This story is thanks to a submission by Roger Nichols, former Flight Captain of the El Paso Daedalians, and a long-time FASF enthusiast and member. The following is from an Internet Fact-Checking group, “Truth or Fiction,” which ascertained the truthfulness of a number of similar fact-based stories about this interesting aspect of WWII. This summarizes their own research into the tale:
The Monopoly board game was created in 1933 by Charles Darrow who approached Parker Brothers regarding the marketing of the game. At first, Parker Brothers turned him down but two years later purchased the game from Darrow and today it is one the most popular board games in the world.
Silk maps of Germany, Italy, Norway and Sweden did exist during the Second World War, according to an article written by Debbie Hall for the Map Forum magazine in 1999. Debbie Hall has a special interest in silk maps and was the Map Curator at the British Library, where some of these silk maps are currently on display.
According to the article, The Waddington PLC company in England manufactured playing cards and game boards including the ones for Monopoly that were marketed in Great Britain. Monopoly games were sent to British prisoners of war in Germany by the International Red Cross. According to Hall, Silk maps of the area were hidden in the games along with special features such as a file and compass, made to look like game pieces, along with real currency hidden in the monopoly play money to aid the prisoners in their escape.
This was not the plan of MI-5 , however, but rather an idea from another branch of the British secret service. Hall explained that in 1939, the British government had set up an agency designated as MI-9 whose primary mission was to assist resistance fighters behind enemy lines and recover Allied troops being held prisoner.
MI-9 developed the military policy of escape and evasion and that it was the “duty of all those captured to try to escape if possible.” Hall said, “One man who was behind many of M19’s most ingenious plans, including the Waddington project, was Christopher Clayton-Hutton.” This agency found out that the Waddington Company had the technology to print maps on on silk and made a special request of the company. Silk maps made no noise, took up very little space and could be folded into a garment or hidden in a package of cigarettes. A tiny compass was also hidden in uniform buttons and used as a tool for escape in case a pilot was shot down behind enemy lines.
Truth or Fiction recently spoke to Bill Knowles, a former Canadian pilot who flew with the RAF on D Day. Knowles told us that, druing the latter days of the conflict in Europe, any escape routes and safe house information were generally memorized by pilots, by the time he was flying missions, and that no un-coded information would have been printed on anything that could have been intercepted by the enemy as that could have endangered all involved in these types of operations.
The British Official Secrets Act is what bound everybody involved to secrecy and we have sent an inquiry to the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK to verify if this story has truly been de-classified and no longer confidential.
Here’s one of most popularly circulated stories about this Monoply game scheme on today’s Internet, and it actually appears to be fact-based and essentially true:
Starting in 1941, an increasing number of British airmen found themselves as the involuntary guests of the Third Reich, and the authorities were casting-about for ways and means to facilitate their escape. Now obviously, one of the most helpful aids to that end is a useful and accurate map, one showing not only where-stuff-was, but also showing the locations of ‘safe houses’, where a POW on-the-loose could go for food and shelter. Paper maps had some real drawbacks: They make a lot of noise when you open and fold them, they wear-out rapidly and if they get wet, they turn into mush.
Someone in MI-5 (actually, the project ended up in a new branch of the spy agency: MI-9) got the idea of printing escape maps on silk. It’s durable, can be scrunched-up into tiny wads, and unfolded as many times as needed, and makes no noise what-so-ever. At that time, there was only one manufacturer in Great Britain that had perfected the technology of printing on silk, and that was John Waddington, Ltd.
When approached by the government, the firm was only too happy to do its bit for the war effort. By pure coincidence, Waddington was also the U.K. Licensee for the popular American board game, Monopoly. As it happened, ‘games and pastimes’ was a category item qualified for insertion into ‘CARE packages’, dispatched by the International Red Cross, to prisoners of war.
Under the strictest of secrecy, in a securely guarded and inaccessible old workshop on the grounds of Waddington’s, a group of sworn-to-secrecy employees began mass-producing escape maps, keyed to each region of Germany or Italy where Allied POW camps were located (Red Cross packages were delivered to prisoners in accordance with that same regional system). When processed, these maps could be folded into such tiny dots that they would actually fit inside a Monopoly playing piece.
As long as they were at it, the clever workmen at Waddington’s also managed to add:
1. A playing token, containing a small magnetic compass,
2. A two-part metal file that could easily be screwed together.
3. Useful amounts of genuine high-denomination German, Italian, and French currency, hidden within the piles of
British and American air-crews were advised, before taking off on their first mission, how to identify a ‘rigged’ Monopoly set by means of a tiny red dot, one cleverly rigged to look like an ordinary printing glitch, located in the corner of the Free Parking square! Of the estimated 35,000 Allied POWS who successfully escaped, an
estimated one-third were aided in their flight by the rigged Monopoly sets.
Everyone who did so was sworn to secrecy Indefinitely, since the British Government might want to use this highly successful use in still another, future war.
The story wasn’t de-classified until 2007, when the surviving craftsmen from Waddington’s, as well as the firm itself, were finally honoured in a public ceremony. Anyway, it’s always nice when you can play that ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.
**** Your editor feels that any listing concealed in the “CARE” packages distributed via the Red Cross would NOT have included any lists of “Safe Houses,” since doing so would expose those who kept such safe havens open and active could be far too easily revealed, thereby posing a direct threat to their lives, not to mention terminating their underground activities.
Here is a fascinating site, almost exclusively dedicated to those famous escape maps from WWII.
If you have any other information about this piece of WWII history, please let us know and we’d be glad to print it here. Or, if you have any information to add to this story, please do share it with us. Thanks!