I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Who would imagine that the board game Monopoly would play a part in helping Allied captives escape from German prisoner-of-war camps?
Many allied prisoners of war tried to escape from German prison camps. Part of their motivation was to get “back in the fight” but escapes also tied up military and police assets in the search for the runaways.
Was there a “duty to escape” as portrayed in the 1963 movie The Great Escape? Guy Walters, who wrote a book about the escape, says there was no such duty. He writes “ … two-thirds of PoWs had little or no interest in breaking out, and regarded escape activities with wariness.”
Barbara Bond, a map researcher, begs to differ: “The PoWs could still do a job. Not only was it their duty to fight if they were captured, it was their duty to escape.” For those who decided to try to make a run for it there was help from an unlikely source – the Monopoly board game.
Red Cross Parcels
Large numbers of British airmen became prisoners of war when their aircraft were shot down in bombing raids over German-held territory. In stark contrast to their appalling treatment of Jews, Communists, Gypsies, and others, the German command generally treated prisoners of war according to the rules of the Geneva Conventions.
There were major exceptions to this. After the Great Escape of April 1944 from Stalag Luft III, Hitler ordered that 50 recaptured men be executed. Also, the food in many camps was inadequate to maintain proper health.
One of the concessions to civilized behaviour was to allow Red Cross parcels to be delivered to prisoners in camps. These packages usually contained a few home comforts such as tea, cigarettes, sugar, cookies, soap, and canned fruit and vegetables.
German authorities also allowed parcels to contain simple medical supplies and games and recreational materials. The last item proved to be a doorway through which the Brits could sneak escape aids.
The strict neutrality of the Red Cross had to be maintained, so fake charitable organizations were created to mirror the humanitarian group’s activities. Among these were the imposing-sounding Licensed Victuallers Prisoner Relief Fund and the innocently named Prisoners’ Leisure Hours Fund.
The Escape Kits
Waddingtons Games had the license to produce and sell the British version of Parker Brothers’ Monopoly. The company got together with MI9, a secret service outfit that was set up to help PoWs and to liaise with resistance groups. And, the scheme was hatched in the brilliant mind of Christopher Clayton Hutton, an intelligence officer with a passion for illusions and magic.
Hutton and Waddingtons plotted to rig specially produced Monopoly boards. Waddingtons had perfected printing on silk, so maps were made that were hidden under the paper covering of the board. Some parts of the board were hollowed out so they could contain small metal files, saws, and compasses.
Stashes of local currency were hidden under the Monopoly money. Norman Watson was the head of Waddingtons at the time. In 2013, his son John told The Guardian that according to his father “ … several Monopoly sets were sent out containing tokens made of pure gold to be used by prisoners to pay for assistance with their escapes.”
Before going on missions airmen were given instructions about the special Monopoly boards, in case they were captured. In addition, air crew had silk maps sown into their uniforms, while others had them secreted in the heels of their flying boots.
The phony charities shipping escape kits also sent legitimate parcels containing warm clothes and playing cards and other games that were not tampered with. Once they established that German guards were not getting too inquisitive about the contents of the packages, they started slipping gimmicked games past their less-than-watchful eyes.
To alert prison-camp escape committees to which Monopoly boards were of special interest the faces of the games were given a slightly different printing. A period/full stop after “Free Parking,” which could easily be mistaken for a printing error, was the signal.
The boards were marked in a special way so the maps they contained related to the prison camps to which they were sent. Prisoners held in Poland would not find much use for a map of northern France.
There was a code that made sure the maps reached their correct destination. Here’s ABC News “A period after ‘Mayfair,’ for example, meant that the game was intended for Norway, Sweden, and Germany. And a period after Marylebone Station meant it was a game destined for Italy. (It being a British version of game, London streets replaced the Atlantic City streets used in the original American version.)”
Was the Map Deception Successful?
Waddingtons says it has no idea to what extent its tricked-out Monopoly games helped escapees.
Playing cards, Snakes and Ladders boards, chess sets, and pencils were also used to smuggle maps and contraband into the prison camps. Radio parts were hidden inside cribbage boards.
Philip Orbanes, is a Monopoly historian. He says more than 700 PoWs used escape kits shipped in Monopoly boards and through other means.
- Horace Greasley was a British soldier captured on the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940. He claimed the world record for escapes from a prisoner of war camp at more than 200, never used a Monopoly map, and was never captured. How did he manage this odd feat? He had met and fallen in love with 17-year-old Rosa Rauchbach who worked as an interpreter in the camp. His many “escapes” were actually romantic encounters with Rosa. He would sneak out of the PoW camp, meet Rosa, and then sneak back in. After the war, Greasley vouched for Rosa’s character and tried to take her to Britain, but the story did not have a happy ending. Greasley learned that Rosa had died in childbirth along with her baby. Greasley said he did not know whether the child was his or not.
- According to ABC News “More than one billion people have played Monopoly worldwide … [and the] game is currently published in 47 languages and sold in 114 countries … More than 300 licensed versions of Monopoly have been developed with themes such as sports teams and movies.”
- The World Monopoly Championship is held from time to time in Macau. The 2015 event was won by Nicolo Falcone of Italy. He took home $20,580 USD, which is the total amount of money in the classic game. His strategy is to buy all the railroads.
- “Five Myths of the WW2 Great Escape.” Guy Walters, BBC History Magazine, September 23, 2014.
- “How Monopoly Boards Got Second World War Prisoner Out of Jail Free.” Martin Hickes, The Guardian, January 8, 2013.
- “Get Out of Jail Free: Monopoly’s Hidden Maps.” Ki Mae Heussner, ABC News, September 18, 2009.
- “Horace Greasley” Obituary. The Telegraph, February 12, 2010.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 07, 2017:
Suddenly some new respect for the Monopoly board game. What a clever strategy. Thanks for sharing.