Meeting: MI9 Escape and Evasion

Speaker: Dr Helen Fry

Wednesday 8th September 2021; 7:30 pm

Woodcote Village Hall, Reading Road, Woodcote, RG8 0QY

The British Modern Military History Society will this month be hosting a presentation given by broadcaster, historian and author Dr Helen Fry on:-

MI9 Escape and Evasion

BMMHS are delighted to welcome back Helen who gave such an excellent and interesting talk in September 2019, on A Very Secret War: Bugging Hitler’s Generals. This time Helen will be talking to us about MI9 Escape and Evasion.

The details of Helen’s  talk will be published as soon as they become available.

Dr Helen Fry Speaking to BMMHS
Helen Fry's presentation to BMMHS at our first meeting at Woodcote
Dr Helen Fry Speaking to BMMHS
It's a good job we now have the Main Hall

MI9

MI9, the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9, was a department of the War Office between 1939 and 1945. During World War II it was tasked with supporting available European Resistance networks and making use of them to assist Allied airmen shot down over Europe in returning to Britain. MI9 infiltrated agents, usually by parachute, into occupied Europe. These agents would link up with a Resistance cell and organize escape-and-evasion efforts in a particular area, usually after being notified by the Resistance of the presence of downed airmen. The agents brought false papers, money and maps to assist the downed airmen.

The usual routes of escape were either south to Switzerland or to southern France and then over the Pyrenees to Spain and Portugal. The group also facilitated the escapes of British prisoners of war both out of the prison camp and out of occupied Europe. It also communicated with British prisoners of war and sent them advice and equipment.

Members of MI9 included Airey Neave and Michael Bentine.

MI( Helen Fry
MI9 was set up to help Allied POWs

Escape Aids

Helen Fry MI9
MI9 suggested escape tools hidden in playing pieces, & cash for use by escapees concealed amidst Monopoly money.

MI9 manufactured various escape aids that they sent to POW camps. Many of them were based on the ideas of Christopher Hutton. Hutton proved so popular that he built himself a secret underground bunker in the middle of a field where he could work in peace.

Hutton made compasses that were hidden inside pens or tunic buttons. He used left-hand threads so that, if the Germans discovered them and the searcher tried to screw them open, they would just tighten. He printed maps on silk, so they would not rustle, and disguised them as handkerchiefs, hiding them inside canned goods. For aircrew he designed special boots with detachable leggings that could quickly be converted to look like civilian shoes, and hollow heels that contained packets of dried food. A magnetised razor blade would indicate north if placed on water. Some of the spare uniforms that were sent to prisoners could be easily converted into civilian suits. Officer prisoners inside Colditz Castle requested and received a complete floor plan of the castle.

Hutton also designed an escaper’s knife: a strong blade, a screwdriver, three saws, a lockpick, a forcing tool and a wire cutter.

Helen Fry MI(
John Waddington, Britain’s Monopoly distributor, was contracted by MI9 to manufacture and smuggle escape maps early in the war. Because Monopoly was a well-known game the authorities thought it would make a good platform to smuggle escape and evasion contraband into prisoner of war camps. The thickness of the board and the outer box accommodated the inclusion of hacksaws, maps and compasses - and items were even smuggled inside the dice
Helen Fry MI9 Silk Map
MI9 Silk Escape Map

MI9 used the services of former magician Jasper Maskelyne to design hiding places for escape aids including tools hidden in cricket bats and baseball bats, maps concealed in playing cards and actual money in board-games.

Forged German identity cards, ration coupons and travel warrants were also smuggled into POW camps by MI9.

MI9 sent the tools in parcels in the name of various, usually nonexistent, charity organizations. They did not use Red Cross parcels lest they violate the Geneva Convention and to avoid the guards restricting access to them. MI9 relied upon their parcels either not being searched by the Germans or ensuring that the prisoners (warned by a secret message) could remove the contraband before they were searched. In time the German guards learned to expect and find the escape aids.

Pat Reid describes in his book the story of a package of records that was sent to Colditz prisoners in the Second World War. One soldier took his out of the package and tripped. It smashed on the floor to reveal money and forged identity cards. Unfortunately, everyone else took to smashing their records hoping that they would find some escape items inside, destroying their actual records with nothing to be found inside.

The British games manufacturer Jaques of London were commissioned by MI9 to produce a variety of games (from board games to sports) which contained numerous escape and evasion devices. These included travel and full sized chess sets, with contraband inside the wooden boards, the boxes or the chess pieces themselves, table tennis, tennis, badminton racquets containing money, maps and miniature compasses, dart boards filled with escape devices and tools, shove halfpenny boards, hollowed and filled with escape aids, and larger boxed games containing even more contraband. It was not until X-Ray machines were deployed at German POW camps, that the German authorities began to capture significant amounts of escape material.

In southern China the MI9 unit British Army Aid Group helped POWs in Japanese camps escape to China during World War II. The group was closely linked to the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment.

Source Wikipedia

Biographical notes – Dr Helen Fry

Helen has written and edited over 25 books. Her works cover the social history of the Second World War: British Intelligence and the secret war; spies and espionage; and MI9 escape and evasion.

Helen continues to bring fresh insight into the clandestine operations of World War 2, including widespread coverage of the greatest deception of the war: the bugging of Hitler’s generals at Trent Park, North London.

Because of her expertise in British Intelligence in both World Wars, she has been involved in a number of documentaries – including David Jason’s Secret Service.

She has conducted advisory work for TV and drama; something which she particularly enjoys, as well as numerous radio & TV broadcasts including the recent D-Day commemorations in Normandy.

Helen has also written extensively about the 10,000 Germans who fought for Britain in World War 2.

Dr Helen Fry
Dr Helen Fry
Helen's Previous talk to BMMHS was on Bugging Hitler's Generals
Helen Fry & David Jason on David Jason's Secret Service - Channel 4, 2017

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