A Roll of the Die.

The role of civilian industry in wartime does not feature in our telling of military history as often as the stories of those who physically risked their lives on a battlefield. However without industrial innovation and production, there can be no ‘front line’ or ‘tip of the spear.’ The following story about one private British business and their until-recently secret involvement in assisting Allied aircrews in WWII Europe to return home safely, comes courtesy of John Hoehn,* author of Commando Kayak which I highly recommend and which can be purchased at Hirsch Publishing.

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-lam 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 (similar to America’s OSS) 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 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 was 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 honored in a public  ceremony.

It’s always nice when you can play that ‘Get Out of Jail’ Free’  card!

* The bulk of this post is a cut-and-past straight from John’s email to me. John’s book Commando Kayak is also a story of a civilian designing and manufacturing goods for a military purpose, in this case, the Hohn ‘folboat’ designed by John’s father, and used by Australian special forces in the Pacific in WWII. It is a fascinating story with many dramas, and records an element of our military history – the design, manufacture and use of specialised equipment – that is seldom considered.

While the above is not a story I would normally feature on this blog, I nevertheless found it of interest, and hope that readers will enjoy it as a lighter change of pace.


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