Monopoly in history: the Secret Service's use of games to rescue POWs during war

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How it All Began

During World War II thousands of Allied forces, both American and British, were captured and held behind German enemy lines.

The Germans were challenged to provide for their own troops at this time, and caring for foreign captives only put further demands on already limited resources.

German leadership, aware that shortages and the resulting starvation of the imprisoned would be in direct violation of the Geneva Convention, willingly began accepting goods from charitable organizations abroad, such as the Red Cross.

There appeared to be little downside to keeping prison camps stocked with donated supplies: These supplies would not only help them comply with international laws but also enable them to focus on the needs of their own soldiers.

The German authorities had no clue that the captured British and American soldiers awaited donated packages with an eagerness inspired by more than just an empty stomach; the Allied prisoners knew that, tucked between food and other provisions, the British secret service had placed a cleverly disguised key to their escape, hidden in the most unlikely of places.


a World War II silk-made map of Milan
a World War II silk-made map of Milan | Source

Monopoly

Monopoly board games, a seemingly harmless addition to donated UK supplies, are credited with helping approximately 10,000 Allied soldiers escape foreign imprisonment.

The games readily made it past inspections, as guards were happy to give the captives something with which to occupy themselves. And, to throw off suspicion, several of the games were, in fact, of little use other than for that.

However, in select Monopoly boxes marked with an identifying red dot on the “parking space” section of their boards, there was much, much more they had to offer.

In these specially labeled games, carefully carved compartments held files, compasses, and silk-made maps that displayed locations of safe houses along a calculated path to freedom. For further assistance either German, French and/or Italian currency was hidden beneath the game’s multi-colored Monopoly-brand money.

Through extensive networking and organization, unique and regionally-appropriate maps and currency were shipped to soldiers held in several German prison camps in different locations.

Almost one third of soldiers who escaped foreign jails are believed to have been able to do so because of these supplies.


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Experts in Deception

This deception was never discovered by the Germans, and even if it had been, it is unlikely it would have been traced back to its instigators.

Fake charities with headquarters in bombed-out buildings were created by the British to protect the legitimate ones, such as the Red Cross, and to lead to a sure dead-end.

John Waddington Ltd., the company licensed by Parkers Bros. to manufacture Monopoly games in the UK and that worked directly with the British Secret Service to produce the disguised escape kits, employed only a few individuals for this small-scale and highly classified process, all who worked behind closed doors in a secret room within their factory.

These John Waddington Ltd. employees also had access to and experience with technology enabling them to print on silk, an ideal material for military maps as it is tear-proof, water-proof, and most importantly, rustle-proof. The British secret service involved very few individuals, minimizing security threats, because the same employees both printed the maps and manufactured the board games in which to hide them, expertly performing the two processes all within one room of a very large toy factory.

Further, only one officer from the British secret service communicated with John Waddington Ltd. and he alone placed orders with its president. Fulfilled orders were never directly sent to the War Office but to a specific office at the Kings Cross Station for pick-up instead.

Those involved in this secret enterprise were forbidden to talk of it, even years after the war had ended.

Every single specialized game was destroyed following the war, and to this day, only a few of the original John Waddington Ltd manufactured maps remain.

The technology was aggressively protected in case a situation occurred in which it would again be needed.


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The Secret Service and POWs

The creation of the maps for these escape kits shows a change in mentality about prisoners of war in World War II that contrasts with beliefs held in previous conflicts.

In the first World War it was considered dishonorable to be captured; victory or else death on the battlefield was every soldier's duty. And, if captured, the fight was considered over.

It wasn't until 1939 that the Secret Service started specializing in evasive or escape techniques and emphasized that a soldier's plan of action was to escape imprisonment if caught, and if successful, return home a war hero.


The Maps: A Closer Look

The maps created to assist in this process were copies of existing maps produced by the company Bartholomew's. Bartholomew's was more than willing to help in the war efforts and collected no compensation for this use of their copyrighted material.

The maps of silk, tissue, and radon were quite small, very detailed, and showed escape routes through friendly territories, bypassing enemy strongholds.

In addition, they also contained brief, practical advice for how to handle enemy encounters en route, such as techniques for throwing rocks.


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Other "sneaky" Items

Maps were also concealed in another board game: Snakes and Ladders, and hidden in card decks and pencils.

Compasses were contained in buttons and pens as well.

Even limestone tiles, oak, and pitch collected from cell floors, walls, and windows when combined with margarine and jam could be manipulated by soldiers to create a unique escape mechanism: a rudimentary printing press. It is believed around 500 maps were produced with one of these hand-made mechanisms before its discovery and destruction by German guards.



Sources


  1. Get Out of Jail Free: Monopoly's Hidden Maps by Ki Mae Heussner. Published Sept 18, 2009. Copyright: ABC News. Accessed at: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/monopolys-hidden-maps-wwii-pows-escape/story?id=8605905
  2. How Board Games Helped Free POWS by Brian McMahon. Published Dec 5, 2007. Copyright: CNN Living. Accessed at: http://articles.cnn.com/2007-12-05/living/mf.waropoly_1_allied-pows-monopoly-maps?_s=PM:LIVING
  3. Wall Tiles and Free Parking: Escape and Evasion Maps of World War II by Debbie Hall. Copyright: British Library. Accessed at: http://www.mapforum.com/04/escape.htm#3



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Comments 11 comments

Mr Archer profile image

Mr Archer 4 years ago from Missouri

Brilliant! I've never heard of this before. Where in the world did you hear about such a thing. You have a very informed and well written hub here. Great job.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

This is amazing. And to think the Germans and Italians never caught on. Very interesting article.


WhydThatHappen 4 years ago

This is a very cool story, thanks for sharing it.


bernard.sinai profile image

bernard.sinai 4 years ago from Papua New Guinea

Wow! I never knew this. Thanks for sharing this in your hub.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA

This is an interesting story. How did you find out about this? I think it is wonderful so many were able to escape this way.


NateB11 profile image

NateB11 4 years ago from California, United States of America

Very fascinating story about a rather ingenious plan. I never heard about this, I found it very interesting.


ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

Schatzie,

I find the shift in attitude between World War One and World War Two, as regards POW's, to be a fascinating one. I was unaware of the lengths the British Secret Service went to aid in the escape of prisoners. Very good stuff here!

Thanks,

Thomas


Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 4 years ago from US Author

Thank you Mr. Archer, UnnamedHarald, WhydThatHappen, bernard.sinai, Barbara Kay, NateB11, and ThoughtSandwiches for your kind comments!

To the several of you who asked where I had heard of this, I added my Sources section a bit after first publishing this hub and now have links to articles by ABC, CNN, and the British Library. They contain a few facts I left out of my article so if you want a few more fascinating details on this subject they make a great read.

I am glad you all found my hub interesting and thank you so much for taking the time to comment and leave me positive feedback! :)

Schatzie


Tashaonthetown profile image

Tashaonthetown 3 years ago from South Africa

Intersting information and I enjoyed reading your hubs!


OhMe profile image

OhMe 2 years ago from Pendleton, SC

Wow, this is so fascinating and I have never heard anything about the use of Monopoly during the war. Thanks so much for sharing.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 12 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Hello Pilar, a latecomer to appreciate your work. I've heard of these, most notably the Monopoly in connection with Colditz. Wasn't so much aware of any 'tricks' associated with Snakes & Ladders. I'm surprised Tiddly-winks was never utilised, although I don't know what that could be useful for.

One of my classmates from Scarborough (Yorkshire) Art School went to work at Waddington's at Leeds back in the late 60s in their artwork department. He probably heard about this from them.

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