Inside Monopoly’s secret war against the Third Reich
On 29th April 1913, Christopher Clayton Hutton, who earned his pay manufacturing boxes, wrote a letter to Harry Houdini, who earned his own by getting out of them.
Clayton Hutton was 20 at the time, a self-confident, ingenious, and perhaps rather eccentric young man working at his uncle’s lumber yard in Saltley in the West Midlands. He loved games and showmanship and magic, but he was also somewhat sceptical by nature — possessed of an engineering mentality that sought to understand how things worked and to separate the possible from the impossible. He’d seen Houdini perform an escape act in Birmingham several years previously, and he was struck that the packing crate the magician triumphantly broke free of at the climax of the evening had been in his possession for two whole days before the show. Clayton Hutton’s letter was a challenge. Would Houdini attempt an escape from one of the lumber yard’s packing crates the next time he was in town — a crate that would be constructed live on stage, by Clayton Hutton’s colleagues, in the middle of the performance?
Houdini received this sort of letter every day, but Clayton Hutton’s was different. Clayton Hutton was different. By accepting his challenge — by promising Clayton Hutton the considerable sum of £100 if the packing case in question defeated him — Houdini set in motion a strange chain of events that would, in a wonderfully mad and circuitous manner, impact the course of a vast global conflict that was at the time still 26 years away.
And Houdini did accept the challenge — but with one condition. He would visit the lumber yard before the show to meet the carpenter charged with the case’s construction. Clayton Hutton was still an innocent, but he was hardly an idiot, and as the magician emerged from his hansom cab outside the facilities, wearing a fur-lined coat and gaudy carpet slippers, the 20-year-old dimly suspected some kind of mischief.
He was right to: the following morning revealed that Houdini, with one eye on the till, had come back at night to paste a showbill advertising the big event on a wall outside the factory. This was the beginning rather than the end of his wiliness, however. He had also bribed Clayton Hutton’s carpenter £3 to fit the crate’s nails in such a way that a crucial panel could be popped out from the inside with little in the way of a struggle.
Voila! The crate was flawed, Houdini emerged victorious, and Clayton Hutton lost out on £100. All the same, he had learned a lesson that would prove far more valuable to him over time. He had learned that, when it comes to escape, every trick counts. Eventually he would put this knowledge — along with a very strange ally indeed — to work for him in the Second World War.
My maternal grandfather met this ally in a fortress in Poland several decades later. When World War 2 began, Stanley Reginald Solly from Canterbury, Kent, enlisted relatively early, joining the 51st Highlanders as a gunner in the Royal Artillery. He was 21 years old, and his combat experience was limited to riding his push-bike through the rougher parts of the south-east — parts that, in the 1930s as now, were not particularly rough at all.
His military service proved brief and bewildering. The 51st were forced to surrender to the Germans shortly after landing at St Valery in Northern France in June of 1940. My grandfather never fired a shot. He always told us his war had lasted an hour and five years. St Valery was the hour. The five years were to come.
After a lengthy forced march, which managed, miraculously, to be even worse than it sounds, the lower ranks of the 51st eventually found themselves in Stalag XXB, a huge POW camp — in fact a series of camps — situated near Malbork in Poland. This is where my grandfather sat out the war, in the company of a few friends, some jars of peanut butter an American charity had sent them in error — the Brits had never seen this exotic paste before, and assumed that it was shoe polish — and something altogether more thrilling.
A Monopoly set! A wartime edition, which meant the counters would be made from little pieces of cardboard clipped into holders, while the dice would have been replaced with a number spinner. Still, Monopoly! With its familiar streets, its familiar rituals.
That set gave my grandfather his war stories. Spared the dangers of actual combat, he worked at a nearby farm handling the bookkeeping during the week, and he built up a dazzling property portfolio and crushed his competitors in his spare time. Long days in the camp meant that the prisoners quickly adapted the rules of the game so that a single match could take a fortnight to unfold and then they played and played and played. Europe burned, Russia was driven back into the black mud of the Eastern Front, the Blitz rained fire from the sky over St Pauls (and as far north as Glasgow). As for my grandfather? My grandfather learned the value of nabbing all the oranges quickly, so as to capitalise on any unfortunates rolling to get out of jail. He passed Go. He collected £200.
All the while he had absolutely no idea that the keys to his freedom — keys laid by Clayton Hutton and in some crucial way inspired by that bet with the world’s greatest magician — may have been well within his reach the whole time.
A transatlantic birth
Cinematic acts of heroism were thin on the ground at Stalag XXB. Nobody dug a tunnel as far as I can tell. Nobody hopped over fences on a stolen motorbike. When I was very young, I once asked my grandfather what he remembered the most about the Second World War, and he told me of a sweltering afternoon in mid-summer during which he saw a fellow comrade valiantly defeat all opponents with nothing but Old Kent Road and Whitechapel. A victory with the cheapest cards in the deck! I was fiercely disappointed.
“That’s virtually impossible!” Phil Orbanes almost yells at me when I tell him the story over Skype. There’s a pause and then this veteran of Parker Brothers and chief judge of the Monopoly World Championships — he’s also the author of the book Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game — starts to think about it. Old Kent Road and Whitechapel. “If there were a lot of players, maybe no other groups were formed except for the light browns, and maybe if he had a couple of railroads as well?” He ponders. “Maybe you could then possibly just whittle down every one of your opponents until they’ve run out of cash. Okay! It’s just possible.”
Orbanes was destined to love Monopoly. He grew up in New Jersey a mere seven miles from Atlantic City, the faded gambling town from which the original American set borrows its real estate. The game board was practically his own neighborhood; he could have visited its houses and hotels in real life. He was also just down the road from an old POW camp where German prisoners had been interred during the Second World War. Even repurposed as a chemical plant for controlling the local mosquito population, the structure made quite an impression on an imaginative child.
“I can remember seeing that place almost every day,” he tells me when our chat turns to the fate of POWs. “Boy, it was an eerie sight. To be going down the highway and see a lonely road going across a field, going past a big gate with wire and guard towers at the corner and a big huge metal tower in the centre where search lights would have been placed?” I wait, but there’s nothing more. Through the cold crackle of Skype I can almost hear him shiver.
The game that Orbanes has devoted his life to — his latest book, Monopoly, Money and You even explores the various financial lessons he’s learned over his many decades of play — had experienced a brisk few years of success by the time my grandfather encountered it in Poland. Widely attributed to a Philadelphia man named Charles Darrow in the 1930s, the roots of Monopoly actually began in 1903 with The Landlord’s Game, which Elizabeth Magie created as an educational tool to explain single tax theory. You had to make your own fun back then.
Over the next few decades Magie’s design was copied and bootlegged and expanded and embellished until the modern version, pitched around by Darrow, was published by Parker Bros in 1935. A transatlantic phone call lasting three minutes and costing $75 saw Monopoly landing in England a year later. It was licensed to Waddingtons, a playbill printing company that had survived a period of mismanagement and near bankruptcy to emerge, under the stewardship of Victor Watson Sr, as a quality producer of playing cards, silk theatre programs, and even cardboard jigsaw puzzles.
Monopoly was an immediate hit in the UK, and astute handling by Waddingtons saw it conquering the rest of Europe far quicker than the Nazis could ever hope to. It even overcame a brief Fascist backlash in Italy. (Mussolini was offended in part by the capitalist message, but mainly by the fact that the board game was patently not made by heroic Italians with big hands and broad shoulders, and was therefore intrinsically inglorious and depraved.)
“By the late 1930s, by the start of the war, Monopoly was huge,” Orbanes explains. “And that’s because Watson took the effort to go to London and very carefully develop a street plan for the UK version, and the rest of Europe took his lead.” He laughs. “Monopoly’s an American game, but the popularity of Monopoly outside of North America is entirely due to a British company. The only credit that Parker can take is that they had the wisdom in 1935 to create a partnership between Waddingtons and Parker US instead of perpetuating the small and rather ineffective London operation that Parker had for decades. That made the game. Even though it may have originated in the US, it’s equally US and British in terms of its parents.”
“This officer is eccentric…”
At around the time that Monopoly was starting to make a name for itself — and to achieve the kind of fame that would make it such a central part of prison life in Stalag XXB — Clayton Hutton was beginning to worry about the fate of Europe. As the 1930s drew to a close, a war was clearly looming, and he wanted to get involved.
Despite service as a pilot during the First World War, Clayton Hutton was not a career military man. Instead, he had left the service to work in journalism here and there and as a publicity director for the movie business. He had also become increasingly eccentric — a fact that, along with his age, may explain why he was swiftly turned down when in 1939 he applied to join the Royal Air Force.
Luckily, British military intelligence was currently looking for “a showman with an interest in escapology” — the kind of man, perhaps, who had once been publicly humiliated by the greatest magician that ever lived.
These were busy times for the intelligence services. MI9 had been newly formed under Brigadier Norman Crockatt; its objective was to facilitate the escape of any allied soldiers captured by the enemy during the coming war, and return them safely to the UK. This sort of thing required some pretty unusual thinking — and some pretty unusual thinkers. Following a short interview with Crockatt — in which the story of the Houdini challenge played a crucial role — Clayton Hutton was employed by MI9 as a technical officer.
Working out of a temporary HQ set up in room 424 of the Metropole Hotel, Northumberland Avenue, Clayton Hutton had joined one of the strangest branches of military intelligence. While other departments swooped on Cambridge dons and sinister hardnuts to run their spy-rings and gather their intel, MI9 was just as likely to employ stage magicians like Jasper Maskelyne, who would eventually go on to head up the Camouflage Experimental Section (largely unsuccessfully, by the sounds of it) at Abbassia in Cairo. Rather than photographing the contents of enemy safes and running interference on rival agents, it spent its time fiddling around with designs for pocket radios and making boiled sweets for downed fighter pilots to eat as they hid in bushes. Theatricality and general trickery ruled. Any image gallery of its notables would include at least a few men who like to be photographed with an eyebrow inscrutably arched and hands outstretched, fingers splayed, as if casting a fireball.
The best book I’ve read on the outfit — MI9: Escape and Evasion, by M.R.D. Foot and J. M. Langley — comes off, at times, like a James Bond novel from the people behind LittleBigPlanet; espionage by way of Etsy. MI9’s world was frequently a thrifty wonderland of the improbable and the hand-made. In tune with the strange circumstances, Clayton Hutton — the Q figure — was given a suitably bizarre briefing. He was presented with a uniform he was told not to wear and an office he was told to stay away from. He was also informed that the only real guidance for his job would be found in the Boy’s Own memoirs written by successful escapees from previous wars — but that most of their advice would be “no good at all”.
Even for such an odd bunch, Clayton Hutton was the “joker in the pack”, according to Foot and Langley. He needed to be, since he had no previous plans to work to, and no official records to read. Where would he have gotten them from? Nobody had ever thought of using POWs as an asset before. “In the last show, with a few notable exceptions, the men who were captured by the enemy were content to stay put until the cessation of hostilities,” explained Crockatt in an early briefing. “This present war is to be conducted across vastly different lines. Not only will prisoners be expected to seize all opportunities of escaping; the intention is also that they are to be supplied with gadgets that will enable them to break out of the POW camps, and once out, help them to find their way to freedom.”
This sounds insane, of course. As the world burned, Britain was devoting serious time and ingenuity to keeping have-a-go-heroes stocked with gizmos and trinkets churned out by a plucky bunch of garden shed types. It all makes a little more sense, though, when you take into account the sheer scale and complexity of the war that was being fought — and the number of soldiers who were being captured every day. Nutty as this statistic initially appears, in their gloriously angry history of European POWs, The Last Escape, John Nichol and Tony Rennell suggest that, by 1944, there could have been as many as nine million prisoners of various nationalities spread across axis territory. Nine million. By the end of the war, Germany was essentially a vast, unevenly distributed prison camp — a nation of wardens and cells and far, far worse.
Undaunted, Clayton Hutton leapt into action in headstrong fashion, procuring every monograph written by World War One escapees — and in this boom era of vanity publishing there were an awful lot — before press-ganging the students of a local private school into reading them for him and summarising their salient points. This was a typical example of his thinking. Clayton Hutton was a man in a perpetual hurry, and his autobiography, Official Secret, fairly hums with an extraordinary, and frequently rather exhausting, internal energy. Even his nickname — Clutty — sounds like it’s being compressed by g-forces.
Official Secret’s a good read, its hero always dashing through its pages, commandeering vehicles, hiring planes to take him to Scotland to interview cartographers, and pausing only to dally with the “lovelies” he meets typing away outside of the offices of generals, of ministers, of captains of various industries. “I have never believed that really important matters can be settled by letter-writing,” Clayton Hutton explains at one point. He never used the phone either, for fear of wiretaps. Instead, he did almost everything in person, bribing silk suppliers with crates of jam and marmalade rather than money, reading the official secrets act to a perplexed farmer in the middle of a dairy after realising that airmen needed a good source of milk, and effortlessly infuriating desk jockeys at every step. Foot and Langley offer a short, and by no means comprehensive, list of the people Clayton Hutton upset “at one time or another” during his years at MI9. “Senior offices of all three services,” it begins, “MI5, MI6, Scotland Yard, the Customs authorities, the Bank of England, the ministries of food and of production and several local police forces.” And yet — and yet! Clutty got results.
He got results quickly, too. From his schoolboy-powered research into early POWs, Clayton Hutton came across Johnny Evans, a talented escapee who provided a decent starting point for his activities. Every serviceman, suggested Evans, should be issued with a map, a compass, and food in concentrated form.
Working to this plan, Clayton Hutton spent the first part of the war constructing provisions tins for soldiers — little waterproof boxes containing sweets, nutrient-rich cream, and various tablets for doing useful things like purifying water. For a child raised on The Spy’s Guidebook these kits have an almost irresistible allure to them — despite the frequent references to things like “liver toffee” in the inventory lists.
Clayton Hutton began to manufacture compasses, as well — 2,358,853 of them, according to Foot and Langley, whose precision in this matter is laudable if baffling. There were various designs, but they were all small — capable of being hidden in the stem of a pipe or tacked behind service buttons. MI9 was also interested in turning everyday objects into compasses — magnetising the blades of safety razors, for example. These could then pass any inspection from the enemy, but would still point north when dangled from a piece of thread.
The compasses were soon joined by a hacksaw — four-and-a-half inches long and capable of cutting its way through prison bars — and an escape knife, sometimes seen as Clayton Hutton’s masterpiece. This was a fold-out contraption that housed lock breakers, screwdrivers, and wire cutters. I really want one. Crazier plans — sometimes not implemented — included tiny radio sets, blankets that would provide warmth while also concealing the sewing patterns and prints for making fake Nazi uniforms on the underside, and boots with hollow compartments in the heels. These were great at hiding any of the 2,358,853 compasses that you might have brought with you as a committed escapologist, but, heavy and often uncomfortable, they allegedly proved pretty useless for running away in, which is a bit of a design flaw for military footwear. While all this was going on, Clayton Hutton took to working nights in a strange hideaway concealed in a Beaconsfield graveyard, tinkering with hobby projects like anti-tank grenades and an updating of the jungle blowpipe. He saw inspiration for escape aids everywhere. For a brief period, he had high hopes for a disabled man he refers to in his autobiography as Laker. Laker’s nerves were shot to pieces, but he could draw a decent picture of Westminster Abbey on a single grain of rice, and that sounded like it might come in handy.