To those of you born into the greatest generation of our time, you know the game Monopoly as the family entertainment of its era. But what you may not know is that, strangely enough, this game was used to help the Allied Forces win World War II.
In 1941, after being shot down and captured, many British airmen found themselves involuntary guests of the Third Reich. With RAF (Royal Air Force) in short supply of pilots, the British military began to craft plans for the captured pilots’ escape and return to duty.
Fearing nothing but fear itself, the resourceful Brits had planned to have information available to all captured RAF pilots. This data included maps marked with safe havens that would afford food and shelter once the pilots had escaped the camps and been repatriated to England. By necessity, the medium that contained this vital information had to be both concealed and durable.
Paper was initially considered as the medium, but it did not meet the qualifications of durability. Then, someone in MI-5 (British OSS) came up with the idea of printing the information on silk. The material was durable, easily concealed, and met all the qualifications.
The search for a manufacturer capable of printing on silk brought them to the only company to have perfected this process: John Waddington, Ltd. When asked to do the job, the firm graciously accepted in order to help the war effort. But, by sheer coincidence, John Waddington, Ltd. also was the U.K. licensee of the popular American board game, Monopoly.
This strange coincidence laid the groundwork for conveying escape material via the Red Cross, which included pastime games in the care packages that it sent to prisoners of war. Thus, did Monopoly put the icing on the cake for one of the most effective escape weapons ever contrived.
In collaboration, the British Intelligence and Waddington, Ltd. selected a group of workers sworn to secrecy. This cadre began mass producing the maps for camps in every region in which RAF prisoners were held. When the maps were produced, they could be folded into tiny dots and inserted in Monopoly playing pieces. In addition to this inspired genius, the clever workers managed to add the following:
- A playing token containing a small magnetic compass,
- Two metal components that could be screwed together to fashion a metal file, and
- Useful amounts of genuine high-denomination currency (German, Italian, and French), hidden in piles
of Monopoly money packs.
British and American pilots were advised that a small red dot located in the Free Parking section on the game board, appearing as nothing more than a printing error, distinguished the games that contained vital information. The utmost of secrecy surrounded this brilliant strategy. None who came to use the information for escape purposes divulged it. Until 2007, every pilot who had used the secreted data to escape the Axis Forces kept this true wartime tale confidential. Of the 35,000 escaped WWII POWs, approximately one-third attributed their return to duty to the game of Monopoly!
Hollywood has produced movies about POWs, such as the “Great Escape and Stalag 17.” But, due to secrecy, the filmmakers never new about the special Monopoly games.
After declassification in 2007, in a public ceremony, John Waddington, Ltd. and the surviving members of the select group of craftsmen were honored for their contributions. So, the next time you play Monopoly and draw a “Get out of jail free card,” give consideration to the double entrendre and the small, wondrous piece of history that you hold in your hand.