War games: tabloid edition

I've been reading the Daily Mail quite a lot since I've been here, but only issues published in 1940 or earlier. So I'm grateful to Jakob for pointing me in the direction of an article in today's edition about German boardgames from the Second World War. It's fascinating, but why is it news? Ostensibly because a German collector is auctioning them in Britain, but really the point would seem to be to contrast the bloodthirsty German kids of 1940 with their far more innocent British counterparts:

During the dark days of the Second World War, British children passed the time with marbles, hopscotch, tiddlywinks and, for a lucky few, a Monopoly set.

But over in Germany, the amusements were far less innocent.

In one version of bagatelle named Bombers over England, children as young as four were encouraged to blow up settlements by firing a spring-driven ball on to a board featuring a map of Britain and the tip of Northern Europe.

Players were awarded a maximum 100 points for landing on London, while Liverpool was worth 40.

It's not just the Mail either. Says the Sun:

WARTIME Nazi board games rewarding German children for “blowing up” British targets have been unearthed.

The 1940s toys show that while UK kids played marbles and tiddlywinks, German youngsters were trying to score points by destroying London.

The Daily Mirror titles its story "Sick 'blast Brits' Nazi toys found" and adds that 'Board games based on snakes and ladders and battleships also get a disturbing Nazi twist'.

Well, Nazis are an easy target, aren't they -- even juvenile ones. But of course, as I've discussed here recently, British children played war games too, so it's really rather silly to pretend that they spent the whole war playing tiddlywinks, whereas the kinder on the other side of the North Sea were plotting the destruction of Britain. And to their credit, most of the commenters on the articles have seen through this too (one even mentioned L'Attaque!)

My only caveat here is that the British games I wrote about previously are rather more defensive in orientation -- showing Britain attacked, not attacking. But I did wonder if there might have been games of a more offensive nature. And it seems that there were! Two of the commenters on the (would you believe) Metro article list the names of a number of games made in the Second World War and mostly, it would seem, inspired by Bomber Command's raids on Germany:

  • Raiders and Fighters
  • Pinpoint the Bomber, designed by Francis Chichester
  • Target for Tonight, a ''Snakes and Ladders' based game where the object is to be first to drop your bombs over Berlin'
  • Ariel Combat [sic; presumably "Aerial Combat"]
  • The Way to Berlin
  • Bomber Command

The sources are even given: the first three are described in Peter Doyle and Paul Evans, The Home Front: British Wartime Memorabilia, 1939-1945 (Crowood Press, 2007); the latter three are in the British Museum though I didn't see them there! The only one of these I can find mention of online is the one by Chichester, which looks like it was designed to teach map-reading and navigational skills. It's actually a book1 and sounds a little bit Choose Your Own Adventure-ish to me! The flyleaf is said to read:

Pinpoint the Bomber describes a new form of game and a large map of the territory from Kent to the Rhineland is provided. The player is given the necessary clues to his position and must tax his skills and ingenuity to deduce from them exactly where he is, in other words to "pinpoint" the bomber on the map.

To players who have no direct interest in flying, the test of their ability has all the fascination of a detective story or crossword puzzle.

At the same time, they will be thrilled to read of the difficulties besetting an air-navigator on an operational raid into Germany, by following the progress of the raid on a map exactly to the same scale as the maps used by our navigators when raiding Germany, and by studying actual air photographs of enemy territory.

Players who hope one day to become air navigators can learn more about the art and principles of map-reading from two hours with the game than from two hundred hours air experience if untrained

And one of the entries in the book reads:

Item 16. Heavy flack ! The pilot takes avoiding action, but you forget to record his changes in course. After 3 minutes you do not know where you are. But, with a luck you certainly don't deserve you see through a very small gap in the clouds the junction of a large river and a canal-river. This junction is at the North end of a town, the canal-river runs south west through the middle of it...

(Apparently Aalst, near Brussels.)

This is absolutely fascinating and I'm going to have to have a look at this next time I'm in the BL!

But getting back to the German games, none of them appear to be proto-wargames in the sense I discussed previously: they are all too symmetric. As far as one can tell from the pictures (the Mail has a few, and the Sun has a slideshow as well) they are just adaptations of more traditional games, and so the mechanics have nothing to do with war as such. (Gotta love the Axis and Allies-style plastic ships and planes, though, in what I assume is Mit "Prien" gegen England.)

Perhaps most interesting is the one which doesn't fit into the "German kids wanted to destroy London!" theme. From the Mail again:

Incredibly a fourth, titled "V Game", plots an altogether different attack - on Hitler himself. Inspired by tiddlywinks, players flick coloured 'V-1 rockets' into a game board boasting targets of the Fuhrer and his cronies.

Mr Westwood-Brookes said: "It is a most unbelievable act of courage on the part of its makers. It is hardly the sort of thing you would want to be found with if the Gestapo came calling."

Indeed; you'd have to think it was practically suicidal. But that's assuming the interpretation given is correct. The last photo on the Mail page would appear to be the game in question (it's clearly wrongly captioned). The Nazi leaders as targets are Hitler, Goering, von Ribbentrop, Goebbels, Himmler, von Papen and von Rundstedt. The last two are a bit odd: von Papen surely was not particularly influential during the war (he was ambassador to Turkey, 1939-44); von Rundstedt was of course one of the highest-ranking army officers, not a Nazi leader as such. But there are cities as targets also: six letters spelling out B E R L I N, then Hamburg, Stuttgart, and so on (Danzig is there so presumably it was made after 1939). A subversive game about trying to knock off the Nazi leadership (using V1s!) is perhaps plausible -- but is it likely that in such a game you'd be trying to blow up German cities too? It doesn't seem so to me. Maybe V is for Victory and it's actually an Allied game -- but then the city names are German (München, not Munich). Maybe it's Allied propaganda? I can't really make sense of this game, so I'll just have to assume that whoever is selling it has a better idea than me.

Update: I see the BBC also has this story. It says the following about V Game (I think):

The games also include one possibly made in liberated Belgium in late 1944, where players throw crude darts at a board denoting German cities and representations of the Nazi regime. The bullseye is Adolf Hitler.

Well, that does sound like the game in the picture. So is V Game something else or has the story changed? A liberated country probably makes more sense than Germany as the origin for the game as described.

Unfortunately the Beeb, like the tabloids, can't resist quoting the auction house's historian about the huge gulf in national characteristics on display by these games:

They say a lot about the Nazis, and about the German regime. Our kids were still playing trains and Meccano and hopscotch and things like that.

But also things not like that.

Update 2: the BBC have more than made up for previously going along with the herd by publishing an excellent article on British war games of the period. So we have still more examples of the genre: Decorate Goering -- A Party Game, The Battle of the River Plate, The Allies Dart Game, Dash to Berlin, A.R.P., Night Raiders, Hang your Washing on the Siegfried Line, Chase the Enemy, Air-Scouts! The Great Air Flight Game, Black-Out, and something called Monopoly (but isn't). The last three are mentioned in the slide show; Black-Out in particular looks rather intriguing -- with its map of London from Holborn to Hyde Park Corner, it looks like it may be about the perils of trying to navigate the city in pitch-blackness.

Thanks again to Jakob for the tip!


  1. Francis Chichester. Pinpoint the Bomber: A Game, in Textbook Form, to Teach the Principles of Map Reading. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1942. 

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9 thoughts on “War games: tabloid edition

  1. Jess Nevins

    I’ve read what British kids were reading during WW2, and I’ve read what German kids were reading during WW2, and there’s not a whit of difference between them as far as violence was concerned.

  2. Alun

    I’ve been reading the Daily Mail quite a lot since I’ve been here… One of the most terrifying sentences I’ve read on a blog. :)

  3. Jakob

    My favourite comment on the Mail article:
    Today children play computer games involving stealing cars, killing policemen and generally committing mayhem. At least the German children were attacking their country’s then enemy.

    GTA – worse than the Nazis!

    Also noted: the aircraft on the Fallschirmjaeger-spiel looks like a Focke-Wulf Fw187, which is a fairly obscure aircraft to use.

  4. Post author

    Jess:

    Thanks, that makes sense. I don’t think kids (at least boys) mind violence in fiction, as long as everyone gets their just desserts in the end!

    Alun:

    Sorry! I better not mention that being able to read the Daily Mail was actually my main reason for coming here at all …

    Jakob:

    You could be right about the Fw 187 — that’s a Spotto! point for you.

    I realised that the auction house’s web site might have some more information and pictures, and it does (see the preceding page as well). It has a photo of the board for Das U-boot Spiel which looks like it may be a map (though perhaps not an accurate one) of Scapa Flow, ie implying the game is asymmetric. There’s also more detail about V Game, and they are V-1s (there’s a picture of the cover) and it does appear to be from Belgium. Their description reads:

    WWII The V Game. Original children’s game devised possibly in Belgium (though bearing a French mark of Brevete S.G.O.G. 28620P VC) almost certainly during WWII and based on the concept of the V1 rocket. In original box with colour printed cartoon on the lid showing Hitler with a crown on his head sitting astride a V1 rocket surrounded by stars. Made from fairly crude card (consistent with the deprivation of the times) printed rules in French Flemish and English to inside lid (hence our attribution to Belgium). Box a little distressed but interior contents complete and in good order. A remarkable survivor and even more so if this does in fact date from the days when Belgium was occupied. The idea of the game is based on a sort of ‘tiddlywinks’ principle. Each player had a spring powered ‘launcher’ and a ‘V1′ (which was a bead drilled with a hole in the middle). Inside the box was a game board rather like a dartboard but with various round sections in concentric rings. The outer ring was worth 10 points and related to various German cities including Munich Frankfurt Mainz Essen etc. The next ring of six sections was Berlin itself (B-E-R-L-I-N) and if your V1 landed in one of those it was worth 25 points. The next ring was devoted to the ‘Hitler Gang’ of Goebbels Von Ribbetropp Von Rundstedd Von Pappen and Himmler. If you hit these it was worth 50 points. The ‘Bullseye’ was Hitler himself worth 100 points. The date of this game remains in doubt but it seems most probable that it was produced in wartime and under occupation – and if so would represent a remarkable act of courage by those who produced it. We would suggest that as the V1 is used as the basis of the game rather than the later V2 it would place the invention of this game at around 1944 at a time when the German occupation of Belgium was coming to an end but would have still been very real. If this is the case then the possession of the game would have been most unwise.We have been unable to trace any reference to this game

    I would still suggest, however, that it’s unlikely to have been produced during the occupation (why would it have instructions in English?); a Belgian game revolving around launching V1s at German cities and leaders suggests to me that it’s an imaginary revenge for the V1 attacks on Antwerp, so October 1944 or later. (Though it would still need to be explained why V1s and not V2s which were more numerous at first; on the other hand there were more V1s overall and a lot more in February 1945 — 12 a day according to this.) Of course it would probably sell for less if they said that.

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  7. Chuck

    Some time in the early ’50s (I was about 12 or 13) I went on a school exchange to Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony, Germany. Whilst there I was treated extremely well by everyone and it was probably that trip which fostered my love of the country and people which has survived to this day.
    The Daily Mail article was obviously written with the 20-20 vision of hindsight and is merely one of the many decrying the actions of both sides of the conflict with no regard, or indeed knowledge, of the very real suffering experienced all over the world at that time. The measures that all the combatants employed were, in the main, what they regarded as necessary to end the conflict.
    However, while in Wolfsburg I saw the box of a board game, the lid of which depicted a Lancaster going down in flames. This intrigued me (I’ve always had an interest in aircraft) but my hosts were most reluctant to speak of it and I’ve never forgotten it. Not because of the picture – I’ve always wondered what the game was like!

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