Most of us have heard of or played Monopoly and more often than not we’ve fought with each other over playing it. Many family rows have been fought over who was sneaking whom money and how the banker can’t count. However, despite these grave accusations, Monopoly did play a life or death role for some prisoners of war during World War II.
As bombing runs over occupied territory heated up, by 1941 many British Airman found themselves “guests” of the Third Reich in prison camps that sprang up all over Germany. Escape attempts were inevitable. Section Nine of the British Directorate of Military Intelligence in the War Office, or MI9, was a secret department created to aid prisoners of war and resistance groups in occupied territory. Mulberry leaf paper or cloth maps were hidden the heels of boots or in packs of cigarettes. They found that printing maps on silk was the best way as the silk didn’t rustle, could be easily wadded up and didn’t disintegrate in water. Waddington’s in Leeds, England was one of the few companies that could do this type of printing, and they were more than happy to do their bit for the war effort.
However, they could not be sure these would get to the prisoners or would not be confiscated or destroyed. Christopher Clayton Hutton, a member of MI9 who instigated many of their plans, came up with brilliant idea of using a provision of the Geneva Convention to get these materials to the POWs. “Games and pastimes” was an approved part of “CARE packages” that were allowed to be sent to the POW camps. As it happened, John Waddington’s also was the manufacture of game boards and game pieces, namely the British version of Monopoly. In the strictest of secrecy the plan was born.
If the POWs received a Monopoly board with a red dot on corner of the Free Parking space, that meant it was rigged with escape tools. Silk maps were hidden in the Monopoly boards, one of the game pieces was magnetic and could be used as a compass. Real money was hidden among the colorful monopoly money. Some of the game pieces were also made of gold so they could be pawned. There was also a two part file that could be put together to saw through metal. The air squadrons were briefed on the existence of these game boards and how to use them if they were captured. They were taught destroy the boards after the escape materials were removed to keep the guards from catching on to where they were coming from.
Once a few boards started getting through, a system was developed so that the POWs would know what maps were in each board. Debbie Hall, a prominent researcher into the silk maps, describes the system as this, “A full stop after Marylebone Station, for instance, meant Italy; a stop after Mayfair meant Norway, Sweden and Germany, and one after Free Parking meant Northern France, Germany and its frontiers. “Straight” boards were marked “Patent applied for” with a full stop.” MI9 was very careful about how these packages got to the POWs. They did not want to risk Red Cross Packages or packages from home being refused, so they created an elaborate system of false names and buildings the games came from.
It is unknown how many airmen were helped to escape by these cleverly hidden tools. However, it does give a new meaning to a Get out of Jail Free card.