A RADIOACTIVE tank compass used to make an astonishing escape from behind enemy lines in World War Two will go on display at The Tank Museum later this year.

Second Lieutenant Peter Vaux, Major Stewart Fernie and Lance Corporal Robert Burroughs were in a light tank at the Battle of Arras in May 1940 when they became separated from their battalion.

They found themselves behind enemy lines and mingled with German troops – they even had a traffic shunt which prompted a German officer to clear the road and wave them on.

Vaux later recalled the moment he realised they were in trouble and planned their escape.

He wrote: “I was completely paralysed with fear. Our petrol was almost finished so we made for a wood and deep in the undergrowth hid the tank.

“We destroyed the wireless set, smashed the guns and generally put the tank out of action.

“We then removed the P8 compass, the emergency rations and our greatcoats.”

They made for allied lines during a remarkable 11-day adventure, dodging German patrols, hiding in farms and scavenging for food.

At one point they were caught by a German officer and Vaux shot him dead at close range.

Throughout they used the luminous compass to get to the banks of the River Somme, where French soldiers were stationed on the other side.

In a bizarre twist they met Monsieur Gilis, a Belgian interpreter who dressed Vaux in civilian clothes, claimed he was a Flemish refugee and said they had been ordered to repair fences.

The ruse worked and the pair were able to cut a path to the river while taking notes on the whereabouts of the German patrols.

At night, the three crew set out to cross the river. As Major Fernie was the strongest swimmer Vaux gave him his supplies, including the compass, and uniform to take with him.

During the crossing Burroughs was swept downstream and drowned and Vaux and Fernie were separated. At the other side, Vaux walked up the river bank clad in just underpants and beret trying to find Fernie.

Exhausted he was picked up by French troops who fed and clothed him. He was later reunited with Fernie and the compass.

After reaching safety Vaux and Fernie were sent home. Vaux wrote: “On 5th June we left France and at 6am on 6th June caught our first glimpse of Weymouth Bay. Never, I think have I ever seen anything so beautiful.”

Tank Museum curator David Willey explained that compasses made for the tanks used radium paint so the markings would show up in the dark. The radium paint was radioactive and it degraded over time.

Mr Willey said: "As such an important object we really wanted to see this item on display so we obtained advice from the Defence Scientific and Technology Laboratory on how this might be achieved safely.

“Like so many objects in the museum – on its own as a Second World War era compass it is of little significance, but add the story its use in the escape it becomes a remarkable object."

The museum is currently closed due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

The compass will go on display as part of a new exhibition set to open later this year.