Escape Aids – Cloth Maps

AThe following article appeared in The Air Forces Escape & Evasion Society Summer 2008 Communications, vol. 20, no. 2, June 12, 2008:

“U.S. Cloth Maps of World War II”

“Cloth maps were first introduced by the British during World War II.  Christopher Clayton Hutton, who worked for MI9, a subsection of British Military Intelligence, is credited with cloth map invention.  Hutton was not a geographer but, in 1940, he secretly met with John Bartholomew, one of England’s most prominent map-makers.  Bartholomew supplied maps to Hutton over Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and the Balkans, waiving all copyright to the map data in support of the war effort.  After Hutton received the cartographic source,  he needed a medium on which to print the maps such that they were quiet to unfold, would not disintegrate when wet, and would maintain their integrity when folded at the crease line.  In addition, they had to be concealed in very small spaces.

After many attempts to print on silk squares, Hutton almost gave up.  Then he tried adding Pectin, a form of wax, to the ink such that it did not run or wash out when put in water, even sea water.  Hutton printed escape maps on silk, manmade fiber and tissue paper.   The tissue paper was made from mulberry leaves, not the traditional wood pulp, and had the texture of onion skin and was extremely durable.  One could ball up this tissue page, soak it, and then flatten it without creases.

In November of 1942, a small contingent of American Intelligence officers went to England to learn of British efforts in the Escape and Evasion arena.  Each officer received a leather bound copy of a book called Per Ardua Libertas.  In this book were examples of each cloth and tissue escape and evasion map produced to date.  After this meeting with the British, the United States began to produce its own escape maps.

The Army Air Force (AAF) through the efforts of its Aeronautical Chart Service produced a series of the cloth maps printed on rayon.  From this came the term ‘silk maps.’  One of the military uses of the silk (cloth) maps was to include them in the survival kits of allied pilots.  Their durability and foldability were ideal for downed pilots in enemy territory.  Soon after WWII ended the U.S. Air Force was formed and the cloth maps continued until the early 1950s as part of the Cold War effort.  The story of the WWII cloth (silk) maps has been difficult to piece together because of the manner in which they were developed and because their production was shrouded in secrecy during and after the war.

The first U.S. cloth map made during WWII displayed a ‘Road Map of West Africa’ and was printed in 1942 on balloon cloth.”

[Information taken from Cartographic Associates and http://www.silkmaps.com.}

Another interesting article on escape maps is to be found at the following: Hall, Debbie, British Library Map Library, “Wall Tiles and Free Parking: Escape and Evasion Maps of World War II,”: http://www.mapforum.com/04/escape.htm.  Its emphasis is on escape maps smuggled in to POW camps or made in the camps themselves.

See also what snopes.com has to say on the subject at http://www.snopes.com/military/monopoly.asp.

I am grateful to Odile de Vasselot in 2004  for allowing me to photograph a "silk map" that she had in her possession:

“Silk” Escape Map Used by American Airmen

9 responses to “Escape Aids – Cloth Maps

  1. Donald A. Roberts

    I have in good condition the exact silk map shown above, with sheeet C on one side and Sheet D on the other. I am wondering if this map has any value? It is in good condition. Thank you.

    Donald A Roberts

    Dear Mr. Roberts,

    I wish I could be of help but I have no idea what a WWII silk map would be worth, never having seen one for sale.

    Best wishes,
    Bruce Bolinger

  2. I have had my husband’s grandfather’s escape map just like the one pictured for many years and did not know what it was until I looked it up on the internet. I am so very proud to be in possession of one and I am sharing the history with my family. I was excited to to see your picture of the exact map I have and wanted to email you to thank you for showing it.

  3. If you have any cloth maps from WWII, etc they are all not made of silk (as everyone thinks) Some are silk, rayon and other materials. When storing them, they should not be folded but rolled on a cardboard tube first covered with acid -free paper and use more acid free paper as you are rolling it up. If you have to fold it, use this same paper as you are folding the map so not to put pressed creases, then store in an archive box.
    As for prices of these maps, they vary based on condition (which is very important), does it have a military pouch with it (as some did), how many were printed and on what material.
    Currently, as our WWII soldiers pass on, family members are finding these maps used by all branches of the military. These maps were very important because they could get wet, take the heat and cold and could still be used. They could be hidden in the lining of a jacket, in a boot, pocket, underneath a helmet/hat.

  4. What is a WW 2 Air Defense Ministry map worht? erauw@hotmail.com

  5. a map in good condition could be worth a few thousand pounds, try an auctioneer.

  6. I have a WWII aaf c41 c42 cloth map of Mindoro Island w/o tints – can you tell me of it’s worth.

  7. I have the exact same map shown above , It was my uncles from WWII , He has little notes written on it from through out his journey in the war. I was just curious if something like this has any value.

  8. Hi, i have escape maps still in the pouch with compass, hacksaw and French francs. I can photographs these and email to anyone who might be interested. Cheers, Bob

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