Delivery to POW Camps

Red Cross parcel intended for Allied prisoners of war. Escape and evasion devices were never concealed in such parcels. Copyright: © IWM. Original EPH88

One of the great evasion and escape myths is that MI9 concealed evasion and escape devices within Red Cross parcels for shipment into the various POW camps. This is entirely wrong. It was realised by the War Office (and Winston Churchill personally) that if they were to use the Red Cross to ‘Trojan Horse’ their various escape devices into the Axis prisoner of war camps the Germans would potentially simply ban the Red Cross from the camps in reprisal. In some camps, this could result in many Allied POWs facing near starvation.

Bogus Charities

Instead, MI9 raised thirty two bogus charities in England, each was carefully controlled with regard to its unique regional identity. For example, if a charity was headquartered in Brighton in West Sussex, the package would be postmarked in Brighton and items enclosed within the package would all have their origins in that part of Britain. The newspapers used for wrapping and packaging were all local papers; The Brighton Herald for example, would have been used to aid regional authenticity. 

A bogus charity – Clayton Hutton’s design for the Prisoners Leisure Hours Fund letterhead dated 25 March 1941 used as part of the parcel deception scheme. Courtesy Royal Air Force

Likewise, items of confectionery, including sticks of local seaside candy rock or Kendall mint cake would all have originated in relevant locations. Clothing would carry small local tailors’ labels, and all would originate in their adopted towns or cities. In the case of Brighton, even playing cards enclosed would bear images of the famous Brighton Pavilion on their backs. Yet in reality, all of these charities had their actual origins in Clayton Hutton’s MI9 Escape Factory in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire.

Shipping to the camps would be via already established International POW postage routes and addressees would have been selected from Red Cross POW lists, or MI9 specific addressees. Typically the actual addressee would not know the package was coming, but the camp escape committee would.

Letterhead of the bogus Christian Endeavour Society (Cardinal Hutton. – President) also used by MI9 as a cover organisation through which to ship contraband to prisoner of war camps. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum
‘Charity’ suitcase parcels sent to British prisoners from the British Prisoners Leisure Hours Fund, almost certainly containing a variety of escape devices. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum

Dynamite and Super Duper packages

Later in the war, both MI9 and later MIS-X began to send special parcels completely full of escape material, which would be completely open (the escape material was not concealed). These were known as Dynamite and Super Duper packages respectively by the two escape agencies. There was no attempt to disguise the contents – typically because they would be too large to do so – contents included a small printing press, a camera, film and developing material and a typewriter.

A stack of MI9 parcels bound for prisoners of war at Dulag Luft, Oflag VII and Stalag Luft, while most labels are unclear, some discernible enclosed items listed include draughts, boards and pipes. Courtesy The Royal Air Force Museum

The imminent arrival of a Dynamite or Super Duper package was very carefully communicated to the camp escape committee via coded letter, with a description of the actual package and its recipient (often a fictitious POW to prevent reprisal if the package was intercepted). Once the escape committee acknowledged receipt of the message, they would advise members of the parcel censorship ‘over-watch team’ what to look out for. Then, when the parcel was identified within the latest batch of mail, the team would distract the German censors (often with casual offers of chocolate, cigarettes, or other luxury goods impossible to obtain in Germany). Once distracted, one of the Allied ‘over-watch team’ would simply move the Dynamite package from the ‘to be censored’ to the ‘has been censored’ pile. This was 99% successful. In Colditz, the British prisoners had produced a skeleton key to the Parcels Office and simply broke in at night after a delivery and stole what they needed. 

The parcels office at Colditz, where prisoner mail was inspected and searched for escape aids and other contraband. In the background American and French personnel oversee the German search team. Courtesy Gavin Worral
Harrods draught board reveals a forged identity card discovered at Colditz. Courtesy Gavin Worral