error, the mileage indicated by the same vehicle
may vary by as much as 2 percent, according to the
terrain, the speed, and the load. A good navigator
tries to know his vehicle as quickly as possible.
Foot troops measure the distance marched by counting
paces or using a pedometer. If a dismounted
guide is used, several pace counters are employed. For
night travel, a unit can guide on a star, provided the
officers and men are trained to identify the stars and
planets, and know how they change their positions in
the heavens. A pocket chart is useful.
The marking of routes for night marches is accomplished
as follows: The route is reconnoitered, during
daylight hours if possible, and is marked. Each marker
consists of an oil can, set on top of a stake, with a light
inside the can. A small slit in one side of the can serves
as a marker; the dot of light can be seen for miles to
1 For details on how to use compasses and maps, see chapter 12 of
the Soldier's Handbook. Another excellent source for additional
information on how to maintain direction is a small book entitled Field
Navigation, Part I, Dead Reckoning, published by the Army Map
Service, Washington, D.C.
2 Azimuth: an arc of the horizon measured clockwise between a fixed
point (in navigation, usually the north point) and the vertical circle
passing through the center of an object.