Web of intrigue: How spiders helped us win the war

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Spiders are sometimes unwelcome house guests but those who view them as a nuisance are probably unaware creepy crawlies from Yorkshire were once used to support the country’s war effort.

As the country commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain a retired Leeds optical technician has revealed how the business where he worked used strands spun in a spider’s web to help soldiers accurately fire their guns during the early years of the war. The spiders themselves were gathered from the North York Moors and safely returned when their web was spun in a matchbox.

Ken Bass, who started work as a teenager at Kershaws, an optical company in Harehills, Leeds, recalls how the spiders - regarded as a nuisance by some - actually helped to solve a wartime problem.

Strands from spiders webs were flexible and found to be much more robust than the wires traditionally used in gun sights - which are used to help line up a shot accurately.

“We used to use them for gun sights because they did not break with the vibrations.

“This was very, very early in the Second World War in the early 1940s,” Mr Bass, who lives on the outskirts of Leeds, said.

Vibrations caused by firing the gun often caused the thin wire target line to snap, making the weapon inaccurate but after much deliberation staff at Kershaws decided to use cobwebs on the gun sights. Mr Bass, isn’t sure what type of spiders were used, but recalls staff would travel to the North York Moors to find the type of large spider they required.

They would then be popped in a matchbox, taken to Kershaws to spins their webs, and then returned to the moors, again in a matchbox, having done their bit for the country’s war effort.

Mr Bass admits he was “surprised” when he first learned about the wartime effort of the insects.

“I know they went to the North York Moors, It was a large spider that spun a bigger web than a tiny spider. It was a type of spider that lived there but I don’t know the name of it all I know is that they were given to me in a matchbox,” Mr Bass said.

He said the spiders were then invited to spin their webs across a wire frame back at Kershaws. Once their valuable work was completed the creepy crawlies were returned to their usual North Yorkshire habitat.

Mr Bass, a retired optical technician, camera repairer and businessman, began working at Kershaws, an optical company, in Harehills, when he was a teenager. Kershaws was later taken over by Rank Optics.

His interest in optical equipment and technicalities grew over the years until eventually he and a colleague opened a shop in Lower Briggate under the name of Bass & Bligh where they repaired all manner of cameras, flashlight units,

binoculars and telescopes and re-conditioned and sold ex-government optical stock.

Eventually, technology took over and advances in design meant the spiders were no longer needed and retired by the company. Instead instruments were etched with the fine lines needed for firing accurately. “In the event they stopped using wires because they found a method of etching the glass graticules,” Mr Bass said.

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