AN ASTONISHING STORY of how the game of Monopoly secretly supplied ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cards to Allied prisoners of war proves, despite my initial misgivings, to be essentially true.
You may have seen versions of this story published in print over the years and even referred to in a BBC1 ‘Antiques Roadshow’ programme. I had not until, that is, our New York correspondent MURRAY FORSETER forwarded an email version of the story that had been passed to him. This was what it said. . .
FROM 1941 ONWARDS, an increasing number of British airmen found themselves ‘involuntary guests’ of the Third Reich, and the Chiefs of Staff were casting about for ways and means to facilitate their escape.
Obviously, one of the most helpful aids to that end was 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 run could find 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 turn into mush if they get wet.
Someone in MI5 (similar to America’s OSS) got the idea of printing escape maps on sik which is durable, can be scrunched up into tiny wads, unfolded as many times as needed and makes no noise whatsoever.
At that time, there was only one manufacturer in Great Britain who had perfected the technology of printing on silk: John Waddington Ltd., by pure coincidence the UK licensee for the popular American board game, Monopoly. Approached by the government, the firm was only too happy to do its bit for the war effort.
Now, as it happened, ‘games and pastimes’ was a category of items which qualified for insertion into Red Cross ‘care packages’, dispatched by the International Red Cross to prisoners of war by virtue of the Geneva Convention.
Under the strictest of secrecy, in a securely-guarded and inaccessible old workshop on the grounds of Waddington’s, a group of sworn-to-silence employees began mass-producing escape maps, keyed to each region of Germany or Italy where Allied POW camps were located.
When processed, these maps could be folded into such tiny volumes that they would actually fit inside a Monopoly playing piece. While they were at it, Waddington’s ingenious craftsmen also managed to add a playing token containing a small magnetic compass, a two-part metal file that could easily be screwed together and useful amounts of genuine high-denomination German, Italian, and French currency hidden within the piles of Monopoly money!
British and American air crews were advised, before taking off on their first mission, how to identify a ‘rigged’ Monopoly set: a tiny red dot, cleverly disguised as an overlooked 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 ruse in still another, future war.
The story wasn’t declassified until 2007, when the surviving craftsmen from Waddington’s, as well as the firm itself, were finally honoured in a public ceremony.
It’s always nice when you can play that ‘Get Out of Jail’ Free’ card!
MY STORY DOESN’T END THERE. . . a journalist is loathe to accept the most fantastic stories unchecked and there are many internet sites where a rudimentary check exposes common frauds and myths.
One of these is www.snopes.com; a quick consultation elicited the following confirmation:
THE GIST OF THIS ACCOUNT IS TRUE: maps and other useful escape items were smuggled to Allied POWs during World War II by hiding them in Monopoly game sets, although some of the finer details in this particular account may be inaccurate.
The general outline of the scheme to smuggle escape aids to POWs through specially manufactured Monopoly kits is recounted in (among other places) The Game Makers, a 2004 history of the US Parker Brothers game company:
When Allied airmen began to risk their lives flying missions over occupied Europe, Parker Brothers’ English partner found a way to use the Monopoly game to come to the aid of those who were captured by the Germans.
The British War Office worked with a select group of Waddington staffers to modify Monopoly boards for insertion in games that the Red Cross would deliver to Allied prisoners of war.
These men carved out precise depressions in the unfinished game boards and, before applying their labels, filled them with low-profile compasses, files and maps that depicted escape routes from the prison camp where each game was to be sent.
The maps were printed on silk because silk did not rustle when opened (Waddington’s had perfected this process to such an extent that virtually all British flyers climbed into their warplanes with a Waddington’s silk map secreted in the heel of one of their boots).
Hidden among the Monopoly play money was real currency — German, Italian, or Austrian. It is not known how many airmen escaped thanks to these Monopoly games.
Regardless of when it may have been officially declassified, information about the rigged Monopoly kits was openly acknowledged and discussed long before 2007. A 1985 Associated Press article, for example, reported that:
“Waddington, which received the license to distribute Monopoly in Britain in 1935 from Parker Brothers in the United States, got involved in aiding the prisoners of war because of its printing expertise. It printed maps for the military on durable silk.
Thousands of fliers who went on missions over German-occupied Europe had the maps sewn into their uniforms in case they were shot down and captured.”
Victor Watson, chairman of the firm, said Waddington had a secret department that put the maps, files and money in shallow recesses on the board under the paper face. Then MI9, the division of Military Intelligence devoted to helping POWs escape, smuggled the sets into prison camps as recreational equipment.
Powell Davies, a 19-year-old flier when he was captured, said the prison escape committees would destroy the sets after removing the escape aids to keep the guards from figuring out what was going on.
Although the account claims “an estimated one-third [of escaped POWs] were aided in their flight by the rigged Monopoly sets,” both The Game Makers excerpt quoted above and Waddington’s chairman said the number of POWs who were actually aided by the smuggled game kits is unknown.
Victor Watson, chairman of John Waddington company of Leeds, said: “We are not sure how many prisoners were able to escape by this method,” but the company liked to think a few did.
A former archivist with John Waddington also pointed out some discrepancies in the account in response to a 2007 Times recounting of the story:
“Sir, I write as the former archivist for John Waddington, the company which made Monopoly during the Second World War.
In his article about Monopoly, Ben Macintyre states that the special sets of Monopoly were sent to prison camps via the Red Cross. Waddingtons produced many escape aids which were sent to the Nazi prison camps, but these were always sent via private, often fictitious, organisations like the Licensed Victuallers Prisoner Relief Fund. No escape aids were enclosed in the Red Cross parcels, so that the Ghermans would have no justification for stopping these much-needed parcels from reaching the prisoners.
“It is untrue that safe houses were shown on the maps, as there was a virtual certainty that some of the maps would fall into German hands — the Germans were not fools when it came to tracking down prisoners’ ruses.”