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ISSUE 111 - March 2010
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By David Rose
San Diego, California

You may have seen the story circulating in the emails; about how the Monopoly board game played a major role in the escapes of allied POW’s from German prison camps during the Second World War. The story goes that the British Secret Service, MI-5, went to Waddington’s, the company who marketed the Monopoly game in England, and developed a ‘special’ version of the game to be distributed by the International Red Cross to POW’s in Europe. The story claims these games had hidden within them a number of articles to assist escaping prisoners finding their way back to Allied lines.

In heavily guarded workshops at the Waddington factory were produced the various pieces of escape paraphernalia which were then secreted within the games.

Silk maps were hidden within the playing tokens; compass pieces were to be found within the folds of the game board, European currency was hidden among the play money and the locations of ‘safe houses’ were displayed on game cards. Only in 2007 was the British War Secrets Act protection of the story lifted in order that the government might honor Waddington and the surviving workers who participated in the program.

What a great story.

I discovered it among my emails and read it with interest. I also did some background checking on the story, as I always do with ‘great’ stories from the internet. I found however to my surprise that ABC News had carried an in depth report on the story and that no less a source than branded the story ‘True’. Not only that, but various reports on the story quote Victor Watson, chairman of Waddingtons, as stating that they had a secret department which produced the escape paraphernalia and placed them in recesses on the game board. Published in 2004 “The Game Makers”, a history of the Parker Brothers Company who originated the Monopoly game, told of how the British and Waddingtons had produced the ‘escape’ versions of Monopoly and had them distributed by the Red Cross.

I even came across an Associated Press article released in 1985 which reported the whole story and even quoting surviving POW’s familiar with the games.

Plus! You will find that Hasbro, who manufacture the Monopoly games today, on their official history of the game site at carry the following statement.

“Escape maps, compasses and files were inserted into MONOPOLY® game boards smuggled into POW camps inside Germany during World War ll. Real money for escapees was slipped into the packs of MONOPOLY® money” I mean, they make the things. You’ve got to believe them, right? The story must be true!
Really? I thought; but I couldn’t help but wonder.

Call me a skeptic if you will, but I like to remember that ‘some things are just obvious’.

Obvious first of all is that, from my extensive exposure to the worlds military, I learned that no secret that could be intercepted by an enemy is ever written or printed un-coded. That fact alone pretty well eliminates all the ‘safe house’ references.

Safe houses, safe areas, they’re never written down; we would memorize them just as the aircrews over Europe did during the Second World War.

The same can be said for ‘escape routes’. There certainly were maps in the camps, mostly ‘printed’ by the POW’s themselves. Read Philip Evan’s matter of fact account of life as a POW which includes an extensive report on their ‘map printing processes’. You would never find a map marked with a recommended escape route.

Most accounts of the story have the Red Cross delivering the games in their packages which the Germans allowed the POW’s to receive. I however, can’t accept that anyone within the Red Cross would ever have allowed their neutrality to be jeopardized by their being used to smuggle escape paraphernalia into the camps. It’s well known that the Germans always had a man assigned to oversee the unpacking of all packages prior to their contents being distributed within the camps.

As for files and compasses, how useful is a tiny file which, when assembled from the several pieces described in various accounts, is still a tiny file; and used to file what? There was no need to jeopardize anything by smuggling in a compass when a compass can, with a little patience, be made simply by repeatedly rubbing a needle. It takes time, but one thing they had in abundance, they had time.

Wouldn’t you want one of those Monopoly sets as a souvenir, even if you hadn’t been a POW? And if you had been, wouldn’t it be something to have? Wouldn’t you like to see one?

But there aren’t any. They were all destroyed after the war to “protect the secret for use in future wars”, goes the official story; along with comments that “the games were destroyed after the escape paraphernalia was removed”. Fine. But why destroy the games ‘to protect the secret’, after the stuffs been removed?

Sorry ABC. Sorry Snopes. Sorry Truth or Fiction. And especially, sorry Hasbro. But nothing in this story makes much sense to me.

Finally, the following:

A writer, claiming to be an archivist from Waddingtons, responded to an article on the subject by Ben Macintyre in the London Times. This gentleman stated that while Waddingtons did indeed produce many maps on silk for the Government during the war, none were ever enclosed in Red Cross parcels or anything like that. They were given to private organizations who found it difficult enough to smuggle them into the camps.

I even find that exchange suspect.

The true truth is that men such as Christopher Clayton-Hutton did work for MI9 and did design and manufacture escape aids for RAF officers during WWII. These escape aids fitted into two categories: 'pre-capture' devices and those surreptitiously sent to POW's through a network of fake aid organizations.

An example of Clayton-Hutton’s work were the aircrew’s flying boots. They were just too distinctive looking for an escapee. Hutton designed boots which contained a tiny blade in a cloth loop at the top of the boot, allowing the wearer to detach the bottom part which created ordinary looking walking shoes. In addition, the laces contained a powerful 'Gigli' saw and hidden in the heel were silk maps a compass and a small file. Another of the MI9 devised aids were cardboard chess sets.

These little chess sets contained a prisoner of war escape kit. The white bishop here reveals a tiny compass hidden inside and a silk map is concealed within the cardboard tube. These chess sets were sent to POW camps throughout World War II by MI9 and government department CT6, to aid in prisoner escapes.

Virtually none of the kits still exist. This set, without its board, sold at Bonham's auction house in Oxford on December 12, 2006. Robin Lucas, Bonham's resident expert on militaria, stated that the sets were not very durable so "it's amazing any have survived".

Charles Fraser Smith of the secret department CT6, along with Christopher Clayton-Hutton of MI9 were each responsible for designing the methods by which escape kits could be sent to camps. They never tampered with Red Cross parcels as is widely reported, but sent the games from fictitious London addresses. Messages written on the packages and printed labels would carry clues for prisoners.  On this chess set the name 'Ajax' alludes to the 'Trojan Horse'. Three kisses in the message 'Many happy hours, all my love Dorothy xxx' which was written on the tube, could have indicated the compass was hidden in the third piece inside. Another sign of the escape aids contained was the phrase 'Patent applied for' and a large full stop point. It is not known how this set ended up back in Britain.

It turns out that the POW’s themselves were the most ingenious in forging papers, making German uniforms and civilian clothing, and fabricating compasses and back packs from their own uniforms and equipment.

Speaking of POW escapes, you might be interested in reading the famous nonfiction account of a group of POW’s held in Colditz Castle, where the Germans incarcerated high value prisoners. Unfortunately for the Germans, high value often meant high energy, high intelligence and a high desire to escape. Those held there proved among the best escape artist of all.

Read their exploits in “Escape From Colditz” (or put the movie version on your NetFlix queue)

So much for the Monopoly game story ----

But then, what is the significance of this photo?!

By David Rose

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