When Monopoly Helped Allied POWs Escape In World War II

“We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch this basket carefully.” —Colonel von Luger, “The Great Escape” (1963)

In A Nutshell

Boredom proved to be quite a problem in World War II prisoner-of-war camps, and the Germans allowed charity groups to pass on board games to the Allied prisoners in an attempt to keep them placid. A fake charity (actually M19), distributed innocent-looking Monopoly games to prisoners. Inside the board itself, the tiny hotels, and other pieces, prisoners found German money, maps printed on silk, and escape kits. These kits helped thousands of men to escape.

The Whole Bushel

In 2007, the British government decided to declassify a great war story. When it came to rescuing their estimated 135,000 war prisoners from the Germans, the British poured some tea and conceived an ingeniously unorthodox plan.

British secret service knocked on the door of Norman Watson, who had two things they wanted. He owned the country’s only Monopoly game factory and he owned the only company in Britain that had mastered the art of printing on silk. Together, the popular board game and silk became part of the hugely successful escape kit smuggled to Allied POWs.

A secret service agent named E.D. Alston informed Watson that the plan was to hide useful items inside Monopoly boxes. The most important of these pieces was a map made of silk. Silk charts topped their paper cousins by being silent. Imagine trying to open a smuggled map but the paper’s rustling alerts the guards. Or, once on the run, it might dissolve or smudge from rain or sweat.

It’s the sort of thing that could get a man killed or lost. Silk maps were also able to be folded into really tiny shapes, which made them perfect for the Monopoly scheme. For Germany alone, the secretive factory produced an assortment of maps, one for each of the areas surrounding the six German POW camps.

Games were rigged with other essentials a prisoner would need to escape. Tools such as a compass, money, and other survival items—all in miniature—were tucked away inside the tokens, hotels, and even inside the board. Production happened in a sealed-off part of the factory where workers were sworn to absolute secrecy. Fearing reprisals from the Germans if the factory’s part in the war became known, nobody yapped. (It probably helped that they were under threat of going to prison should anyone share the story outside the factory.)

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To the German eye, the games delivered to their prisoner camps truly seemed normal. But British POWs knew what to look for.

While still free men, they had been taught that in case of capture they had to be on the lookout for parcels from charity groups visiting their camps. These would be fake humanitarian groups since the secret service did not want to compromise the Red Cross. Called the “special edition,” prisoners looked for Monopoly boards with a red spot on the Free Parking block.

Since the POWs were kept in different countries, not all Monopoly games were printed in the same way. Distributors learned to read the fine print—a single period placed at different addresses.

If the board’s Mayfair property had a dot, the game was meant for Norway, Germany, or Sweden. A period after Marylebone Station meant Italy. It was crucial to get the right boxes to the right countries because of the money inside. Having currency from a different country could trip up an escaped soldier’s chances of freedom.

Inspection of games that passed on to the prisoners couldn’t have been that thorough since real money was simply placed underneath the game’s fake money. It was a risky move, but currency was worth crucial to someone on the run who needed it for food, shelter, and bribes.

Hundreds of thousands of silk maps showing the way to friendly territory were distributed by the fake charities. Thirty-five thousand Allied prisoners broke out of camps and found their way home before the end of the war. While it can’t be precisely calculated, historians feel that at least 10,000 of them used the Monopoly kit.

Show Me The Proof

ABC News: Get Out of Jail Free—Monopoly’s Hidden Maps
Military History Now: How Allied Fliers Used Monopoly to Escape From German POW Camps
“Boardwalk and Park Place go to War!” by Patrick Tillery

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