For more than a century, one of the most popular board games in the world has been, undoubtedly, the real estate-inspired Monopoly. Though it rose to popularity after the Parker Brothers released it in the 1930s, the successful game was actually invented by a woman named Elizabeth Magie, and was originally dubbed “The Landlord’s Game.”
What neither Magie nor Parker Brothers would have predicted, however, was how critical a role the game would play for soldiers in the Second World War. Far from just a way to pass the time, Monopoly was utilized for a far more secretive—and brilliant—way by British POWs in German prison camps.
So, what did these soldiers use the famous game for, exactly? Escape.
The board game Monopoly would go on to become one of the most popular forms of entertainment of all time, but it was the way British intelligence used it during World War II that was truly remarkable. For British soldiers captured by the Germans, the game offered a way out.
You see, German guards allowed British POWs to receive care packages from humanitarian groups while they were imprisoned. Taking advantage of this, the British intelligence organization MI9 devised a simple plan: before troops were sent off on missions, they would be informed that, in the event they were captured, they should be on the lookout for Monopoly games sent in care packages.
MI9 then worked with the Monopoly manufacturer in Britain, Waddington’s, to have maps, small metal tools, magnetic compasses, and other supplies subtly embedded inside the games that were sent to soldiers. The plan was designed by British intelligence officer Clayton Hutton.
“My aim, right from the start of my association with the escape department, had always been to discover a foolproof system for introducing my ‘toys’ into the camps themselves,” Clayton once wrote. One of the tricks was to print the maps on pieces of silk, which wouldn’t crinkle when soldiers looked at them, could be easily stuffed into small compartments, and wouldn’t dissolve in water.
Of the nearly 35,000 British soldiers who escaped imprisonment during World War II, it’s estimated that some 20,000 of them used the silk maps, compasses, and assorted tools that they found in their Monopoly games!
Talk about a “get out of jail free” card! What an ingenious way to deliver supplies to the imprisoned troops who really needed it—and an awesome piece of little-known history!
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