Monopoly in history: the Secret Service's use of games to rescue POWs during war
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
More by this Author
The power of the carrot first came into play with the installation of airborne interception radar (AIR) in planes of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II. Before the use of AIR, the British were being...
Few people are aware of how black widow spiders contributed to the World War II effort, but they had a significant impact. In fact, a LIFE magazine article published on August 30thof 1943 credited each of several...
Sarah Orne Jewett and Ernest Hemingway both use nature to develop the main characters in their short stories.