Monopoly’s “Get Out of Jail Free” WWII Meaning

Thousands of prisoners got out of German prisons thanks to the game “Monopoly”

It is safe to assume that one of the most coveted game pieces in all of history is Monopoly’s “get out of jail free” card. It gives the owner the ability to move off the penalty space on the board game without having to pay the normal fee for leaving. It’s perhaps one of the greatest shortcuts in history, a cheat that no one complains about.  The phrase has become synonymous with, and looked at somewhat unfavorably as, an unfair advantage over other players in videogames, card games, and board games.  Yet who would have ever thought that this board game could also be a literal lifesaver, as it was during WWII?

The British Empire was in an intolerable quandary — British airmen were being captured on all fronts, while Britain needed every available man to face off against the overwhelming might of the Luftwaffe, which controlled the skies. How could the British get their soldiers out of prison deep in occupied France and in Germany itself?  They did what every sensible country does when in need of miracles — they called in their Secret Service.

Unlike the modern-day United States Secret Service, which serves as protection for foreign dignitaries and Presidents, the British Secret Service at the time was one of the most elite covert units to be found in the world. The unit assigned to figuring out the POW problem was M19, masters of escaping and evading, and they had an ingenious solution to the situation.

The German army had no objection to their prisoners receiving care-packages from humanitarian groups. As long as the package did not contain a gun, knife or bomb, it was more or less free of scrutiny. Using this knowledge to their advantage, M19 turned to the manufacturers of Monopoly to ask them if  they would like to serve the country by using Monopoly games to really get people out of jail free.

The game was innocent enough that it could get by unhindered by the guards. It was also big enough to hide what very potential escapee could want — tools needed during an escape, including a map. Each board had a different map, tailored to fit the region the camp was located in.

Paper used for maps was too bulky for the confines of the game boxes.  M19 decided silk was a better material for the job, because it folded up tighter than paper could and it fared far better in water. That is actually how the game of Monopoly ended up being used — the only company that had mastered printing ink on silk was John Waddington Ltd., which happened to be the company that held the British license for the American game, the ABC News reports.

Thousands would escape via these “Special Editions” of the game. Sadly, no copies of this famous game still exist.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE