WWII Monopoly Game: The Escape Version

The hugely popular board game, Monopoly, was introduced in 1934 by Parker Brothers, a division of Hasbro, and has become one of the most played games in the world. Almost everyone is familiar with the little guy with a white mustache, top hat, tails, and cane – Rich Uncle Pennybags.

There are loads of versions now including Star Wars, Star Trek, Pokemon, Minions, Mario Brothers and many more. The British version has streets from London, the US version uses those from Atlantic City, the French version from Paris, and so on.

During WWII, a special British Monopoly game may have saved hundreds of lives – it could have been entitled “Monopoly, The Escape Version.”

Allied prisoners in German POW camps were permitted by the Geneva Convention to receive packages from the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups. In the parcels, mostly from fictitious charities, were playing cards and games such as Monopoly.

Elizabeth Magie’s 1904 board design.
Elizabeth Magie’s 1904 board design.

The special British version was, however, vastly different from the others. It included playing pieces that doubled as metal files and tiny compasses, real money slipped under the Monopoly money, and silk maps. British intelligence officer Clayton Hutton was the designer and distributor of the game.

Unique clues, known only to the British, were included in the return addresses and on the game board itself. Hutton designed the small compasses and a sort of Swiss Army Knife, but with wire cutters and lock breakers along with the traditional screwdrivers and bottle openers.

The maps were the most important items and were made of silk for longevity and silent use. A paper map in a person’s pocket can make a noise, but a silk map can be quietly tucked away in a sock, shoe, pocket or under a hat.

Waddington of Leeds volunteered to print the maps, which could be quickly destroyed when set alight, leaving no evidence behind. They could also be sewn inside a uniform or a hat. The maps were carefully packed and distributed to specific POW camps. A camp located in Poland, for instance, received a map of the surrounding area, while one in Germany had German locations.

The original Monopoly board patent
The original Monopoly board patent

According to Snopes.com, an archivist working for Waddington’s wrote to the London Times:

“In his article about Monopoly [in 2007], Ben Macintyre states that the special sets of Monopoly were sent to prison camps via the Red Cross. Waddingtons produced many escape aids, which were sent to the Nazi prison camps, but these were always sent via private, often fictitious, organizations like the Licensed Victuallers Prisoner Relief Fund. No escape aids were enclosed in the Red Cross parcels so that the Germans would have no justification for stopping these much-needed parcels from reaching the prisoners. It is untrue that safe houses were shown on the maps, as there was a virtual certainty that some of the maps would fall into German hands — the Germans were not fooled when it came to tracking down prisoners’ ruses.”

The Germans were unaware of what was being shipped into their camps and liked to see games in the parcels. They thought that prisoners concentrating on a game kept them from plotting an escape. Ordinary games which held no opportunities for escape were a welcome pastime for the prisoners, to help them forget the realities of war, even for a short time.

There are no surviving boards or pieces from those special Monopoly games, as it is believed that once the escape aids were removed, the games were destroyed lest they fell into German hands. The games destined for POW camps were custom made, and the few that remained after the war were destroyed to keep the practice secret in case it was needed again.

Clayton Hutton passed away in 1965 when much of this information was still classified. He was never credited for his brilliant inventions and ideas until recently. Fortunately, his work has now come to light and Hutton is no longer an unsung hero of WWII.

Ian Harvey

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