Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Great Escape: Pencils for POWs

Escape maps made out of cloth, silk and tissue had been produced en masse during World War II to assist Prisoners of War in their escape plans. The maps were concealed in game boards, such as Monopoly, shaving brush handles, playing cards and in pencils. And they were mailed to POWs in legitimate aid packages. This was a highly classified operation and Cumberland Pencils, the famous English pencil manufacture, were in it.

Escape-maps website detail how Clayton Hutton of MI 9, the person responsible for the production of British cloth escape maps, found a suitable paper onto which a map could be printed - it had to be very thin, durable, crease-resistant and rustle-free;  it turned out that Japanese mulberry leaf paper was a perfect candidate. Were these mulberry paper tissue maps the ones concealed in the pencils for POWs made in the Cumberland factory in England?

The Great Escape Cumberland pencils contained a tightly rolled tissue map. On the left three of these escape maps are displayed. Pencil Museum, Keswick, England. Photo L. Apostolakou

The pencils made in the English Cumberland pencil manufacture contained a miniscule compass and a map of Germany. The map was tightly rolled into a pre-drilled cavity in the pencil barrel and the compass was fitted on top, secured in place by the metal ferrule. An eraser was then fitted at the end. Each pencil was stamped with a code to show which map was enclosed.

Three maps were in display in the Cumberland Pencil Museum, A2 Map of Germany, BL2 Escape Route West of Cologne, BL3 Area to the East of BL2. The escape routes recommended were west to the Netherlands and Belgium, and south to Switzerland.


The pencils were issued to bomber command aircrew but also sent to POW camps to aid in the prisoners Great Escape. The staff that produced them in Cumberland was specially selected and sworn to secrecy.

More Pencils for POWs

In his list of OSS Weapons and Equipment, Les Hughes refers to a Pencil Dagger, an ingenious British-made pencil often included in Red Cross parcels to prisoner war camps in Germany. Its purpose to assist POWs in their Great Escape. The Pencil Dagger was a plain, unsharpened, 7-inch long wooden pencil with a blue lead. Inside, it contained a blue steel 5 3/4 inch dagger wrapped with thread to prevent slippage. "Assuming captors would not confiscate an unsharpened pencil the captive would later split open the pencil and use the spike to 'dispatch' his enemy".

A mini compass was fitted under the Cumberland pencil's ferrule. Pencil Museum, Keswick, England.  
Photo L. Apostolakou

5 comments:

  1. We received an email at work (Derwent) saying that someone was sharpening an old pencil and found a map inside and wondered why! It's only the 2nd we've ever found, other than the one in the Museum so we're very excited :)

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  2. I can imagine the excitement! What a find! What Palimpsest wouldn't give to have an exclusive of that! ;) Thanks for sharing, Rebecca.

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  3. i have one of these pencils given to me by fred tee code on pencil one zero one

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  4. I'd love to see a picture that, Ian.

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  5. picture on way in e mail

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