This map may well have saved a life. Soft, secret and silent, it is made for use behind enemy lines. Thousands of these so-called silk maps were printed during the second world war and issued to Allied servicemen, mostly to air crew who might be shot down and those about to be parachuted into enemy territory. Cloth maps have several advantages over paper ones: they don’t rustle, they don’t tear or disintegrate when wet, and they are easily concealed against the body or sewn into clothing. They can be used to filter water, or double as a tourniquet, a sling or a bandage.
Silk maps vary in size, colour, scale and material—the early ones were printed on silk left over from making parachutes, but most were on polyester or rayon, as this one is. The size of a large table napkin, it charts parts of north Africa, to a different scale on each side, with the ink showing through. “It’s quite small-scale, so it’s not much use in getting you out of a particular hole,” says Peter Barber, head of map collections at the British Library in London, where it resides. “But once you’re out of the hole, it would help you get out of the country.” He points out the pre-war country names: Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Italian Libya, and the administrative districts of Libya that ceased to exist in 1963—Cyrenaica, Fezzan and Tripolitania.
Shortly after the start of the war the British government created a department called MI9, responsible for escape and evasion. Its mission was to help resistance fighters and Allied troops in enemy-occupied territory, often by providing equipment, such as compasses hidden inside buttons or pens. Christopher Clayton-Hutton was the intelligence officer behind a whole range of ingenious gadgets; it may not be a coincidence that he worked on the floor below Ian Fleming. He regarded a map as “the escaper’s most important accessory” and realised that one made of cloth would have huge advantages, not least because it could be hidden inside a cigarette packet or the hollow heel of a flying boot.
Clayton-Hutton enlisted the help of the manufacturer of Monopoly, Waddingtons, which was used to printing on fabric as it also made bunting and souvenirs for jubilees and fêtes. Letters between MI9 and Waddingtons reveal a quest for the lightest and most durable maps. Code words were used in case the letters fell into the wrong hands: maps are always referred to as “pictures”, and rather than being delivered to the War Office, the finished maps were sent to the left-luggage desk at King’s Cross station, to be collected later.
This fascinating correspondence survives only because, when Waddingtons was being taken over in 1994 by Hasbro, which had no interest in its archives, Peter Barber received a phone call from a member of staff there. The man was trying to find a home for the silk maps, but mentioned that he’d just thrown out all the letters relating to their creation. Barber asked him to fish them out of the skip, at once. “And now they’re one of our prized manuscripts. If I hadn’t been in the office that day…” History hangs by such slender threads.
In conditions of great secrecy, Waddingtons started by printing ordinary silk maps. Later in the war, it produced lighter versions on tissue paper that could be smuggled into prisoner-of-war camps inside playing cards, chess sets or Monopoly boards. These sometimes gave directions to the nearest border and advice on how to cross it. Subtle differences on the Monopoly boards indicated which map was inside: a full stop after “Free Parking” meant Germany and northern France; a full stop after Marylebone Station denoted Italy.
Reading the directions on some of these maps leaves you breathless. They still give off the smell of danger, all the sharper for their matter-of-fact, military tone. “As this road heads west to Italy, it is important to turn left as soon as it is reached.” That one shows the route from Salzburg to Mojstrana in the then Yugoslavia, held by Allied-friendly forces—a distance of 290km, which, according to Google Maps, would take 61 hours on foot, and presumably more if trying to avoid fascist troops. “Frontier guards usually go alone and seldom in more than pairs. If pursued on open mountains, make for loose rocks which can be rolled and avoid solid rock. Besides the cover, one near-miss with a 10lb rock will often scare off a man. Roll five small rocks rather than one large one. Approach to the frontier along a spur is harder going but far less likely to be spotted.”
Not being spotted was what the maps were all about. It is estimated that, of the 35,000-plus Allied troops who made their way back from behind enemy lines, about half would have had a silk map about their person. ~ rebecca willis