Hidden In Plain Sight By Trish Wade


This year is the 80th anniversary of ‘The Great Escape’ when Prisoners of War from Stalag Luft III planned and carried out an audacious escape, tunnelling out of the POW Camp.  It was a bold and daring plan which came together on the night of 24th/25th March 1944.  This seems an appropriate time to explore some of the ingenuity that went into help making escapes from the camps and helping evaders possible.

During the years of World War II, 1939 to 1945, British Military Intelligence formed the secret department MI9 and its principal tasks were helping Allied prisoners of war escape from Axis held countries and also aiding military personnel, such as downed airmen who were shot down behind the enemy lines in theses occupied countries.


MI9 lectured aircrew on what to do if they were shot down over enemy territory and provided them with the equipment, they deemed necessary to help them evade capture.  They gave them maps printed on silk, tiny compasses were hidden in uniform buttons, certain uniforms could be reversed and transformed into civilian suits and flying boots could be turned into shoes by taking off the detachable leggings. False German identity papers and currency were also provided.  Many of these devices were developed by Christopher Hutton, who along with Charles Frazer-Smith led the ‘Q’ section of MI9.


There were, in fact, a certain amount of selected aircrew and troops who were taught secret codes through which they could pass intelligence back to the United Kingdom.  Fictional relatives and friends were created, apparently concerned over the captive’s welfare and the returning correspondence would contain the coded information.  MI9 also sent maps, money, civilian clothes, compasses, and hacksaws into the camps by very ingenious methods such as hiding them in hairbrushes, shaving brushes, pens and smokers’ pipes.  Prior to the innocuous looking items being sent, the prisoners would receive a coded message informing them of the forthcoming arrival of the hidden escape kit.


One of most successful methods of getting escape aids into the camps was by creating hiding places in specially made leisure items, such as board games and sports items.  ‘Games and pastime’ activities came under the Red Cross Care banner, so prisoners were allowed to receive these items. However, MI9 did not use the Red Cross parcels to send these items in case they violated the Geneva Convention, and the Germans might restrict them.  One method of getting the parcels through was by creating fictional charities and fake relatives.


A former magician, Jasper Maskelyne, who came from a famous family of magicians, was recruited to help develop items which could hide escape aids.  These included cricket bats, baseball bats and badminton rackets, the handles of these could hide compasses and other tools.  Very fine maps could be concealed in playing cards. Dominoes, chess and draught set pieces could be made watertight and contain ink for making counterfeit documents.  Dart boards were also filled with escape tools.  Board games such as Snakes and Ladders, Ludo and Cribbage were also recruited for secret missions. Most of these items were made by British manufacturers Jaques of London.


One of the most well-known board games, Monopoly, made by John Waddington Ltd, was cleverly developed to hide various items in its playing pieces, in which maps could be hidden.  They also managed to add a playing token containing a compass, German money hidden amongst the Monopoly money and a two-part metal file that could be screwed together.  To help the prisoners know which were the ‘special’ sets of the game, they were informed prior to their missions how to identify them.  There was also a special series of codes so that, when being made, the makers knew which country was being targeted and where to send the articles. A tiny red dot would be placed in the corner of the Free Parking square, for Northern France and Germany.  It looked like a printing flaw, so not obvious to the guards.   A full stop after Marylebone Station would mean appropriate to Italy and so on.  It is estimated that out of all the British and Commonwealth Servicemen and Americans who successfully escaped from the Axis forces a third of them were aided by the ‘special’ Monopoly Game.


Games and sports companies such as Waddington’s and Jaques would ordinarily, during the war years, not have been considered as essential war work and materials would be hard to obtain.  However, because of the nature of their involvement manufacturing these covert games and sports equipment, these businesses were allowed to keep manufacturing and keeping the companies afloat.


It was thanks to the ingenuity of MI9 and the skill of the workforce making the secret tools of escape that some 35,000 British, Commonwealth and American armed forces managed to escape or evade capture behind enemy lines and make it to neutral or Allied territory.


On the night of 24/25th March 1944, after a lot of hard work and careful planning, 76 Allied airmen managed to escape from Stalag Luft III.  Out of this number only 3 managed to make it to safety.  73 were re-captured.  Following Hitler’s orders 50 of the airmen were executed by the Gestapo to act as a deterrent to anyone else contemplating escape, contravening the Geneva Convention.  After the war the perpetrators were tracked down and sent to trial for committing war crimes.

Stalag Luft III and other camps were thought to be secure and impossible to escape from but thanks to the bravery of the escape line workers and through the hard work and ingenuity of MI9 and the prisoners by ‘hiding things in plain sight’  they occasionally proved the Germans wrong.