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Special Versions 1941 - World War II: Monopoly helps Prisoners of War Escape! (UK)

Every so often it appears in the news about how Monopoly helped Allied military to escape from the German camps during World War II.

The article below was published in a South African newspaper and explains it well, but for a more detailed description I refer to Phil Orbanes' book "Monopoly - The world's most famous game", Chapter 8, "Watson's War", Pages 88 to 92.

Starting in 1941, an increasing number of British Airmen found themselves as the involuntary guests of the Third Reich, and the Crown was casting about for ways and means to facilitate their escape. Now obviously, one of the most helpful aids to that end is a useful and accurate map, one showing not only where stuff was, but also showing the locations of safe houses where a POW on-the-run could go for food and shelter.

Paper maps had some real drawbacks - they make a lot of noise when you open and fold them, they wear out rapidly, and if they get wet, they turn into mush.

Someone in MI-5 got the idea of printing escape maps on silk. It's durable, can be scrunched-up into tiny wads, and unfolded as many times as needed, and makes no noise whatsoever.

At that time, there was only one manufacturer in Great Britain that had perfected the technology of printing on silk, and that was the board game producer, John Waddington, Ltd. When approached by the government, the firm was only too happy to do its bit for the war effort.

By pure coincidence, Waddington was also the U.K. Licensee for the popular American board game, Monopoly. As it happened, 'games and pastimes' was a category of item qualified for insertion into CARE packages, dispatched by the International Red Cross to prisoners of war.

Under the strictest of secrecy, in a securely guarded and inaccessible old workshop on the grounds of Waddington's, a group of sworn-to-secrecy employees began mass-producing escape maps, keyed to each region of Germany or Italy where Allied POW camps were regional system). When processed, these maps could be folded into such tiny dots that they would actually fit inside a Monopoly playing piece.

As long as they were at it, the clever workmen at Waddington's also managed to add:

  • 1. A playing token, containing a small magnetic compass
  • 2. A two-part metal file that could easily be screwed together
  • 3. Useful amounts of genuine high-denomination German, Italian, and French currency, hidden within the piles of Monopoly money!

British and American air crews were advised, before taking off on their first mission, how to identify a 'rigged' Monopoly set - by means of a tiny red dot, one cleverly rigged to look like an ordinary printing glitch, located in the corner of the Free Parking square.

Of the estimated 35,000 Allied POWs who successfully escaped, an estimated one-third were aided in their flight by the rigged Monopoly sets. Everyone who did so was sworn to secrecy indefinitely, since the British Government might want to use this highly successful ruse in still another, future war. The story wasn't declassified until 2007, when the surviving craftsmen from Waddington's, as well as the firm itself, were finally honoured in a public ceremony.

Reaction of Harold Lee, UK Monopoly researcher:

"Whilst I do not entirely agree about this addition, the story remains fascinating. That there were discussions with Waddingtons does appear likely as is supported by some documents, however no such monopoly sets has ever surfaced even after such a long period. Whilst silk maps, compasses and other aiding gadgets were produced I believe they were never actually employed in monopoly sets as that would have severely undermined vital Red Cross food parcels. The locations of safe houses would also render them unsafe if just one such set were ever discovered by the prison guards. It seems rather remarkable that none of the 35000 sets that have been distributed to POW escapees have survived or been found and that whilst orders were given for all remaining stocks to be destroyed, no samples have been kept by the secret service or Waddingtons for record purposes."

The total number of British POW escapees over the entire war may be considerably less than this 35000 figure.

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