The Ajax Chessmen and Allied POWs.
Imaged created with Crello using public domain imagery. Used with permission.

The Ajax Chessmen and Allied POWs.

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You don't even remember the exact date anymore. Not that it matters. All of your days seem the same now.

You are cold, tired, and hungry. You've been enduring some form of deprivation since you and your allies landed on the beaches of France a few months ago.

But now... things have gone from bad to worse. Your squad somehow managed to get separated from the main Allied force. And, just your luck, you now find yourself in a POW camp somewhere in Europe.

Thankfully the Axis let a charity shipment through to the camp.  After they thoroughly inspected everything, of course.  In addition to a few blankets and some boots, you find a few small cardboard tubes.  The tubes are labeled "Ajax Chessmen."

Finally, you have something to break the doldrums of POW camp life.

Used with permission for fair, non-commercial use. © Imperial War Museum.

Used with permission for fair, non-commercial use. © Imperial War Museum.

You and your buddy sit at a table eager to enjoy a game and take your mind away from the camp for a bit. You open up the tube, spread out the board, and place the pieces.

Pawn to E4. Your buddy responds with E5. But wait a minute...

Something isn't right with this chess set.

The bishop... It is different.  It has a little more heft to it than the other pieces. So you inspect it further and sure enough, you can peel back the top of this flat chess piece. It reveals... a compass!

You and your buddy grin at each other and then casually inspect the tube that originally held the board and pieces, careful not to attract attention.  Were other goodies smuggled in as well?

The cardboard tube looks like it is two layers. You peel back one of the layers and sure enough, in the middle, you can see what appears to be a map.

You think to yourself that it might be time to get serious about that escape plan you and your buddies have been working on. 

What you just experienced happened several times throughout the Axis POW camps during World War II.

Charity shipments to POW camps were not unusual.  Multiple legitimate charities, including the Red Cross, would send items like clothing and games to Allied POWs scattered around the prison camps in Europe.

MI9, a department of the British War Office between 1939 and 1945, got the idea that they would tinker with many of the commonly donated items and embed escape tools into them. Once modified, these items would then be fed into the regular, charitable distribution stream.

So while your buddy might get a normal chess set, you might get the modified version that includes escape tools.

One such example was the Ajax Chessmen set pictured above. It included a compass in one of the pieces and a map of Europe.

Meanwhile, another fellow POW might find a knife embedded into the sole of his donated boots. Another buddy might discover that he could peel off the face of his playing cards to reveal a map.

Interestingly, there were 316 known escape attempts utilizing these kits.

How many of those documented attempts actually made it all the way home?

Ready for this?


Yes.  The documented number of POWs that utilized these kits and returned home was 32.

And thirty-two, of course, also happens to be the exact number of chess pieces.

Wild, right?


(1) The chess set designed to help POWs escape. By Daily Mail. Originally published Nov 2006. Accessed Nov 21, 2020 at

(2) Escape tools. By Escape & Evasion. Accessed Nov 21, 2020 at

(3) Imperial War Museum. Accessed Nov 21, 2020 at

I'm a 40-something, long-time lover of chess who has always been in awe of the complexity of this beautiful game.  I use this blog to share the incredible history of chess and offer some commentary on current chess happenings around the world.  Enjoy!