Written by former Ministry of Defence map researcher Barbara Bond, Great Escapes: The Story of MI9’s Second World War Escape and Evasion Maps explores how secret maps were smuggled into PoW camps in apparently innocuous leisure items such as pencils and Monopoly boards, and how these maps contributed to victory in 1945.
Here, writing for History Extra, Bond explores MI9’s emergency escape and evasion mapping programme…
Military Intelligence Branch 9 (MI9) was created in the War Office in London on 23 December 1939. It was charged with supporting the escape and evasion activities of any British military personnel who were unfortunate enough to be captured by the enemy. The branch was headed by Norman Crockatt (initially as major and latterly as brigadier) and among the staff he appointed was Christopher Clayton Hutton as his technical officer. It was Hutton who decided to embark on a programme of producing escape and evasion maps on silk, tissue and rayon to aid the escaping prisoners of war. In total, more than 240 individual maps and in excess of 1.75 million copies were produced by the end of the war.
Producing the maps and other escape aids was one thing – methods of smuggling them into the camps also had to be devised. What MI9 embarked on in 1940 was essentially a programme of large-scale smuggling to ensure that the maps and other escape aids they had produced would successfully reach the prisoners of war and thereby ensure that their planned escapes had the greatest possible chance of success.
Hutton and his team designed a great variety of devices to get material to prisoners of war. Maps and other escape aids were smuggled into the camps hidden inside items such as games boards (Monopoly, Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, draughts), dart boards, cribbage, backgammon and chess sets, gramophone records, sports equipment such as table tennis sets and squash rackets, and even pencils.
A surviving copy of the MI9 bulletin. © The National Archives
One commercial company in particular helped with the covert production of board games inside which maps could be hidden. John Waddington Limited of Wakefield Road, Leeds, were already involved in printing escape maps on silk for MI9 and, since they were the principal agent in the UK for the manufacture and distribution of the British version of the popular US board game Monopoly, they undertook to manufacture Monopoly boards with escape maps hidden inside them.
There had to be a way of differentiating which boards carried particular maps, thus a system of coding ensured that the appropriate games were sent to prisoners of war in the appropriate geographical area: for example, those boards containing maps of Norway, Sweden and Germany had a full stop after ‘Mayfair’, and those containing maps of northern France, Germany and associated sections of the frontier carried a full stop after ‘Free Parking’. Currency was also needed by those planning to escape – the Monopoly money provided an ideal hiding place for local currency – real currency notes were interleaved with the monopoly notes.
A pack of cards with map sections sandwiched between the front and back of each card and a games box containing a secret compartment. (Woodmansterne Publications, Watford/ TopFoto.co.uk)
Waddington was also a major manufacturer of playing cards, thus they produced packs of cards in which maps were hidden. The map was made from a material impervious to water and sandwiched between the back and the pip side [the side on which the spots appear] of the cards by water-soluble glue. When dropped into a bucket of water the cards would separate into three parts: front, back and the map. Each segment of map was serially numbered and overlapped the next segment on all sides by about a quarter of an inch. Each pack contained one map in 48 segments. The four aces contained a small-scale map of Europe and the Joker held the key or map legend. To make up such a pack must have been extremely difficult because of the overlaps. The cards were also packed into bridge sets.
During the course of the war, MI9 needed continuously to generate new and ingenious methods of hiding the maps and other aids, not least because the German camp guards did discover some of the early hiding places. For example, books were initially used to smuggle escape aids. But these were revealed and had to be replaced by a new host device – as soon as MI9 were alerted to the discovery they suspended distribution of the items until an alternative could be found to replace it.
An MI9 drawing of a chess set and its secret compartments. (Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Air Force Museum)
After books were discovered as the repository of escape aids, Hutton turned his attention to gramophone records, approaching the music company EMI’s development laboratory. Hutton’s initial idea was apparently to conceal miniature compasses inside the records. However, he soon discovered that it was also possible to conceal maps and currency in the records because of the lamination process involved in their production: this allowed for items to be hidden under the laminate in specially incorporated compartments. By adding extra layers it was possible to conceal up to four maps in each record or a combination of maps and currency.
A gramophone record of Beethoven music conducted by Arturo Toscanini that contains a secreted map. Later on in the war MI9 also hid maps inside the record cover. (By courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Air Force Museum)
Some of these were destined for Oflag IVC, Colditz [aka Colditz Castle, one of the most notorious German prisoner-of-war camps for captured enemy officers during the Second World War]. The timing of the dispatch suggests that the hidden map probably aided the escape from Colditz of Airey Neave, the first British officer to break out of the camp.
A section of map sheet A2, one of the silk maps smuggled into Colditz and which is believed to have aided the successful escape of Airey Neave. © The National Archives
A total of 1,300 gramophone records containing maps were produced and dispatched during the war. Gramophone records were carefully selected: recordings of the works of Beethoven and Wagner were a popular choice while music by Jewish composers was studiously avoided, since these would have been automatically confiscated by the German censors or guards. While the records were perfect in every aspect of manufacture and could actually be played, Hutton saw the irony of the fact that the prisoners of war had to break the records in order to access the concealed items – thus, employing a touch of black humour, he dubbed the enterprise ‘Operation Smash-Hit’.
Maps, currency, compasses and dockyard passes were also smuggled into the camps inside Christmas crackers: these were dispatched in September 1943 in boxes as apparently innocuous seasonal treats from the Lancashire Penny Fund, one of MI9’s cover organisations, to arrive in the camps in time for Christmas. The parcels were accompanied by an open letter to the camp commandant inviting them to share in this harmless Christmas cheer. The prisoners of war had been alerted in coded letters beforehand which colour box was ‘good’ and which was ‘naughty’ (MI9’s terms) to ensure that only the innocent crackers went to the German captors. However, it was subsequently reported that the escape aids in some of the crackers were discovered by the Germans and that they reported the matter as a breach of the Geneva Convention. However, since the ‘contraband’ had not been sent under cover of the Red Cross, the referral apparently resulted in no action.
Pencils were also used as a secret conduit for the provision of maps. Certainly the Cumberland Pencil Company was involved in covert activity with MI9 and the Pencil Museum in Keswick has examples of pencils that appear perfectly normal and usable but which contain a silk or tissue map rolled very tightly inside the pencil in place of part of the pencil lead. In addition a miniature compass was hidden under the rubber at the top of the pencil. The pencils were distinguished by being painted dark green (as an economy, wartime pencils were unpainted) and the number stamped on the pencil indicated which map the pencil contained.
From the beginning Hutton had decided that compasses were as vital as maps to aid the escapers, and he designed them in a quite bewildering variety of forms. Miniaturised compasses were hidden in the buttons of RAF uniforms, both trousers and tunics. When eventually the buttons were found by German guards to be hiding compasses, Hutton simply resorted to altering the screw direction by having them manufactured with a left-hand thread, rather than a right-hand one, meaning a guard trying to open it would actually be tightening it. This proved to be a very effective change.
A button compass and a selection of other escape aids, including a miniature telescope. (Woodmansterne Publications, Watford/Topfoto.co.uk)
In addition, Hutton arranged for almost anything made from metal to be magnetised – for example razors, hacksaws and pencil clips. Together with maps, compasses were sometimes hidden in a small compartment inside the heel of an RAF flying boot so that any air crew who were shot down and managed to evade capture had at least a fighting chance of finding a route to escape successfully.
Method of delivery
Having created a diverse range of escape aids and the means of hiding them inside innocuous leisure items, there was a pressing need to develop a reliable system of delivery. MI9 had to smuggle the items into the camps without arousing the suspicions of the enemy. There were two existing supply channels, both provided for under the Geneva Convention: namely Red Cross parcels and monthly parcels sent by family and friends. MI9’s system had to be different and separate to ensure that neither of these two existing channels was ever compromised – such compromise would have inevitably resulted in the complete withdrawal of the privileges. MI9 was only too aware of the extent to which some of the camps were dependent on Red Cross food parcels as a lifeline, since camp rations were often extremely thin.
Therefore distinct but entirely fictitious cover organisations were set up, one of which was the Prisoners’ Leisure Hours Fund, a “voluntary fund for the purpose of sending comforts, games, books, etc. to British prisoners of war”; the Lancashire Penny Fund and the Licensed Victuallers’ Sports Association, which claimed to be “suppliers of games and bar requisites to hotels, restaurants, sports clubs and licensed premises”. These organisations had headed notepaper and apparently real, but entirely fictitious, addresses in London.
The story of MI9’s escape and evasion programme is one of breathtaking ingenuity and inventiveness – the reality of what was done is decidedly more astonishing and impressive than that conveyed by any work of fiction.
Barbara Bond is the author of Great Escapes: The Story of MI9’s Second World War Escape and Evasion Maps, published by Times Books (2015). To find out more, click here.