Allied intelligence agencies partnered with the US Playing Card Company to produce escape maps designed as Bicycle-branded cards. Photo courtesy of the Bicycle Card Company.
More than 120,000 American troops were captured by enemy forces during World War II. Approximately three-quarters of them were interned in dozens of prisoner of war camps located throughout Nazi-controlled Europe. The American POWs, some of whom jokingly referred to themselves as “guests” of the Third Reich, endured extreme hardships behind the barbed wire, where they were often subjected to starvation, forced labor, and severe beatings.
Under the provisions of the 1929 Geneva Convention, all prisoners of war were required to be treated humanely, provided with housing, and have ready access to food and medical supplies. The Nazis therefore allowed POWs to receive care packages stocked and delivered to them by members of the American Red Cross. The cardboard parcels usually contained food rations, first aid supplies, and other cherished items, including playing cards.
A surviving pack of Bicycle escape map cards that was developed by the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Photo courtesy of the International Spy Museum.
In addition to helping POWs survive daily life in the camps, the Red Cross packages provided an opportunity for Allied intelligence agencies to deliver crucial — and potentially lifesaving — information to their compatriots on the inside. The US Office of Strategic Services and the British Special Operations Executive hatched a clever plan involving the playing cards that were often included in the parcels. Partnering with the US Playing Card Company, the two agencies began producing escape maps disguised as Bicycle-branded cards.
Each altered card consisted of two layers of paper that were glued together. The outer layer looked like a standard blue and white playing card, such as a queen of diamonds or an ace of spades. But the inner, concealed layer was inscribed with a portion of a meticulously detailed map. For example, one card may have featured double lines denoting the path of train tracks; another might have marked, say, a concealed area near the POW camp that could be used as an overnight hideout; and so on. To reveal the secret information, all a POW had to do was immerse the card in water and peel off the deteriorated layer. Like pieces of a puzzle, the cards could be fitted together to form a comprehensive escape route, which the POWs could then use to plan their breakout.
According to the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, the altered card decks directly contributed to the successful escape of at least 32 Allied POWs from the infamous “escape-proof” Colditz Castle in Germany. The successful getaways inspired hundreds of other escape attempts throughout the war.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.