Stacking the Deck: Escape Cards of World War II

During World War II, American and British intelligence agencies collaborated on a top-secret mission with the US Playing Card Company. To help Allied prisoners of war escape from Nazi prison camps, the company devised a way to hide a map of Germany inside playing cards.

Renaissance style castle sitting high on a hill. The castle has multiple buildings and towers with smooth whitewashed walls and a steep red roof. Lush landscaping is visible in the foreground. A partly cloudy sky is visible in the background.
Colditz Castle in 2011, view from the town of Colditz.

Photo by Lowgoz, Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Detained at Colditz Castle

During World War II, Nazi Germany captured and detained nearly 94,000 prisoners of war (POWs) from the United States.[1] POWs from the US and other Allied nations were imprisoned at Prisoner of War Camps throughout Europe, including Stalag Luft III in western Poland and Oflag IV-C in eastern Germany.

In 1939, the Nazis established Oflag IV-C near Leipzig. They converted the Renaissance-style Colditz Castle into a prisoner of war camp. Colditz Castle was primarily used for detaining captured Allied officers, especially those who were high-profile or likely to escape.[2] Oflag IV-C had a reputation for being impossible to escape. It was the only Nazi prison camp where guards outnumbered prisoners. The castle was itself built on a high, rocky hill, 400 miles from the closest Allied forces.

Brown cardboard box, marked with a red cross and lettered in black “American Red Cross Prisoner of War Food Package No. 10 for Distribution through the International Red Cross Committee.”
American Red Cross parcel for prisoners of war.

Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. Usage conditions apply.

The camp’s escape-proof reputation did not deter Allied prisoners. Some dug tunnels into the floors or through the castle’s thick stone walls, while others plotted different ways to break out. Although the exact number varies, there were at least 130 escape attempts from Colditz Castle. Only 32 succeeded. In April 1945, the US Army captured Colditz Castle and liberated the remaining Allied POWs.

Help from the Home Front

To facilitate escape attempts, the American Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) and British Special Operations Executive hatched a plan. They tasked the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) to create decks of Bicycle brand playing cards that could conceal maps of Germany.[3]

Under the rules of the Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross and other charitable organizations could send parcels and mail to prisoners of war.[4] In addition to clothing, food, medical supplies, and tobacco, parcels could contain games, such as playing cards. If Allied POWs were lucky, an enclosed deck of cards would offer more than just a way to keep busy.

Black & white photo of 3 playing cards. The left card is a 7 of hearts. The back of the center card is facing up with the top layer peeled back to reveal the map underneath. The right card features part of a map with the number 4 printed at the top.
Playing cards from Bicycle map deck revealing concealed map of Germany beneath outer layers of paper.

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 58537

All Bicycle decks had the same white and blue design, but a crooked cellophane seal on the box indicated that there was more than met the eye. When the cards were wet, POWs could peel apart the layers of paper, revealing pieces of a large map. Once the cards were arranged in order, the map outlined escape routes out of Germany.[5] Other cards contained instructions about places to avoid or landmarks to look out for.

Based in Norwood, Ohio (an enclave of Cincinnati), the US Playing Card Company Complex had already converted much of its production lines to wartime uses. The company churned out parachutes for antipersonnel fragmentation bombs.[6] Other products included materials for defense, as well as electronics and radar devices for the Navy and Signal Corps. During World War II, the USPCC produced another special deck of cards printed with the shapes of military vehicles from other warring countries. Known as “spotter decks,” these cards were intended to help civilians identify ships, tanks, and aircraft from both friendly and enemy nations.

Multi-story tan brick factory building with a central clock tower. The main entrance is located at the base of the clock tower. On either side of the tower, there are several sets of windows on each floor. The windows on the top level are arched.
Main entrance and tower section of the United States Playing Card Company Complex, located at 4590 Beech Street in Norwood, Ohio, United States.

Photo by Nytted, Wikimedia Commons, public domain


Due to the top-secret nature of the map decks, the project had to remain confidential for many years after the war. It is unknown how many escape map decks were produced or survived. Only two full decks are still known to exist. They are both held in the collection of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC.

To recognize its contribution to the war effort, the US Playing Card Company released a commemorative escape map deck in 2013. Unlike the original, the commemorative deck openly displays sections of the map on the front of each card.

In 2009, the USPCC relocated to a smaller facility in Erlanger, Kentucky. The US Playing Card Company Complex in Norwood, Ohio was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.

This article was researched and written by Jade Ryerson, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Last updated: June 23, 2023