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6 Escape Aids For Prisoners Of War

In December 1939, a new branch of British military intelligence called MI9 was set up to teach servicemen who became prisoners of war (POWs) how to escape from POW camps and evade those trying to recapture them. Secretly, MI9 sent escaping tools to POW camps and organised routes for escapers to travel safely through occupied countries during the Second World War

In many camps, POW committees were formed to coordinate escape plans. Prisoners with skills in handicrafts, sewing and printing were also drawn into the planning process to produce escape equipment within the camps. Uniforms were secretly adapted and altered to take on the appearance of civilian clothes. Escapers also had to be supplied with fake identity cards, travel passes and work permits in case they were asked to show their papers when on the run. 

Here are six examples of items designed to help POWs escape.

  • 1. Chess set

    'Ajax Chessman' – a chess set manufactured specifically for use by service personnel
    'Ajax Chessman' – a chess set manufactured specifically for use by service personnel
    EPH 2597

    These chess sets were also used to send escape equipment to prisoners of war. If the packaging included the text 'Patent applied for' and a large full stop, this indicated the game concealed escape aids.

  • 2. Board game

    'Monopoly' board game dating from the Second World Wa
    'Monopoly' board game dating from the Second World Wa
    EPH 2217

    Manufacturers Waddingtons made a variety of board games such as 'Monopoly' as well as chess sets and playing cards that could be sent to prisoners of war with maps concealed inside them. If the 'Free Parking' square on the Monopoly board was marked with a full stop it indicated that there was a map of Northern France and Germany inside. A full stop after 'Marylebone Station' meant a map of Italy and one after 'Mayfair' denoted a map of Norway, Sweden and Germany.

  • 3. Escape boots

    RAF 'Escape Pattern' flying boots
    RAF 'Escape Pattern' flying boots
    UNI 5535

    'Escape' boots were issued to airmen from 1943. If they had to bale out over enemy territory, a concealed knife in one boot could be used to cut away the upper section and convert them into 'ordinary' shoes. The idea was that these might help the airman pass himself off as a civilian.

  • 4. Forgery kit

    Forgery kit used by POW Major Dick Woodley
    Forgery kit used by POW Major Dick Woodley
    EPH 9976

    Major Dick Woodley was wounded and captured near Calais in late May 1940. He was marched into captivity and became a POW at Oflag IXA Rotenburg/Fulda and Oflag VIIB, Eichstätt where he became one of the camp's leading forgers. He made replica German stamps using rubber from the soles of Army boots and managed to carve mirror image German script.

  • 5. Hair brush

    Hair brush sent to POWs by MI9 and containing a false back concealing money and a map
    Hair brush sent to POWs by MI9 and containing a false back concealing money and a map
    EPH 2207

    The firm of G B Kent & Sons of Hemel Hempstead was asked by Charles Fraser-Smith to come up with a design for a hairbrush that could be used to send escape equipment to POWs.

    The back was hollowed out to hold a compass, a large map and a double-edged saw. The joint was hidden by a coating of dandruff. As the brushes had to be hand-made, production was limited to only one or two a week.

  • 6. Fake identity document

    Forged identity document made by POW Lieutenant Ronald Eastman, 3rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment
    Forged identity document made by POW Lieutenant Ronald Eastman, 3rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment
    Documents.2188

    Lieutenant Ronald Eastman was captured during the defence of Calais in June 1940 and became a POW in Oflag VIIB, Eichstätt. He had been a handicraft teacher before the war and was an expert in lettering. He persuaded the Germans that heraldry was his hobby and used this as a cover for producing authentic looking forged passes and identity documents.