Tuesday, March 5, 2024

How Monopoly Games Helped WWII POWs to Escape

 By Mary Dodge Allen

Get out of jail free card. (Mark Strozier)

Monopoly's "Get out of jail free" card took on a whole new meaning after I learned how this board game helped Allied POWs escape from German prison camps.

During WWII, Prime Minister Winston Churchill assigned an important, secret task to British Military Intelligence, Section 9 (known as "MI9") - the task of smuggling 'escape kits' to Allied soldiers and pilots held in German camps. 

Churchill, himself, had been a POW in 1899, during the Boer War. After less than two months in the camp, he made a daring escape by scaling a prison wall. The Boers mounted a massive search with a reward for his capture, dead or alive. Against all odds, Churchill made the 300-mile journey through enemy territory with no map, no food and no knowledge of the local language. He was starving and weak when he made a fortunate chance encounter with John Howard, a British local. Howard fed Churchill and then hid him in a coal mine until he could stow away on a freight train to safe territory.

Photo of Churchill from a Boer wanted poster. (Bridgeman Images)

Because of his harrowing experience, Churchill wanted to smuggle items to Allied POWs, so they would have a better chance of escaping and making it to safety.

WWII Red Cross package (Imperial War Museum)

Germany had signed the Geneva Convention, which specified that POWs be allowed to receive letters from family and packages of food and clothing items from charities like the Red Cross. German camp authorities also allowed POWs to receive phonograph records, playing cards and games, thinking this would distract them and make them more manageable.

Christopher Hutton (Public Domain)

MI9 eagerly recruited Christopher Hutton to help with this secret task. Although Hutton had served as a British pilot in WWI, they weren't interested in his flying experience. MI9 recruited him because of his encounter with the famous escape artist Harry Houdini.

Christopher Hutton's family owned a timber mill, and in 1915 he challenged Houdini to escape from a box made by the company. Houdini agreed, but only if he could meet the carpenter assigned to build the box. The box was built, and Houdini made a successful escape.

Cartoon of Houdini escaping from a locked box (Public Domain)

Later, Christopher Hutton found out that Houdini had bribed the carpenter to design a special box that would give him an easy, quick escape. This trickery ignited Hutton's lifelong fascination with learning the secrets of illusionists and escape artists.

While working with MI9, Hutton designed ingenious ways to conceal items and smuggle them to POWs. Tiny saws, knives, tape, thread and maps were hidden inside cigarette tins and hollow boot heels... small compasses were disguised as buttons... telescopes were disguised as cigarette holders. MI9 even recruited the record producer, EMI, to hide maps inside phonograph records. MI9 called this "Operation Smash Hit" because the records had to be broken to access the maps.


Records with hidden maps (Imperial War Museum)

As the war progressed, German prison guards discovered many of these hiding places. MI9 had to figure out new ways to smuggle these items. Then Hutton came up with the idea of using the board game Monopoly.

This game had come to Britain from America in 1935, and the British printing company, John Waddington, Ltd. was given the exclusive license to print and package Monopoly games, using British landmarks (such as: changing Boardwalk to Mayfair).

The Waddington company was also a leader in silk printing. They perfected the process by mixing ink with pectin, to stop it from blurring on silk fabric. (The Royal Family used Waddington to print all of their silk event programs and theater playbills.)

Hutton enlisted the help of the Waddington company to print silk maps that could be laminated inside Monopoly game boards. These lightweight silk maps didn't disintegrate when wet, could be easily hidden, and didn't make rustling sounds like paper. Other escape items like sharp files were also hidden inside the game boards. 

MI9 altered 1943 Monopoly board with locations of hidden files, map and compass (KnowledgeGroup)

Norman Watson, president of John Waddington, Ltd. set aside a special room at the company to prepare these altered Monopoly games, and he assigned only trusted employees to do the job. From time to time, an MI9 officer named E.D. Alston (known as "Mr. A") would stop by to place orders for the games. 

MI9 refused to compromise the integrity of important charities like the Red Cross, so they shipped these Monopoly games to prison camps in packages from fake charities with names like: "Prisoners Leisure Hours Fund" and "Licensed Victuallers' Sports Association," using return addresses from Britain's bombed out streets. In letters to prisoners from "Mom and Dad," secret codes were used to convey information to the POWs about the altered Monopoly games.

Every altered game was marked with a red dot on the Free Parking space. The games with a map of Italy had a period after Marlybone Station. A period after Mayfair indicated a map of Germany, Norway and Sweden. If a period followed Free Parking, a map of Northern France was included.

British Monopoly game with spinner instead of dice (Public Domain)

Blank Identification forms were hidden inside the game's cards. Spinners were included instead of dice, so tiny compasses and other items could be hidden inside. Sometimes game tokens were made of real gold, and genuine German currency was mixed in with the game money, to bribe guards and help finance an escape.

Guard tower at Stalag Luft 3 (War History Online)

In the winter of 1943, these Monopoly games helped save hundreds of POW lives at Stalag Luft 3 - a camp for captured Allied pilots on the outskirts of Berlin. Because the tide of war was turning against Germany, military commanders decided that the Stalag Luft 3 prison guards should be sent to join the fighting. Since they couldn't leave the Allied POWs unguarded, the S.S. (Hitler's elite security police) planned to kill them all.

Model of Stalag Luft 3 Prison Camp (War History Online)

Prisoners often formed secret "escape committees" to identify those most likely to make a successful escape. When the committee at Stalag Luft 3 heard about the S.S. plan, they selected U.S. Lt. David Bowling (who spoke fluent German) and helped him to escape, so he could relay this information to the Allied officials. Using items from the Monopoly games, Lt. Bowling made it safely to neutral Switzerland.

When Allied officials found out about the plan, they used their Swiss contacts to convey a message to S.S. Chief, Heinrich Himmler. If the S.S. carried out this despicable plan, the Allied forces would hold him personally responsible, and retaliate. Himmler backed down.

It's not known how many POWs escaped with the help of these Monopoly games, but it is known that German prison camp authorities never figured out the true purpose of these board games... right up to the end of the war.

My husband and I actually own a British Monopoly game, but it's been ages since we played it. When did you last play Monopoly?


Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at Amazon.com:

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for posting this information! We have a granddaughter who LOVES Monopoly so we play it about once a month or so. The hiding of the items you described is ingenious!

  2. Hi Connie, I enjoyed researching and writing about the ways they smuggled items to the POWs. It truly was amazing.