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More Interesting Than Fiction: Truth Is Always Better

(April 2010) posted on Tue Mar 23, 2010

There are lots of reasons to enjoy Monopoly and to credit printers for all sorts of heroic acts.


By Gail Flower

Everyone likes a good story. Sometimes, though, they can be unsatisfying fairy tales or urban legends with just the thread of truth in them and not much else.

For instance, did you hear the story of the printer who helped POWs escape from German prison camps during WWII? Here’s how the story goes. Waddington Ltd. was a leading producer of playing cards and card games in the UK from 1922-1994, after which Hasbro bought the company. Over the years, Waddington diversified from a playing-card printer into a company with several factories, which specialized into particular areas of printing—packaging, stationery, advertising, plastics, security printing, postage stamps, and playing cards.

In 1941, the British Secret Service had the company create a special edition of Monopoly for WWII prisoners held by the Germans. Hidden inside these games were maps, compasses, real money, and other useful escape objects. The games were distributed to POWs by the International Red Cross.

We all know that printers are crafty and can do most anything. But the first version of this story had some irregularities in it. Obviously, one of the most helpful aids to a prisoner would be a useful and accurate map that could be printed on a crushable, quiet, strong material like silk. Paper would be noisy to unfold, wear out rapidly, and turn into mush during a rainfall. Silk is silent, durable, and can be made to fit any shape.

Waddington Ltd. had perfected printing on silk and was a licensee for the popular American board game Monopoly. When the British Secret Service asked Waddington to mass-produce escape maps keyed to each region of Europe where Allied POW camps were located, the printer began the project in secret.

Here’s where the story goes awry. The Internet-deployed version has Waddington’s clever printers adding a playing token with a small magnetic compass in it, a miniature two-part metal file that could be screwed together, and useful amounts of genuine high-denomination German, Italian, and French currency. The silk map was to have shown roads, places, and safe houses. A tiny red dot in the Free Parking Square, cleverly rigged to look like an ordinary printing glitch, identified the Monopoly set with hidden escape tools.

Whoooooooaaaaaa there, partner. Printers were good but not stupid. Why would anyone endanger safe houses, I thought. This required fact checking.

Here’s fact gleaned from “The Game Makers,” a 2004 history of the Parker Brothers game company. In 1935, Waddington staffers modified Monopoly boards for the Red Cross to deliver to Allied POWs. The staffers carved out precise depressions in the unfinished game boards (top and bottom) and filled them with low-profile compasses, files, and maps that depicted escape routes from the prison camps specific to where each game was sent. The maps were written on silk because it didn’t rustle when opened. All British Flyers climbed into warplanes with a Waddington’s map secreted in the heel of one of their boots as well. Real money was hidden among the game’s play money. Approximately 35,000 POWs escaped, but they never knew how many actually relied on Waddington’s tools.

In a 1985 Associated Press article, Powell Davies, who was a 19-year-old flier taken as a POW by the Germans, said that the prison-escape committees would destroy the Monopoly sets after removing the aids to keep guards from figuring out what was going on. Also, a 2007 London Times recounting of the story said that safe houses were not shown on the maps, as there was a virtual certainty that some of the maps would fall into German hands.

There you have it. There are lots of reasons to enjoy Monopoly and to credit printers for all sorts of heroic acts.


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