Monopoly Games and Ping-Pong Paddles Helped POWs Escape the Nazis
U.S. and British spies had other tricks
During World War II, hundreds of prisoners of war in German camps relied on phony Monopoly games to smuggle real money, pieces of equipment that would help them escape actual prisons, and even maps that were the ultimate “get out of jail” cards once they got beyond the barbed wire.
Hiding escape and evasion devices in Monopoly games was just the start. American and British prisoners received a variety of secret gear that could help them make it home again. The idea was to hide the devices in plain view – and it didn’t hurt that a lot of the equipment was smuggled into POW camps with the help of the Geneva Conventions.
“You can try to be ever watchful, ever vigilant, but no one can be everywhere all the time,” Amanda Ohlke, adult education director for the International Spy Museum, told War Is Boring. “Using an innocuous cover always works wonders.”
World War II produced the modern intelligence and covert operations establishment. In the United States, there was the Office of Strategic Services – the forerunner of the CIA. In the United Kingdom, there was the Special Operations Executive, a “ministry of ungentlemanly warfare” formed by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.”
Both the OSS and SOE worked together to create fake charities, secret briefings for military personnel and easily hidden equipment for escaping captivity and evading enemy search parties.
The British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9 — a.k.a. MI9 — was in charge of helping with escapes by aiding stranded soldiers and communicating with POWs in captivity. The OSS developed its own section called MIS-X along the same lines.
Several factors worked in their favor. First, the Germans more often than not delivered parcels from the Red Cross and other charities to American and British POWs. The packages frequently contained food items that helped assist in the feeding of the prisoners, cutting German costs and honoring their end of the Geneva Conventions.
In addition, the Germans did not want thousands of bored prisoners on their hands. According to the logic of camp commandants, bored prisoners fomented escape plans, so it would be better if the POWs had some entertainment.
This category of charity packages fell under “games and pastimes.” It was a boon for the secret schemers at MI9, who were the first to modify board games to hold escape items. They knew that the German POW authorities allowed Allied charities to send packages under that category to prison camps.
Naturally, MI9 established a fake charity – the Licensed Victuallers Prisoners Relief Fund.
Under the strictest secrecy, MI9 conspired with John Waddington Ltd., Britain’s licensed Monopoly manufacturer, to hollow out sections of the game board to hide maps and tools. The spies marked red dots on the Free Parking space – an innocuous signal that the game truly was a “special edition.”
Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm pilots and crews received secret briefings that told them to look for the red dot. By the way, the real cash – usually German, Italian and French notes – hid beneath the stacks of fake Monopoly money.
Another hidden item was a technological marvel for the times. Maps printed on silk (later on rayon) were an innovation based on a new printing process that created an easily hidden navigation aid.
“A map like this could be concealed in a small place such as a cigarette packet or the hollow heel of a flying boot, did not rustle suspiciously if the captive was searched, and could survive wear and tear and even immersion in water,” wrote Debby Hall, a former cataloger in the British Library’s map room.
“The scheme was soon extended to cover those who had already been captured, although a certain amount of ingenuity was required to get the maps into the POW camps.”
MIS-X also hid maps inside of playing cards and ping-pong paddles. All you had to do was peel off the card’s back or the paddle’s rubber facing to find the charts. Soon, the Allies issued fabric escape maps to soldiers and airmen in all theaters of operation. The maps were often sewn into uniforms in an effort to hide them.
But a map is difficult to use without a compass. The answer to this problem was miniaturization.
Both MI9 and MIS-X made tiny magnetic compasses, some the size of a dime. In fact, they were so small that they could be easily hidden in belt buckles, disguised as cufflinks, or hidden in fly buttons.
Furthermore, the miniature compasses were often part of an entire escape and evasion kit issued by MIS-X. One such kit was the size of a pack of cigarettes, which not only hid a compass and silk evasion map but also concentrated emergency rations (usually malted milk tablets or toffees), a wire saw, matches, a razor blade and even Benzedrine “pep pills.”
Although historians knew about the existence of escape and evasion kits soon after the war, both the American and British military kept mum for decades about the use of games to smuggle escape items into prison camps.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that some of the methods were revealed in various press stories. According to some accounts, the British did not officially declassify information about board games as smuggling devices until 2007.
“No government should ever rush to reveal secret strategies that have been successful,” Ohlke said.
Furthermore, the British game-maker Waddington is quick to deny the claim that the modified games were smuggled via Red Cross packages. “No escape aids were enclosed in the Red Cross parcels, so that the Germans would have no justification for stopping these much needed parcels from reaching the prisoners,” a former company archivist told The Times in 2007.