Monopoly and Other Games Helped Escaping Prisoners in World War II

Tunnels were a favored means of escaping since large numbers of men could get out at the same time. Imperial War Museum

As prisoners gained experience on the run from the prison camps, they learned of many things which were useful in aiding a successful escape, chief among these being maps and money. Bribes were particularly useful in Hitler’s Reich, and knowledge of the terrain allowed an escaping prisoner to put maximum distance between himself and the pursuers searching for him.

The Germans and the British were signatories to the Geneva Convention, which among other things mandated the proper treatment of prisoners of war, and outlined certain items which the prisoners could be allowed to receive from charitable organizations to help ease the monotony of their existence. Among these were games such as playing cards and chess sets, checkers, cribbage boards and the popular board game Monopoly. This attracted the attention of the British Secret Service, including the section known as MI9.

MI9 was formed within the British Directorate of Military Intelligence soon after the British entered World War II in 1939. Because of bureaucratic infighting within the Directorate, its operation was poorly funded and chronically understaffed. The group operated out of offices in London hotels and branch offices in the Mideast. Its primary purpose was to provide aid to escaping prisoners of war. Winston Churchill, who had himself been a POW during the Boer War and successfully escaped his captors, took a particular interest in the fate of the men who fell into enemy hands.

The British recognized the almost impossibly long odds against a successful escape – if success was measured solely by the result being a prisoner returning to England. But any prisoners on the loose within the Reich drained manpower from their captors, meaning that even recaptured prisoners were contributing to the war effort. Those who did make it home successfully brought with them valuable information about conditions within German and Italian held Europe, boosted morale at home, and provided a welcome shot in the arm to those still held in prison camps.

Coded playing cards contained maps, money, and blank identification documents. BBC

Maps were of infinite value to escaping prisoners, but paper maps were difficult to conceal, easily damaged, and noisy to unfold. MI9 solved that problem by having maps produced on silk. Using commercially available prewar maps as references, MI9 developed scale maps for printing by Waddington. Later in the war, as silk became scarce due to its use in parachutes, Waddington substituted rayon.

The problem of getting the maps to the prison camps was resolved by several means, one of which was to have Waddington place the maps between the paper playing surface of a Monopoly board and its cardboard backing. The silk/rayon material was thin enough to avoid arousing Teutonic suspicion. The games were then marked with a small red dot on the playing surface, indicating to the recipients that the game contained escape materials. The games were distributed to the prison camps via the Red Cross and other charities – a violation of the spirit of the Geneva Convention.

British record company EMI participated in Operation Smash Hit, sending money to prisoners concealed in records. Imperial War Museum

The German captors allowed Red Cross and other contributions because they believed that such items distracted their prisoners from becoming involved in escape activities out of boredom. For the same reason, the Germans allowed British prisoners to operate in-camp theaters, presenting plays to their fellow prisoners and to the camp guards and support personnel. When MI9 got wind of the entertainment committees formed in the camps, they recruited EMI – the record producer – to include maps in the gramophone records which the Red Cross provided to the prisoners. Because the records needed to be broken to extract the maps, MI9 referred to this undertaking as Operation Smash Hit.