Monopoly Sets for WWII POWs: More Information

I already blogged about this; there’s more information in this new article:

Included in the items the German army allowed humanitarian groups to distribute in care packages to imprisoned soldiers, the game was too innocent to raise suspicion. But it was the ideal size for a top-secret escape kit that could help spring British POWs from German war camps.

The British secret service conspired with the U.K. manufacturer to stuff a compass, small metal tools, such as files, and, most importantly, a map, into cut-out compartments in the Monopoly board itself.

Posted on September 23, 2009 at 1:43 PM29 Comments


Petréa Mitchell September 23, 2009 2:26 PM

I remember a documentary on Colditz a few years ago which said that a way was found to hide maps inside vinyl records. The prisoners discovered this by accident one day when someone dropped the right record and it broke open. They quickly went and smashed the rest of their small record library to see if there were any other goodies, but sadly that had been the only one.

A Nonny Bunny September 23, 2009 2:54 PM

The problem with such things is of course that it causes humanitarian groups to not be neutral. If they pose a risk of escape kits being smuggled in, then there is a good reason to keep them out. And that ultimately makes everyone worse off.

Jason September 23, 2009 3:10 PM

Just because a humanitarian group distributes something, doesn’t mean they know it has been modified.

It was the manufacturer who made the changes. They could have easily (and probably) provided them to the humanitarian group without telling them about their little additions.

Noble_Serf September 23, 2009 3:24 PM

Also check the shoe brushes that when taken apart and modified made radios. A series of holes allowed for placement of a peg or pin to tune to different broadcasts the allies controlled.

It’s amazing what people can do together when it’s clear who the good guys are. Problem is today’s fragmented reality makes that nearly impossible.

JP September 23, 2009 4:04 PM

If you read the story it says that they created fake humanitarian groups to distribute the games, thus protecting the Red Cross and others.

Arturo Quirantes September 24, 2009 2:41 AM

“If you read the story it says that they created fake humanitarian groups to distribute the games, thus protecting the Red Cross and others.”

Nonsense. If the Germans found that FakeNGO distrubited rigged Monopoly games, they will soon suspect of any package sent by anybody, including the Red Cross. That would do more harm than good.

Now imagine it the other way round. If Nazis had used a similar game on their own prisoners, they would have ended up in a war-crimes tribunal for violating international regulations regarding prisoners. Funny whey we cheat it is fair and square, but when the other guys do it’s unfair game.

rog September 24, 2009 3:29 AM

Interesting story. I’d like to know more about exactly where the hiding places were in the Monopoly set.

My grandfather was a POW in Germany. He was too old to escape, so coordinated the escapes instead. He kept a souvenir silk map of Germany which had been concealed in a pencil in place of the lead. I’d like to say we still had it, but my Gran liked to use it as a headscarf and it blew away on holiday in Spain…

moo September 24, 2009 3:55 AM

I don’t know where you get that from, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Torturing and killing prisoners are war crimes. Trying to smuggle escape kits to them is not a war crime.

You can’t really compare this stuff (or the dropping of propaganda leaflets, or the pirate radio broadcasts, etc.) to the kind of conduct that made the West want to stand top Nazis up at Nuremburg and pass judgment on them.

BF Skinner September 24, 2009 6:33 AM

“Problem is today’s fragmented reality ”
and here I thought that was just me.

It doesn’t matter to the villian if the Red Cross/Red Cresent or other NGO were witting or not. It doesn’t matter to the villian if they were a bogus group. The villian will see all humanitarian aid as a vulnerability requiring control.

The same thing happened in the 60s/70s when the CIA used the Peace Corp, and Bechtel as cover.

It becomes bad for everyone else. During WWII Hemingway was a war correspondent but he spent some considerable time working with the French resistence (even signing out guns and grenades from the Army). I figure you’ll never tell Papa to stay out of a war but it gives the enemy the incentive to shut down the reporters.

A Nonny Bunny September 24, 2009 6:33 AM

“Trying to smuggle escape kits to them is not a war crime.”

War crime is a bit of a loaded word. But it might be a “war misdemeanor” to use (fake) humanitarian organizations for smuggling escape kits (or any other nefarious purpose). It depends on whether it is forbidden according to international law or not.
In any case, it erodes the neutrality of humanitarian organizations in general. If the enemy will stoop to setting up a fake aid group, they might also infiltrate an existing one. So even established groups will need to take measures to defend their neutrality (and reputation thereof).

juno September 24, 2009 6:52 AM

@ Nonny Bunny

So what you are saying is:

Ultimately the use of fake monopoly sets by our secret service is the same as to the gas chambers of the SS?… hmm

Andre LePlume September 24, 2009 8:38 AM

IIRC, the date Bruce mentioned for this activity was 1944. I think it was clear by then that Nazi treatment of POWs wasn’t exactly by the book, so it seems fair to bend the rules a bit with the Monopoly ruse.

As to the laughable claim that Nazis would have been tried at Nuremburg for hiding a map inside a chess piece, this is the kind of “everything is either black or white” thinking for which inept security practitioners are routinely ridiculed.

Big Al September 24, 2009 9:43 AM

I once went to a “fat farm” and worked in the wood shop. Someone sent me a file with a piece of cake hidden inside.

AwesomeRobot September 24, 2009 9:48 AM

You guys are doing logical argument a disservice by saying that A Nonny Bunny is equating maps smuggled in Monopoly games with Nazi warcrimes. Something can have bad consequences without being as bad as what the other guy is doing. It is true that this could have hurt the Red Cross if the Nazis had found out about them. Nazi POW camps were very different places from the Nazi death camps.

Anonymous the II September 24, 2009 10:11 AM

Nazi POW camps were very different places from the Nazi death camps.

Depends. For West-European/American Soldiers the Situation was better than in a KZ, but for East-European/Russian Soldiers it was about the same.

Andre LePlume September 24, 2009 10:27 AM


To be clear, I am criticizing Arturo Quirantes for saying “If Nazis had used a similar game on their own prisoners, they would have ended up in a war-crimes tribunal…”

Not saying anything about A. N. Bunny’s argument, which strikes me as far more reasonable.

morris September 24, 2009 2:38 PM

Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense during part of Viet Nam war) said that if the allies had not won world war two, that he and many of his colleagues (who organized air force bombing) would have been considered war criminals.

David September 24, 2009 4:25 PM

@morris: The bombing campaigns were at least not clearly against existing laws of war at the time, and no Axis defendant was tried for bombing an enemy city (as opposed to bombing an open city). It was similar to unrestricted submarine warfare (i.e., sinking civilian ships in the middle of the ocean and letting the seamen take their chances), which was illegal. However, Doenitz established at Nuremberg that the US Admiral Nimitz considered it legal, and was not in fact convicted of it.

Arturo Quirantes September 25, 2009 3:15 AM

“Something can have bad consequences without being as bad as what the other guy is doing. It is true that this could have hurt the Red Cross if the Nazis had found out about them. Nazi POW camps were very different places from the Nazi death camps.”

That was the point I was trying to make, thanks AW. And I totally agree on your last sentence.

@morris, David.

It is clear that in any war, the winner writes the book on who did it right and who did it wrong. Bombing German and Japanese cities killed manu civilians; and it also helped win the war. So was it right or wrong? German scholars might argue on the London bombings. The debate is still on.

Same goes for submarine warfare, and in this case, David, may I point out American subs in the Pacific didn’t behave differently from German subs in the Atlantic. American submarine force cut off Japan from any supplies and helped win the war, too. The cost to crewmen and the civilian population? High, indeed.

And on the issue of legality, it’s very difficult to establish what is legal and what is not. All the actions of Nazi Germany, including the Final Solution, were perfectly legal under German law at the time. Sometimes abiding by the law and doing the right thing follow different paths.

juno September 25, 2009 5:23 AM


I did read about that. Talk about shutting the stable door after the horse has died of old age.


Matt from CT September 25, 2009 9:52 AM

It is true that this could have hurt the
Red Cross if the Nazis had found out
about them.


That’s a statement looking at it from the perspective of someone trying to keep the barbarians out. That’s the point of view of many sysadmins / security folks / etc.

Instead you need to evaluate this realizing you’re also a barbarian — you can exploit this vulnerability legitimately in just the same way. Use the humanitarian packages your sending to pass information to your troops.

You want the vulnerability to exist so you can try and exploit it more efficiently then the enemy does.

David September 25, 2009 12:49 PM

@Arturo: This is getting off-topic, but there were and are agreed-on laws of war, and any meaning of “legality” has to refer to those. I’m not talking right and wrong here, but legal and illegal.

The interesting thing about unrestricted submarine warfare is that legality changed during the war, as all major naval powers practiced it as they had the opportunity. Similarly, all major air powers practiced area bombing as they got the opportunity, although there seems to have been more reluctance there.

Finally, Nazi Germany was signatory to the treaties defining the laws of war, and violated them big-time. The “Final Solution” was mostly the mass murder of civilians in occupied territory, for example.

Dave Walker October 25, 2009 3:41 AM

This, and many other nifty things we did to help our PoWs escape and find their way home, is described in considerable detail in Foot and Langley, “MI9: Escape and Evasion, 1939-45”; I found my copy in a second-hand bookshop, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s out of print now.

Probably my favourite of our actions was to magnetise all razor blades (so the Red Cross didn’t have a choice but to put magnetised ones in their parcels) and mark North with a dot; thus every PoW got to shave with his post-escape compass.

Maurice Low May 8, 2010 1:10 PM

What a bunch of nonsense. I was a POW for over two years and in 4 different camps. I did not see any monopoly sets nor other board games. I can not visualize any useful purpose for a file – certainly not much use on barbed wire. Yes, there were silk maps in escape kits which were supplied when going on an operation. I also had compasses secreted in a button and in a tobacco pipe. Many of us survived due to the Red Cross services. They would not have compromised their position by participating in such a wild scheme.that the Germans would have most certainly quickly discovered.

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