World War II Silk Escape Maps – Ingenious and Colorful

World War II Silk Escape Maps – Ingenious and Colorful

silkmap2crWhile doing research for BORDER CROSSINGS: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, I read that during World War II, the United States and Great Britain manufactured silk and cloth maps. The maps were issued to RAF paratroopers, Special Forces, and members of the Nazi resistance in case they were shot down or trapped behind enemy lines and needed to escape.

World War II British escape maps were the creation of Christopher Clayton Hutton, an M19 British Army officer who was the genius behind many James Bond style inventions which are still in use today. MI9 was established in December 1939. Among its functions were to facilitate escapes and the return of escapees and evaders to England.

Hutton persuaded Bartholomew’s a famous map making company to waive their copyright on maps for the war effort. He had the maps printed onto pure silk (on both sides) because it was an ideal material for an escape map. Silk was quiet and didn’t rustle. It was lightweight and thin. Pectin was added to the dyes so they wouldn’t run when wet. The maps could be used to filter water or make a sling and they could be folded up very small and easily concealed inside a cigarette pack or heel of a shoe. They could be sewn inside the lining of a uniform or other clothing.

Escape maps were also made of rayon, nylon, and a tissue made with mulberry leaves — all very durable

Many of the escape maps were smuggled into German POW camps by way of Monopoly game boards, chess sets, and packs of cards. The Germans did not allow relief groups to send games to the captured Allies, so Waddington, the makers of monopoly in Britain, printed the maps on silk and inserted them in an indention made in the game board. The indention was then covered by the paper of the playing surface.

The maps were also useful after the war ended as there was a shortage of fabric and rationing of it continued. People turned to using surplus escape maps to make clothing – blouses, dresses, shirts, skirts, etc.

Several hundred thousand silk maps were produced during World War II. It is  estimated that of the nearly 35,000 Allied troops who escaped from behind enemy lines, more than half used a silk map. Many of these maps have survived and are now quite collectible.

Among my most prized possessions are two colorful silk escape maps, my favorite being Map 43 E-F which includes the countries of Germany (includes Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), Italy, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Croatia, and Slovakia.

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