Bicycle Playing Card Co.

WWII POWs Got Playing Cards With Secret Maps

The cards revealed secret escape maps so downed pilots and captured soldiers could navigate their way back to Allied lines.

U.S. troops and their playing cards have a long history. A large chunk of deployment is spent killing time until the action starts – and card games have long been the weapon of choice for that mission.

Playing cards with secret escape maps

Troops in WWI playing cards.

After more than a century, the U.S. Playing Card Company, manufacturer of playing card brands like Bee, Aviator, and Hoyle, is still the world’s leading card company. In that time, the company has been very good to U.S. troops. Its original brands were decks of Army and Navy cards, later merged to one “Army & Navy” brand, featuring military imagery.

The USPCC even made a cheap deck so soldiers in World War I could easily purchase one for the battlefields.

Playing cards with secret escape maps

An Army & Navy deck (World of Playing Cards)

It was the company’s signature brand, Bicycle, that did the most for troops in the field. During World War II, Bicycle teamed up with British and American intelligence agencies to create a deck of cards that peeled apart when wet. The cards then revealed secret escape maps so downed pilots and captured soldiers could navigate their way back to Allied lines.

Playing cards with secret escape maps

(Bicycle Playing Card Co.)

Once the map pieces were revealed, all it took was to assemble the cards in the right order to get the full map layout.

The decks were given to POWs in Europe through the Red Cross’ special Christmas parcels, which contained (among other things) a deck of playing cards. Cards were a common occurrence among troops, so they aroused no suspicion from the Nazi camp guards.

Decks of these cards are said to have helped at least 32 people escape from Colditz Castle and prompted some 316 escape attempts. No one knows for sure how many decks were produced, but the only two known surviving decks are in the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Playing cards with secret escape maps

(Bicycle Playing Card Co.)

To commemorate its history, Bicycle recently created a special “Escape Map” throwback deck, complete with map artwork – no water necessary.

By Blake Stilwell
Dec 22, 2016 9:59:50 am

Blake Stilwell is a traveler and writer with expertise in television & film, international relations, public relations, and the Middle East. He is a veteran USAF combat cameraman whose civilian work includes ABC News, NBC, HBO, and the White House. Blake is based in LA but often found elsewhere.

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