Long before Q created 007’s Aston Martin DB5 ejector seat, British and American gadget-masters were hiding compasses in shirt buttons and cameras in cigarette lighters.
It all started with MI9’s ultra-secretive ‘escape and evasion’ program, set up by the British in 1939 to help POWs escape from Nazi prisons and the operation soon spread to the US.
Britain’s spies disguised tools as everyday items so fake ‘aid agencies’ could smuggle the goods into German POW camps as care packages. Board games hid cash. Hair brushes and shaving kits were stuffed with miniature tools. An estimated 400,000 maps were disguised as everyday items or sewn into the lining of uniforms, and 17,000 Allied escapees carried them around.
“MI9 coordinated this incredible program, which included the escape devices that became legendary in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels,” according to Helen Fry, author of the spy book MI9.
Not every care package contained contraband goods, which made it difficult for German guards to find miniature saws, screwdrivers, maps and forged documents embedded in board games or hidden in sports equipment, according to London’s Imperial War Museum.
Signals were used to tip-off Allied airmen and soldiers about what they might find inside. If the chess game's cover mentioned ‘Patent applied for’ the game likely concealed escape aids.
POWs knew to keep an eye out for ‘special edition’ Monopoly board games, particularly those marked with a subtle red dot on ‘Free Parking’. Marked games might include compasses, tools, maps, or real banknotes hidden under the game money.
Christopher Hutton, an ex-Royal Flying Corps major, was in charge of producing tiny compasses and other gadgets. A single compass needle, known as a swinger, was made from cotton and swung north. It could be concealed in military brass buttons, collar studs, pencils, or cigarettes, according to author Phil Froom, who served in British Signals Intelligence.
Hutton also dreamed up a new style of flying boots that had hollow heels that held knives, maps, a compass, and a file.
The escape and evasion program flourished and inspired the Americans to follow suit.
In December 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the US joined the war and within two weeks US intelligence officers were in England plotting with MI9. US Air Force General Major General Carl Spaatz and MI9’s Scottish spymaster, Brigadier Norman Crockatt, set up the plan for a US version of MI9.
America’s MIS-X was based in Fort Hunt, south of Washington, DC, on a farm once owned by George Washington’s family, and known only by its postal code, Box 1142.
A former Ohio University civil engineer, Captain (later Colonel) Robley E. Winfrey, was selected to run Fort Hunt’s MIS-X operation.
Winfrey - essentially America’s ‘Q’ - spent five months on secondment with MI9 in 1942 learning everything Hutton could teach him to ensure the US program was a success.
Shaving brushes, shoe brushes, Ping-Pong paddles, and cribbage boards loaded with tools, radio parts, and cash were assembled into care packages at Fort Hunt.
As the MIS-X program gathered steam, radio parts were hidden in softballs. Food was also added to packages as well - dried fruits, beans, canned milk and sardines - and clothing with tiny saws sewn into the fabric.
“MIS-X went one step further than MI9 and issued a mandate that it was the duty of escapers and evaders not only to escape but to obey instructions from the escape lines as if the orders had come from their own unit commanders,” Fry wrote in MI9. “In camps that held both British and American POWs, the POWs worked together in escape efforts.”
British and American prisoners divided themselves into groups with responsibility for gadgets, tunneling, forgery, codes, intelligence gathering, copying and updating escape maps, and tailoring uniforms or civilian clothing for escapes.
The US Playing Card Company agreed to hide silk maps in some decks of cards. They were revealed when the top layer of the card was peeled back. The R.J. Reynolds tobacco company fit crystal radio receivers inside packages of cigarettes, former MIS-X operative Lloyd R. Shoemaker wrote in The Escape Factory.
Winfrey also dreamed up a unique way of providing POWs with compasses.
“He contacted the Gillette Razor Company in Boston and asked if they would magnetize their double-edged blades so that when a blade was balanced on a stick or held by a string, the G in the company trade name would point to the north.” Shoemaker said, adding that 5,000 magnetized blades were manufactured and 1,000 handles loaded with escape material.
To their credit, the US Playing Card Company, Gillette Razor, and R.J. Reynolds never billed for their services, Shoemaker added.
MIS-X expanded its operations into the Pacific and Far East, where an estimated 12,000 US soldiers and airmen escaped and evaded capture with similar methods.
There was just one escape item the Germans didn't know about by 1945: Monopoly. MIS-X’s use of the game wasn’t revealed until 1990 when the manufacturer’s team was given permission to tell their story.
MI9 and MIS-X destroyed whatever evidence was left of their ultra-secret programs at the end of the war. Fort Hunt’s documents were burned and its makeshift buildings dismantled but the stories have lived on in biographies and government archives, cementing the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US.
Churchill called the wartime partnership of MI9 and MIS-X an 'absolute brotherhood'.