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.

Souvenirs and ephemera

1. Chess set

Souvenirs and ephemera

1. Chess set

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.

Souvenirs and ephemera

2. Board game

Souvenirs and ephemera

2. Board game

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.

Uniforms and insignia

3. Escape boots

Uniforms and insignia

3. Escape boots

'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.

Souvenirs and ephemera

4. Forgery kit

Souvenirs and ephemera

4. Forgery kit

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.

Souvenirs and ephemera

5. Hair brush

Souvenirs and ephemera

5. Hair brush

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.

Private papers

6. Fake identity document

Private papers

6. Fake identity document

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.

Forged identity document purporting to be for a French worker in Germany made by Lieutenant R H C Eastman while a POW in Eichstaett POW camp (Oflag VIIB) Germany in 1943 following his capture during the defence of Calais in June 1940 while serving with the 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment.

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