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Last Updated: Friday, 24 August 2007, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Dice against the Nazis
Propaganda aimed to reduce fear

By Clive Gilbert and Kevin Allen
BBC News Magazine

Nazi-era board games are being auctioned this week, one with points given for bombing UK cities. But what were British children playing during WWII? It wasn't all hopscotch and conkers, the Brits had their own propaganda games.

Model Spitfires and Hurricanes were commonplace in the toy boxes of the 1940s. The war touched every aspect of life and had a profound effect on childhood.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded that all the country's energies were dedicated to the war effort. Board games, it seems, were no exception.

You can easily imagine people playing, sitting in the air raid shelter, while being bombed by the Luftwaffe
Robert Opie, historian
BBC photos courtesy Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

Take the early wartime game Battle of the River Plate, for example. Based on the first major confrontation between German and British naval forces, it is one of the earliest known games to reflect the international conflict. Players tried to score points by firing wooden sticks at the ship with a spring action. A direct hit caused the gun turrets on the ship to "explode".

Another, Bomber Command, depicts bombing squadrons and invites players to bomb Berlin, at the centre of the playing board. Players take turns to throw dice to move toward the target. When materials were in short supply, the dice were replaced by a numbered spinning card.

"It was a game you can easily imagine people playing sitting in the air raid shelter while being bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz," says historian and author, Robert Opie.

Battles re-enacted

Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising and an expert on nostalgia and culture, is keen to set the record straight.

Bomber Command game
Bomber Command
Decorate Goering - A Party Game
The Battle of the River Plate
The Allies Dart Game
Dash to Berlin
Night Raiders
Hang your Washing on the Siegfried Line
Chase the Enemy
Many games typically re-enacted battles for children and adults, he says. "The Nazis weren't the only ones to produce war games with a propaganda feel. They were as much a part of life as the war itself."

Most of these British games were produced by unknown manufacturers. Board game manufacturing remained a cottage industry in Britain throughout the war, making them rare collectors' items nowadays. The invasion of Norway cut Britain off from supplies of playing card board, exacerbating the shortage of raw materials for making games.

Some games were more overtly political than others. Several dartboards used pictures of infamous political figures as targets. The Plonk dartboard depicted German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop with a snake's body and showed Goering brandishing a cave-man club. Not surprisingly, Hitler is the bullseye with a gaping black mouth which is marked for 100 points.

Similarly, the Allies Dart Game was a large picture of Hitler's face and points were scored depending on where the dart landed. A direct hit on Hitler's moustache scored you 50 points.

Another, entitled Decorate Goering - A Party Game, was based on the classic childrens' game Pin the Tail On the Donkey. Like its more innocuous counterpart, players were blindfolded and had to pin medals on Goering's tunic.

Luke Honey of Bloomsbury Auctions says: "We weren't churning out propaganda games to the extent the Nazis were. I've never come across any board games like those at auction, so these games must be extremely rare."

Comic exploits

The war also had a fascinating effect on the comic books that children read. When the United States entered the war on the Allies side, the American soldiers' care packages contained comic books which eventually found their way into British hands.

Superman as role model, May 1942 (Picture: DC Comics)
Even before the US had entered the war, DC Comics were firmly opposed to Hitler's Nazi regime. Marvel Comics Captain America was also depicted to beat up Hitler and Superman was so anti-Nazi that German propaganda minister Goebbels felt moved to attack the Man of Steel as a Jew.

The first issue of DC's Comic Cavalcade contains an instalment of a series called Ghost Patrol in which the heroines rescue journalists who had been caught behind enemy lines. The story is bluntly entitled "Hitler is a bum".

In an issue of Superman released early in 1943, the superhero protects American navy ships from deep-sea creatures under the control of a Nazi agent. Superman manages to defeat the creatures and their master when the whistle used to control the monsters breaks and they turn on him.

Addie and Hermy
Addie and Hermy (Picture: DC Thomson & Co)
British comics were also used as propaganda vehicles. In the hands of the artists, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering became "Addy and Hermy - The Nasty Nazis" in the Dandy. They were usually embroiled in a scam that inevitably went wrong.

Desperate Dan is portrayed punching Hitler out of Britain. Linguistic stereotyping and overt racism also played a part with Mussolini portrayed as "Musso the Wop".

By ridiculing the enemy it was thought people learnt to fear them less. In this way board games and cartoons all played their part in the war effort.

Send your comments using the form below.

If only toy manufacturers had the guts to try similar things these days! No chance with the levels of political correctness in existence now.
Richard, Kingston upon Thames, UK

I remember playing a game of skill and daring with my brothers during the 1960's called Dover Patrol. The game we had has long disappeared but I have managed to obtain another from the same era, and my two sons and their friends have enjoyed playing with it. A naval game of skill, theft and daring - using submarines, battleships, mines and minelayers, and a flying boat - terrific!
Teresa Adams, Kenilworth, UK

Another thing you could look at is the use of games for recruiting soldiers/militants, see for instance America's Army, a game produced by the US government and US Army.

It is interesting that there are still games being made (mostly computer games these days) based on the second world war: simulator games where you can control planes, ships, U-boats, tanks; first person shooter games; and strategy games. There are also games based on the Vietnam war, Korean war, Arab-Israeli wars, ancient battles between various civilisations, and the present "war on terror". Some games also use predicted future wars based on current political tensions. A pre-9/11 F-16 simulator game had the USA fighting on the side of the Taliban in Afganistan against a Russian-backed Northern Alliance.
beng tang

This is no different from games wee have today - many of the combat flight sims on PCs have reflected current conflicts for years. "Conflict:Desert Storm" to name but one. There have also been many computer games over the years designed to simulate Nuclear war, encouraging the players to select targets in old eastern bloc countries and russia. Games continue to be used as propaganda today.
David McKenzie, Glasgow

Back in 1985 when I was researching comics for my degree dissertation, I came across a load of comics from WWII, mostly British and German but some from other allies. My favourite was a Russian one with caricatures of German leaders and the caption, which translated as.... "The Master Race! Handsome... (like Goebbels), Fit... (like Goering), Blonde... (like Hitler)".
Alcuin Edwards, London, England

Had a lovely wood model of HMS Hood in the early 1940s which I treasured as a 4 year old but which sadly later went the way of most toys. Also we played with gas masks and small parachutes (used for food drops)- no idea where they came from
Trevor E, London, UK

Growing up on military bases, you tend to get a somewhat jingoistic upbringing, so as a kid in the early '70's I got Captain America comics. Even then, Cap was still fighting Nazis, in the form of supervillian Red Skull. That prompted me to ask 'whats a Nazi?'. That was the beginning of a lifelong interest in the Second World War, how people were blinded by the promise of fascism, how truly evil the ideas promoted by fascism were, and how, ultimately, it was defeated by people simply unwilling to live in the world envisioned by Hitler and his ilk.
Don Parsley, Franklin, MA

The early anti-Nazi stance taken by the American comic industry is not entirely surprising. The creators of both Superman (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) and Captain America (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) were Jews and rightly took a stance against the gathering evil in Europe.
Jason Kirk, Highbridge, Somerset

At leat this is a fairly balanced article. When this story broke in the newspapers we were given the impression that it was only the Germans who used this propaganda. I'm married to an extremely peace loving German and the relentless anti German articles (or rather self congradulatory British rightousness)in the press and TV is a constant source of embarassment and regret for me.
Ian, Herts

I can remember playing Blackout as a child, I still have the board but the cards have gone missing
Sparcy, Croydon surrey

Hats off to the BBC for balanced reporting on these games which reflected the issues of the times. What we need now is anti-PC board games!
Jeremy, Houston, Texas

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