How Monopoly was a secret weapon in WWII

Special break out of jail free Monopoly sets were sent to prison camps during WWII.


A mockup of what Monopoly boards sent to WWII POW camps might have looked like.

A mockup of what Monopoly boards sent to WWII POW camps might have looked like. Source

Just how involved was Milburn Moneybags?

Modded sets of Monopoly were created by Waddington’s and sent by MI9 from fictitious charities. These organisations had their own letterhead, slogan, and address. Bombed-out building came in handy as addresses. Some of these spoof organisation names included: The British Local Ladies Comfort Society, The Lancashire Penny Fund, The Prisoners’ Leisure Hours Fund, and (my personal favourite) The Licensed Victuallers Sports Association.

No escape aids were ever included in Red Cross parcels, to protect the integrity of that beloved organization.

Wartime mods to the original game of Monopoly included:

Teeny-tiny maps that fit inside a Monopoly playing piece.

A playing token, containing a small magnetic compass.

A two-part metal file that could easily be screwed together.

Genuine German, Italian, and French currency, hidden within the piles of Monopoly money.

How to identify a fake Monopoly set?

Debbie Hall, a historian of cartography, told The Guardian that a code was  included to identify which map that included in the game:

A full stop after Marylebone Station, for instance, meant Italy; a stop after Mayfair meant Norway, Sweden and Germany, and one after Free Parking meant Northern France, Germany and its frontiers. “Straight” boards were marked “Patent applied for” with a full stop.

In America, officers skipped the middle man by steaming off the top layer of monopoly board to create a space for contraband maps.

Monopoly wasn’t the only game cleverly adapted by M19:  there were maps hidden in gramaphone records ( Operation Smash-Hit), playing cards, table-tennis paddles, and chess sets.

Other James Bond-like gizmos included cotton handkerchiefs that changed colour with the ad if certain liquids a cigarette-holder telescope, and reversible uniforms that allowed soldiers to disguise themselves as German officers.

According to Expert Philip E. Orbanes, 744 captured airmen freed themselves using tools designed by MI9.

We don’t know how many many airmen escaped thanks to Monopoly games. And not one modded game escapes the war.

After the war, Waddingtons was ordered to destroy any remaining sets and records concerning them. If the Cold War had flared up again, they wanted to be able to reuse this Monopoly technique again.

Escapees themselves were well aware of the irony of the get out of jail free card. Lieutenant Colonel James Yule joked that “Without Monopoly, there wouldn’t be an England.”


The Guardian

Atlas Obscura

“The Monopolists” by Mary Pilon


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