the number of British pilots and paratroopers held hostage behind enemy lines escalated, the secret service came up with a plan to smuggle escape material to prisoners of war (POW) inside Nazi Germany. The premise was simple: find a way to sneak the gear into prison camps in an unassuming form. Enter Monopoly.
If you were a prisoner of war, the first thing you needed to plan your escape is knowing where you are. As such, of all the tools in an escape kit, the map was the most important.
However, maps are much harder to smuggle than you might think. Paper maps are too fragile: they fall apart when wet or mismanaged, and rustle when unfolded. And although that might be one of the most pleasurable parts of owning a map, it’s a counterproductive feature when you’re trying to escape a prison cell.
So Allied officials turned to silk: silk maps hold up in all types of weather. They unfold quietly and are light and easy to hide in boots or cigarette packets.
However, the technology to print in silk was not widespread yet. So MI9 turned to John Waddington Ltd., a British printer and board game manufacturer who, coincidently, also happened to be the U.K. licensee for the Parker Bros. game.
In an interview with ABC News, Philip Orbanes, who wrote several books on Monopoly, said the game was perfect: “The Monopoly box was big enough to not only hold the game but hide everything else they needed to get to POWs.”
In 1941, the British Secret Service approached Waddington, and soon, the production of a “special edition” Monopoly set was underway.
MI9, the secret department tasked with helping prisoners of war and working with resistance movements, conspired with the manufacturer to stuff all the tools needed for an escape inside the game.
The compass and files were both disguised as playing pieces. Real Italian, German, and French banknotes were hidden below the Monopoly money, for escapees to use for bribes. The escape map was concealed into cut-out compartments in the board itself, marked with safe-houses along the way.
Before departing for missions, Royal Air Force men were told that, if captured, they should look for Monopoly games in the care packages sent to them. These “special edition” sets would be marked with a red dot on the free parking space.
Already spread thin due to the war effort, German officials happily upheld the Geneva Convention and welcomed aid packages from the Red Cross and other NGO’s. The packages, meant for prisoners of war, often included food, clothing, and “games and pastimes”, and were met with little scrutiny. Monopoly was already well-known in Europe, and the German guards saw it as a good way for their prisoners to remain occupied.
In case this plot was found out, MI9 didn’t want to tarnish the Red Cross’s good name, so they set up a bunch of fictitious charitable organizations, like the “Prisoners’ Leisure Hours Fund” or the “Licensed Victuallers’ Sports Association”. These organizations, often based at bombed buildings or fake addresses, were used to send both ordinary parcels, as well as special ones with escape kits.
This allowed Waddington to track which sets were delivered to which camps. Once several boards had gotten safely through, escape maps specific to the area were hidden in each set. Shortly thereafter, a code was developed to show the prisoners which map was hidden in the set and where they were being held captive.
According to Orbanes, “Each game was pinpointed as to the camp it would go to”. For example, a dot after Marylebone Station meant it was a game destined for Italy. A dot after “Mayfair” meant the game was intended for Norway, Sweden, and Germany. A dot after Free Parking meant Northern France, Germany, and its frontiers. If you don’t recognize any of these stations, it’s because they used the British version of Monopoly, with London’s streets replacing the Atlantic City streets used in the American version.
The manufacturer printed six different maps, for the six regions surrounding different German camps. For example, Monopoly kits bound for Italy included an Italian map and currency.
Get Out of Jail Free Card
Barbara Bond, former civilian researcher at the Ministry of Defence and former president of the British Cartographic Society, says operations like these reflected a change in the way the military viewed prisoners of war.
According to Bond, during World War I, prisoners of war basically counted as casualties. But after Winston Churchill and others shared their experiences as POWs, the perception of these men changed: they now had an active duty to fight captivity and try to escape.
Equipped with tools and the intelligence necessary, many pilots and other servicemen managed to break out and make their way back home.
Experts estimate that about 35,000 British, American, and Commonwealth forces who were taken prisoner returned home. “We reckon that 10,000 used the Monopoly map,” said Victor Watson, son of the company’s president at the time, and himself chairman of Waddington’s until 1993.
Mr. Monopoly’s Legacy
Despite its noble role, Monopoly’s contributions to POWs would go unrecognized during and after the war.
While the war raged, secrecy about the plan was maintained, to avoid retaliation via air strikes and so that the operation could keep helping as many prisoners as possible.
After the war, all rigged Monopoly sets were destroyed, Watson said. Soldiers were instructed to destroy the game sets after use. Everyone involved in the plan was told to keep quiet — in the case another large-scale war occurred, the game could go right back into action.
Today, Monopoly has been licensed locally in more than 103 different countries. It’s been printed in 37 different languages and is a staple of international pop culture.
It’s a game with a long, important history. Folklore you can now recall with friends, the next time you’re waiting your turn to roll the dice.
To remember a time when, to many, Monopoly wasn’t just a game, but a roadmap to freedom.
TV producer, reader, writer, bibliophile, and map lover. Did I mention I also love history?
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