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Silk maps were one of the most ingenious ideas of the Second World War. During WWII, thousands of maps were produced by the British on silk, thin cloth and tissue paper.

A serviceman captured or shot down in enemy territory should have the map to help avoid capture or find his way to safety.
Silk maps were issued specially to airmen so that they could sew them into their clothes or wear them around their neck. They could also be concealed in a cigarette packet or in the hollowed-out heal of a boot and, being made of silk, they would not make a rustling sound if the captive was searched.

Producing the maps was a process shrouded in secrecy and it is not possible to know how many maps were made or whether they were used. However, one can assume that they were invaluable as during the course of the war over 35,000 imprisoned men did manage to escape across enemy lines into Allied territory.

Your comments:

  • The printing of maps on silk was a WW2 idea and they are still made for various theatres of operations (I have cold war examples and have seen a very recent Afghanistan example).
    In the 3rd Anglo-Boer war 1899-1902 examples were made with instructions for various bits of equipment on them (e.g. rifles, as some of the Yeomanry had had negligible training).
    I also have a St.John's Ambulance triangular bandage with instructions printed on it of approx WW1 date.
    The original idea was civilian, I'm not sure when it started but Souvenir and Cigarette silks (precursors to Cig cards) were popular in the late 19thC.
    .......... J Harriss, Reading, 20th of December 2012

  • My sisters and I have recently discovered many old WWII items my father kept. He was a pilot and flew the China-Burma-India hump in C-54's and C-109's. He had 2 such silk scarves in the artefacts we found. Around the edges of the maps in several different dialects of the regions, were instructions on what to do if someone found him. They roughly said "This is an American airman. If you find him wounded, help him, feed him and get him to the nearest allied air base and you will be rewarded." Although they are in surprisingly good condition, I'd like to know if there is a way to clean them without damaging them. I'm scared to experiment. Thanks. LGC

    See below for curators answer:

    I have been asked this question many times, and the answer is, please don't try.

    They will be very fragile and made of pure silk, so the advice of a professional conservator is leave well alone.

    Sorry I cant be of more help, just enjoy them and the wonderful history surrounding them

    .......... Leslie Gannaway Calhoun, Monroe, LA USA, 15th of July 2011

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