One of the more fascinating aspects of the Second World War was the vast numbers of prisoner combatants accumulated by either side. With both sides committed to near-total war, a large portion of the available manpower were pressed into service as soldiers and many thousands of these soldiers were captured.
On top of this, as any number of Hollywood films have taught us, it was the duty of every captured officer to try to escape from such confinement. Films such as The Great Escape vividly reimagine the bravery and daring of such escapes, alongside the ingenuity shown by the prisoners in breaking free.
However one such flash of brilliance in assisting in such escapes has yet to be featured in a film. There is a long history of playing cards being issued to US troops. Playing cards were considered an important part of the lives of the soldiers.
It was one of the ways in which the soldiers used to pass their time and relax their minds in stressful war situations. Alive to additional possibilities, cards also carried pictures of high-value enemy targets so that soldiers would become familiar with them: being able to recognize your enemy is supremely important.
But were WWII playing cards used for an even more clever purpose? Did the decks of cards actually allow prisoners of war to escape? The secret lies in the “map decks”: decks of cards that contained escape maps designed to help the POWs to escape from German POW camps.
The Escape Plan
By the end of 1944, the battles of World War II had become intense around the globe. Colditz Castle, a large Renaissance-style castle high atop a cliff in eastern Germany, was converted into a prison, and homed the high-profile POWs of WWII under constant guard by the Germans.
The prisoners of war who were usually difficult to control were placed in the Colditz Castle. However, due to the Geneva Convention, the German Army allowed the POWs to receive Christmas care packages from organizations such as the Red Cross.
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The prisoners were allowed to receive packages and mail, also such deliveries were searched. If any weapon was found it was confiscated and the prisoner would receive no more packages. While it was at best a distraction for the German Army, it was viewed as a fine opportunity among the Allied spies for mischief.
In order to help the prisoners of wars escape, the American and British intelligence agencies came up with an innovative idea. They thought of smuggling useful objects to the prisoners of war to ensure an easy escape.
However, they made sure to disguise the objects to prevent being detected by the captors. For this reason, they turned to the United States Playing Card Company. The American and British intelligence agencies got the company involved in the secret mission to produce map decks for the prisoners.
The deck of cards would be distributed to the prisoners of war in the Colditz Castle as a part of the Christmas parcels from the Red Cross. It would ensure that the decks of cards were sent to the prisoner without coming to the notice of the camp guards. It would ultimately help them escape from the castle.
All standard playing cards are made by joining two paper layers, laminated and glued. The map decks that were sent to the POWs also look the same as the standard cards. However, there was something unique about the cards. Within the layers of the playing cards, the escape maps were concealed.
When water was applied to the cards, the prisoners of war could peel off the layers and gain access to the escape cards. Each of the cards revealed a piece of the escape route. In order to get a view of the entire German region, the prisoners would have to join the whole deck together, piecing the cards into order like a jigsaw puzzle.
However, not all the Christmas packages contained the map decks. The packages that contained the map were marked with crooked cellophane seals. The decks were placed in blue and white boxes that came with the Bicycle logo. The back design of the card was also blue and white.
The map decks, when completed, showed the directions for escape and potential escape routes the prisoners could use. The complete map of the areas was included, along with the longitude and latitudes. In addition to that, there were special instructions, information, and valuable tips that would allow the prisoners to escape easily.
The escape maps were included in 48 of the playing cards that are present in an individual deck. The four aces however featured the individual micro-maps containing details of roads or rivers. The Joker cards in the deck served as the key to bringing all things together. The prisoners would have to lay the entirety of Spades first before going to the Diamonds, Clubs, and Hearts.
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In the cards, there were specific instructions relating to being aware of the overland electric cables present in different areas. Also, there were instructions about the hills that the prisoners would use as viewpoints, the fields that needed to be crossed, and riverbanks to follow.
Escape to Victory?
The unexpected collaboration between the card-making company and Allied intelligence was indeed successful. With the use of the map decks, some 32 prisoners we able to escape from Colditz Castle. Moreover, over 300 attempts were made across Germany to escape.
In order to avoid detection by the German Army, the plan of the deck of cards was tried to be kept as a secret for as long as possible. The use of a map deck was also a clear violation of the Geneva Convention. So, it was kept as a top secret until in the 1970s, when it finally came to light.
According to the United States Playing Card Company, it does not have any archival information relating to the unique deck of cards. It is mainly due to the secret nature of the escape operation. It is regarded as one of the most interesting escape projects in history.
Today, there are only two decks of cards that still survive from that period. The last existing map decks are owned by the International Spy Museum in Washington DC. In addition to a sealed deck, the museum features dissected Six of Clubs that reveal the hidden map inside. The artifacts were first present in the CIA Museum and later came to the International Spy Museum.
Despite the fact that some details of the project were missing, limited-edition reproduction of the cards was created in April 1990. A modern-day Commemorative Bicycle Escape Map Deck was also created in 2013 that consisted of original artwork. On the face of the cards of the Commemorative deck, that map’s replica is printed.
Top Image: The maps were hidden between the layers of card used to make the playing cards. Source: Imperial War Museum / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri
Budanovic, N. 2018. During WWII Decks of Cards Containing Hidden Maps with Escape Routes Were Distributed to POWs. Available at: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/wwii-decks-of-cards-hidden-maps.html
Newcomb, T. 2020. In 1944, U.S. POWs Got the Best X-Mas Gift of All—An Escape Map. Available at: https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/a34994267/wwii-playing-card-escape-map/
2022. Escape From POW Camp? It Might Be In the Cards. Available at: https://commonplacefacts.com/2014/12/23/escape-from-pow-camp-it-might-be-in-the-cards/