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The CIA Museum … OSS Escape and Evasion Map

The CIA Museum is home to many interesting artifacts associated with the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS); foreign intelligence organizations; and the CIA itself. The following article is the fifth in a series that will explore the Agency’s amazing history through the artifacts in the CIA Museum. This article focuses on the escape and evasion map.

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Imagine this:

A group of frightened and disheveled soldiers have just escaped from a German prison camp. The soldiers have never seen what lies outside the prison, yet they make their way quickly and quietly through the surrounding landscape to a safe house. Escape to safety may not have been possible without the silk map one of the soldiers carried.


Live to Fight Another Day

During a war, there’s always the possibility of being captured by the enemy. Throughout history, American troops were told that if they were captured, it was their duty to escape and live to fight another day. This was no different during World War II; however, this time the soldiers had some help with escape and evasion tactics.

To evade and escape the enemy successfully, soldiers needed special training and supplies. The British were the first to address these needs. On Dec. 23, 1939, British Military Intelligence established MI9 to facilitate escape and evasion for British soldiers who found themselves in hostile territory. One invaluable tool MI9 created was the silk map.


Manufacturing Silk Maps

An MI9 officer by the name of Clayton Hutton created the silk map. Hutton was known for being a determined, passionate go-getter. In 1940, Hutton met with famous Edinburgh mapmaker John Bartholomew. He obtained maps of Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and the Balkans. When Hutton told Bartholomew how he intended to use the maps, the mapmaker waived all copyrights in support of the war effort.

Hutton’s next task was to find a material on which to print the maps. He needed a fabric that met the following requirements:

  • Silent when folding and unfolding
  • Waterproof
  • Thin
  • Lightweight
  • Durable
  • Crease resistant
  • Easy to conceal

The answer came in the fabric used to make parachutes: silk. However, the material was difficult to print on because the ink ran and smeared. Hutton was about to give up when he tried adding Pectin — a type of wax — to the ink, which prevented it from running or washing out in water. The maps and text were crystal clear.

Rayon, Nylon and a type of tissue paper made with mulberry leaves — all very durable — were also used to make maps.

In 1940, the British began issuing the silk escape and evasion maps to aircrews in case they were shot down over hostile territory. The maps were a great success and served many uses. Hutton called the maps “the escaper’s most important accessory.” They not only helped a soldier escape, but could protect him from the cold in Europe or swarms of mosquitoes in Burma.


Silk Maps for U.S. Soldiers

When the United States entered World War II, it was very interested in the British intelligence organizations. In November 1942, a group of American intelligence officers visited MI9 to learn about escape and evasion methods. During their visit, they were shown the silk escape maps. Upon their return, Secretary of War Henry Stimson established an American equivalent of MI9 called MIS-X. The fledgling escape and evasion organization began producing its own silk maps.

The first U.S. escape and evasion map produced was a road map of West Africa printed on hot air balloon cloth in 1942. From then on, the maps were standard issue for American soldiers, including members of the OSS.

MIS-X and MI9 began working together to produce escape and evasion maps. It was agreed that MIS-X and MI9 would share responsibilities for escape and evasion methods, with each organization covering different parts of the globe.

During World War II the British and Americans produced several hundred thousand escape and evasion maps. Out of the 35,000 Allied troops who escaped and made their way to safety, it has been estimated that half had a silk map with them.


More Than Just a Game …

Some of these escape and evasion maps were distributed in a rather ingenious manner. POWs were allowed to receive packages from family and humanitarian organizations. The Germans searched parcels that were sent by family members. However, they did not search the packages sent by humanitarian organizations because they felt it would be unethical. This provided a way to covertly deliver escape and evasion materials to Allied POWs.

Waddington PLC — maker of Monopoly and other games — was enlisted to help. The company printed special editions of Monopoly and several other board and card games. Maps, compasses, and other tools were hidden inside compartments in the board or game pieces. Under the guise of a fake humanitarian organization, the games were sent to POW camps.

Before leaving on a mission, Allied troops were told to look for games marked in an unusual way if they were captured. For example, a Monopoly game that contained an escape and evasion map had a red dot in the free parking space.

Games were also marked based on where they were being delivered. Waddington produced six different versions of the games based on locations of German POW camps. To indicate where a shipment of games was heading, a period was placed after the corresponding location on the game board. For example, if a shipment of games was bound for Sweden, there would be a period after the “Mayfair” location on the board. This particular game would contain a map of Sweden and the surrounding countries, as well as the correct currency.


Escape and Evasion Maps at CIA

The use of silk maps as an escape and evasion tool continues through present day. CIA produced silk maps, for example, during its support for the Tibetan resistance in the 1960s.  Today’s “silk” maps are made out of Tyvek, which has similar characteristics to silk.

The CIA Museum currently has on loan from the Colby family a World War II silk escape and evasion map that belonged to former Director of Central Intelligence William Colby. He used the map during OSS Operation RYPE to find his way across the frozen landscape of Norway. Colby’s map is displayed alongside a Tyvek map used during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Afghan Gallery. The juxtaposition of the two objects is a tribute to intelligence officers at war.


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Posted: Sep 16, 2010 12:10 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:41 PM