Jasper Maskelyne: the magician who brought his tricks to war


The battlefield was no place to pull rabbits out of hats and other magic tricks, so when Jasper Maskelyne from a family of magicians entered the WWII scene, no one knew how he could face its brand new center stage. Also, no one really expected him to be able to use his magic tricks and translate them for war purposes. But he did.

The magician has gone to war

Jasper Maskelyne was born in London, England in 1902 into a world of magic. His parents were Ada Mary Ardley and magician Nevil Maskelyne. His father was also the son of a well-known man on the British scene, John Nevil Maskelyne: the man who invented the levitation trick.

Magician Jasper Maskelyne (Jasper Maskelynepublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was no surprise for Jasper to follow in his grandfather and father’s footsteps, so he also made a name for himself as a successful stage magician. In 1936 he published his book Maskelyne’s Book of Magic, where he described a range of stage tricks such as sleight of hand, card tricks, rope tricks and “mind reading” illusions.

The following year, he appeared in a Pathe film called “The Famous Illusionist”, where he performed his famous tricks to look like he was swallowing razor blades.

When World War II broke out, his ticket sales dropped dramatically and this affected his finances. To alleviate his financial difficulties, Maskelyne decides to enlist in the army.

Take advantage of his talent

Because of his background, he reported for work with the Royal Engineers Camouflage Development and Training Center on October 14, 1940. One could easily assume that this area would be the best place for a successful magician, and can -maybe he thought so too. This was not the case, however, and his concepts were often met with skeptical faces. At that time, camouflage and other military tactics were studied, developed and implemented in a methodical approach, and the use of magic trickery was frowned upon.

Jasper Maskelyne and a Force, Royal Engineers. Full length photograph of Jasper Maskelyne, the illusionist whose talents were employed by A Force, Royal Engineers, to design and develop methods of camouflage for Allied Forces during the Desert War. (Unknown authorpublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

For Maskelyne, he wouldn’t give up his talent easily, so he always wanted to use it. The opportunity arose when the Inspector General visited, and he showed off his skills by making a machine gun bunker “disappear”. The Inspector General was impressed to have signed Maskelyne for a tour of duty in Cairo in 1941. There he was allowed to form his own unit in return for performing in front of the troops, which he happily did .

The Magic Gang and its tricks

Brigadier Dudley Clarke approached Maskelyne and asked if he would be interested in adapting his skills to espionage with MI9 as part of ‘Force ‘A’, a group set up by General Sir Archibald Wavell to support the MI9 in forms of deception.

In North Africa, he was given command of the “Experimental Camouflage Section” within Force “A”, commonly referred to as “The Magic Gang”. His group consisted of architects, art restorers, carpenters, a chemist and others with unique skills. Together, they all pulled off a series of some of the best magic tricks ever attempted in war.

They once created sun shades by stretching painted canvas over half the tank to conceal it. To make sure they worked, a British reconnaissance pilot flew over to test if he would be able to spot the tank, and he couldn’t.

The other was when The Magic Gang was tasked with protecting the city of Alexandria. There were too many ships to conceal using the sun visors, so they had to find something else. The solution was to build a fake city of Alexandria, which was entrusted to Maskelyne.

‘Sunshield’ split cover, half over, half over a tank in the workshops of the Middle East Command Camouflage Development and Training Centre, Helwan, Egypt, 1941. (British Middle East Command Camouflage Directoratepublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so, they created a lure port at Maryut Bay with nothing but cardboard and mud. They also placed lights along the false port, then filled them with explosives. The show started once the Luftwaffe flew in to attack Alexandria. When the German pilot dropped the bombs on the fake town, Maskelyne blew up some of the ships and buildings to trick the pilot into thinking he had succeeded. In reality, Alexandria remained unscathed.

One of their most ambitious tricks was to make the Suez Canal disappear. To make this possible, they started by using 21 searchlights to form a string of lights along the length of the canal, about 100 miles up in the sky. When the lights were turned on, they created a swirling light which prevented the Luftwaffe bomber from attacking Allied shipping along the canal.

Maskelyne’s group also played a crucial role in the Battle of El Alamein, which was a strategic point in the control of North Africa. To lure enemies and make it look like an attack would come from the south, Maskelyne made the British trucks look like tanks in the south using canvas and painted plywood while the actual tanks in the north were disguised to look like trucks.

They also left imitation tank tracks in the desert to make the deception more convincing, as well as fake radio transmissions, construction sounds, and a fake water pipe. Thanks to all this, the Eighth Army won the battle of Alamein.

The deception worked successfully and Montgomery was able to attack with the Eighth Army from the North and win the Battle of El Alamein.

Force ‘A’ was disbanded after the war, while Maskelyne was blacklisted by the Gestapo with a bounty placed on his head. After the war he returned to England and later moved to Kenya in 1948, where he lived until he was 70 years old.

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