National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

WWII Silk Escape and Evasion Maps

WWII Silk Escape and Evasion Maps

by Tessa Smallwood

Recently I have been doing some fascinating work on the Museum’s Prisoner of War (POW) Escape and Evasion Map collection. These beautiful silk maps were first developed by British MI9 for World War II and similar cloth maps are still being produced for troops today. Silk Escape Maps were the invention of Charles Clayton Hutton alongside countless other James Bond style inventions, to be issued to soldiers in the event of capture. The maps illustrate a distinct change in the official attitude to Prisoners of War from the First World War: Rather than being disgraced by their capture, POWs were now encouraged to use all possible means to escape, find safety and return to service. With a flair for illusionism, Hutton was put in charge of piecing together a discreet kit that could aid such escape endeavours.

The maps were one of his first projects and he considered them to be ‘the escapee’s most important accessory’. He had trouble procuring the relevant European maps from the British War Department so eventually – with a blatant disregard for bureaucracy and regulations – turned to a well-established map-maker in Scotland called John Bartholomew & Son. This renowned family began their trade in 1820 and are still in business today. The Bartholomew series of maps were reproductions of tourist map designs generously donated to the war effort by the firm. Hutton now had to develop a means of making these maps, discreet, waterproof and compressible; so he decided to experiment with silk. Silk, was chosen by Hutton because it was light-weight, durable, crease resistant (for easy stashing) and silent when opened or crumpled down. This meant that soldiers could hide their maps easily, discreetly and in a hurry. The ink, he found, would stay firm upon the silk when it was mixed with pectin. Hutton also provided soldiers with tiny compasses that could be sewn into buttons or the like. With such tools, the escaped POW would stand a chance at finding his way to safety.

The story however, does not end here. Not satisfied, Hutton began to devise means of getting these tools to already captured men by smuggling them into POW camps. For this endeavour, he collaborated with another unlikely source in Waddington PLC, who make the infamous Monopoly Board. During World War II, prisoners were allowed to receive care packages from home. These would, of course be searched by the guards; however, it was considered unethical to search parcels from the Red Cross Charity and Hutton exploited this. between them, Hutton and Norman Watson of Waddington PLC developed a means of smuggling the maps in Monopoly and Chess Boards. The Monopoly Boards were encoded to alert the Ministry of where to send them. For instance, a ‘full stop’ after ‘Marylebone Station’ meant that this board should be sent to Italy, a ‘stop’ after ‘Mayfair’ indicated Norway, Germany and Sweden and so on. These packages were sent under false charities which often operated covertly out of bombed buildings. All communications between Hutton and Watson were also encoded and parcels were sent to the left luggage office at King’s Cross Station. To us today, these efforts might seem paranoid or extravagant, but Hutton and his conspirators understood the significance of their operation and went to great efforts to protect it. To the brave, loyal soldiers of Britain and her allies like New Zealand, the continuation of Hutton’s secret project made the difference between life and death. It is impossible to estimate how many escaped soldiers were able to find safe passage as a result of the escape and evasion maps but the literature of the war is littered with accounts of escaped prisoners of war who were able to navigate out of enemy territory.

The National Army Museum houses many examples of WWII Escape map series’ and working on them is ever more a privilege, in light of the story that they represent.