For captured Allied flyers in World War Two, Monopoly was more than just a way to kill the long hours of idleness in German POW camps — it was a veritable tool box for helping them escape. That’s because beginning in 1941, British military intelligence rigged thousands of boxes of the popular board game with tools, compasses, European currency and even tiny maps that prisoners could use to make their way to freedom. All the equipment was miniaturized and pasted into the board, hidden within the bundles of game money, crammed into the tokens, or even packed into the tiny houses and hotels. What’s more amazing is that the games containing these secret escape kits were unwittingly distributed to POWs as part of care packages right under the nose of German prison guards.
According to a 2009 story on ABC News, MI9 (the wartime military intelligence division concerned with helping prisoners escape) worked with the British game maker Waddingtons to craft the equipment-laden copies of the game. For its part, the publisher was sworn to secrecy, lest the Germans get wind of the scheme. Once the specialized copies of Monopoly were ready to be shipped, Allied flyers were advised that if captured, they should watch for the top secret escape kits. Those containing tools would be specially marked with an innocuous looking red ink blot on the Free Parking space.
Aside from the tiny two-piece screw-together metal file and the miniature compass hidden in the game, perhaps the most incredible accomplishment of the escape kits’ designers were the tiny maps packed into the game’s hotels. Printed on silk, as opposed to paper, the maps could be folded and unfolded without tearing or wrinkling and could be very easily concealed. According to the article, the maps were possibly the most vital element of the kit — once POWs were outside of the wire, the maps would show the flyers how to get to friendly or neutral territory.
Kits destined for German camps in various part of Europe would be pre-loaded with silken maps rendering areas specific to those regions. The games would also feature real-life large denomination currency appropriate to the camp’s location stashed away within the games pretend bills. For example, flyers in camps in Italy would find Lira hidden in the bundles, while those in stir within Germany itself could expect to find Nazi Reichsmarks.
How successful were the Monopoly escape kits? There have been claims that up to a third of the of the 35,000 Allied flyers to escape from Germany POW camps used tools and maps hidden in the board games. Yet according to Snopes.com, these claims are unsubstantiated — it’s unclear how many break outs were aide by the kits.
It wasn’t just Monopoly games that were loaded with escape tools. According to the Daily Mail, chess sets were also packed with escape tools and maps in much the same way — taped beneath the board or hidden away within the game pieces themselves.
The game makers and military personnel were all ordered to keep the Monopoly escape kits secret long after the war – the British wanted to be able to recycle the idea in a future conflict if necessary. Not surprisingly, details of the games did slip out in subsequent years. The British government officially declassified the story in 2007. Only a handful of copies of the specialized game boxes exist today.