How Playing Cards Helped POW’s Escape During WWII -The Map Deck

Throughout WWII, the British produced hundreds of thousands of maps on thin cloth and tissue paper for soldiers to carry with them.  It was hoped that if a serviceman was shot down behind enemy lines, he could use the map to help him evade capture and find his way back to safety.  The size and weight of these British maps also made them useful in clandestine wartime activities.    

In spite of the prevalence of these maps, as many as 93,941 Americans were captured and held as Prisoners of War in the European Theater alone.  Once imprisoned, the soldier’s belongs were confiscated and maps were destroyed.  But it remained the goal of Allied “Kriegies,” (short for the German Kreigsgefangener meaning POW) to attempt escape from the difficult and uncertain life in Nazi POW camps.

Yet without a map, how would an escaped soldier find his way back to safety?

The answer came from an unlikely source – The United States Playing Card Company.  American and British intelligence agencies engaged The United States Playing Card Co to create a deck of playing cards that would help prisoners of war once they escaped.  These specialty decks were known as the “Map Deck.”  Top secret maps highlighting escape routes were hidden between the two layers of paper that make up all modern playing cards.  When the Map Deck was soaked in water, these layers could be peeled apart to reveal these hidden maps and help escaping prisoners find their way to safety.

The secret of the Map Deck was closely guard, even years after the war ended.  Indeed, the secrecy surrounding these decks was so high that there is no record of how many were produced or how many survive today.  The only known genuine deck is on display at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

 

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