Wall tiles and Free Parking:
escape and evasion maps
of World War II

by Debbie Hall
Waddington PLC, the printing company best known for its games including Monopoly, was involved in a most unusual venture during the Second World War: printing maps on silk, rayon and tissue paper for military use and smuggling some of them to prisoners of war.  Last year an archive of correspondence relating to the military maps, along with samples of the maps themselves, was donated to the British Library Map Library. A small fraction of the archive, relating to the initial planning and the early days of the project, is currently the subject of a small exhibition at the British Library, and a few items are reproduced here.

When you look at these maps the unusual materials are perhaps the first thing you notice.  During WWII hundreds of thousands of maps were produced by the British on thin cloth and tissue paper.  The idea was that a serviceman captured or shot down behind enemy lines should have a map to help him find his way to safety if he escaped or, better still, evade capture in the first place.  A map like this could be concealed in a small place (a cigarette packet or the hollow heel of a flying boot), did not rustle suspiciously if the captive was searched and, in the case of maps on cloth or mulberry leaf paper, could survive wear and tear and even immersion in water.  The scheme was soon extended to cover those who had already been captured, although a certain amount of ingenuity was required to get the maps into the POW camps.

The maps themselves were mainly small scale, covering large areas; many were copied from maps then available from Bartholomew's in traditional paper form. (Bartholomew's generously waived all royalties, for the privilege of helping the war effort).  In addition tiny compasses were concealed in buttons, pens and the like; with these two items the escaper had some chance of finding his way to safety.  Other useful items such as small supplies of food and water, and foreign currency, were usually included as well in 'escape packs'.  Some of the maps gave more than general information.  The one shown here, designed for sending to prisoners, shows a route from Salzburg in Austria to Mojstrana in Yugoslavia (held by forces sympathetic to the Allies).  The red route avoids the easy mountain passes and shows a harder but less populated way over the hills, and gives matter of fact advice on throwing stones at pursuers.

The fact that the maps were made at all was symptomatic of a change in attitudes to prisoners between the two world wars.  In the 1914-18 war, being taken prisoner was regarded as a disgrace.  By the outbreak of World War II policy regarding prisoners had become more constructive; in December 1939 M19, the branch of the Secret Service responsible for escape and evasion, was set up.  It was made clear that it was the duty of all those captured to escape if possible.  One man who was behind many of M19's most ingenious plans, including the Waddington project, was Christopher Clayton-Hutton. He was a forceful character who worked ceaselessly to overcome both technical and bureaucratic obstacles when he was inspired by an idea. His disregard for regulations and the proper channels sometimes got him into trouble, but he was responsible for an enormous variety of escape aids - flying boots and uniforms that could be converted easily to look like civilian dress, powerful torches concealed inside bicycle pumps for use by the French Resistance. He regarded a map as "the escaper's most important accessory", and maps printed on silk and miniature compasses were amongst his first projects. However it was one thing to provide members of the armed forces with escape kits just in case and another to get these things into the POW camps, and it was here that Waddington was particularly helpful.

Prisoners of war were allowed to receive parcels from their families and from relief organisations such as the Red Cross.  Personal deliveries, it was known, were checked thoroughly, and it was felt that it would be unethical to interfere with Red Cross parcels.  A number of fictitious charitable organisations (often based in bombed buildings) were created to send parcels of games, warm clothing and other small comforts to the prisoners.  One of the major problems of captivity was boredom (a fact that was to play its part in the creation of some rather different escape mapping) and games and entertainments were permitted as the guards recognised that if the prisoners were allowed some diversions they would be less troublesome.

Waddington already possessed the technology to print on cloth and made a variety of board games, packs of cards and so forth that could sent to the camps.  They began by printing silk maps for supply to air crews, both British and American, and went on to conceal maps inside Monopoly boards, chess sets and packs of cards which could be sent into the prison camps.  The whole business of making the maps was shrouded in secrecy and the letters do not tell the whole story.  The references to different coloured playing cards, for example, made in one of the letters, are not explained at all in the correspondence; many communications were by word of mouth and never written down for security reasons.  A special code, which is described in another of the letters, was used to indicate to the Ministry which map was concealed inside a particular game so that it would be sent to a prisoner of war camp in the appropriate area.  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.

Almost throughout the correspondence maps are referred to as pictures, and codes were used to identify them, such as Emerald, Double Eagle or Dutch Girl; exactly what these codes meant is not explained by any of the letters.  The very first letter from the correspondence seems to be the only one even to mention the word "maps".  One letter, from Clayton-Hutton of M19 to Norman Watson of Waddington, states cryptically that "I have some ideas on the lines you and 1 know of', but gives no indication of what these lines are.  Parcels are sent to the left luggage office at Kings Cross Station rather than directly to the War Office.  Another letter, not displayed here, refers to a conversation between Clayton-Hutton and Norman Watson of Waddington on the innocuous subject of car parking; this was actually a reference to the Free Parking space on the Monopoly board which had been marked with a full stop to show that there was a map inside of northern France.

It's impossible to know how many of the maps smuggled into the camps were found or used.  But it is known that over 35,000 British and other Allied troops imprisoned or cut off behind enemy lines did manage to make their way to Allied territory before the end of the war.  It has been estimated that about half of these would have had a silk map with them.  In many of these cases their maps and compasses, and other escape aids, must have saved their lives.

Prisoners' press

While Waddington and the War Office were plotting to get maps into the POW camps, the prisoners themselves demonstrated astonishing resourcefulness.  The BL Map Library has acquired some maps that the prisoners themselves printed on a home-made printing press virtually under the noses of their German guards, as well as accounts of the process by two of the prisoners involved, Philip Evans and Wallis Heath.  These were acquired owing to the generosity of Wallis Heath and of the heirs of Philip Evans.  From 1944 until the end of the war both men were held at a POW camp in Querum, just outside Braunschweig (Brunswick).  Evans was a printer by trade and was most heavily involved in the printing project.  A few maps smuggled into the camp would be of little use to the three thousand men inside, and some method of reproducing more was highly desirable.


Brunswick Map Printers, drawn by Philip Radcliffe Evans.
© British Library Board
Philip Evans' matter of fact account of life as a POW and the map printing process carried out under extremely difficult conditions is truly inspiring.  It also highlights the boredom of captivity that provided further motivation for the production of the maps; the desire for purposeful activity must at times have seemed almost as strong as the need for maps.  Wallis Heath also mentions the general fear that the war would end with complete anarchy and "every man for himself", especially following the attempt on Hitler's life by a group of German army officers in 1944.  Evans was inspired to try and produce the maps after realising that some wall tiles from a bombed building in the camp could be used as printing plates.  The tiles were made of a limestone suitable to be used as a lithographic stone

Inside the camps the prisoners had a well-organised (and completely secret) structure for planning escape and general insurrection, and subversive activities were carried on under its authority.  Evans presented his idea to this initially sceptical group, who soon realised its potential value and helped by providing him with a guarded room and various assistants.  A camp of such a size contained someone who knew something about almost anything, including cartographers, carpenters and chemists, although Evans described one of the most useful men as a "fixer", a natural entrepreneur who could obtain almost anything by bribery.

The technical problems of improvising printing plates, pens, ink and a press, in secret and out of very limited materials, were considerable.  All the information on the maps had to be drawn on by hand, in "mirror writing" of course, using home made wooden pens and melted margarine.  The plates were treated with jelly from Red Cross parcels, and the printing press itself was made of oak floorboards covered with leather.  A roller was fashioned from a window bar, and ink was made from pitch scraped from between the flagstones of the pavement, boiled to separate out the dirt and mixed with margarine and pigment.  After much trial and error, a satisfactory method was developed and efficient teams of four worked together on map production.

The standard of the resulting maps, one of which is reproduced here, is astonishing given the circumstances.  The information for the more detailed maps of the area around the camp was obtained partly by reconnaissance by temporary escapees, and partly from a map of the area obtained by the "fixer".  Smaller scale maps were copied from smuggled silk maps like the one shown here (from the Waddington archive).

Perhaps inevitably the map printers were eventually discovered, had some of their precious equipment and a few half finished maps confiscated, and were punished with five days solitary confinement.  This was not before four different maps had been produced, with up to 500 copies made.

This prisoners' press was not unique, and attempts were made in other camps to copy maps by hand, but it is a remarkable demonstration of resourcefulness and dedication in the most discouraging circumstances. When the war ended very few of the maps were in fact used as the camp's inmates were transported safely home.  A few individuals had attempted to escape from the camp and taken copies of the maps with them, but how many got home will probably never be known.

Further reading:

Baldwin, R.E., 'Silk escape maps: where are they now?'.  Mercator's World Jan/Feb 1998, 50-51

Bond, Barbara, 'Silk maps: the story of MI9's excursion into the world of cartography 1939-45'.  The Cartographic Journal 21 (1984) 141-144 (Maps 160.e.4)

Bond, Barbara, 'Maps printed on silk'.  The Map Collector 22 (1983) 10-13 (Maps Ref.  D.3(2))

Clayton-Hutton, Christopher Official secret: the remarkable story of escape aids, their invention, production and the sequel. London: Max Parrish, 1960 (9196.  L.22)

Evans, Michael, 'PoW tells of escape maps printed on secret press' The Times, 23rd June 1997.

Stanley, Albert A.,  'Cloth maps and charts'.  The Military Engineer (1 947) 126

Wallis, Helen and Robinson, Arthur,  Cartographical innovations.  Tring: Map Collector Publications, 1987 (Maps Ref.  B.3b. (24))

Debbie Hall, organiser of  the exhibition, is a cataloguer  in the British Library's Map Library.

The display is in the foyer of the Maps Reading Room, in the new British Library building (96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB), and will remain open until mid-July.

If anyone would like more information or a copy of the accompanying leaflet then please contact Debbie Hall by mail or email at the Map Library.

Debbie Hall
Map Library

[email protected]

All photographs © British Library Board