Jasper Maskelyne was a Magician and illusionist and helped create camouflage techniques to assist the British war effort.
Maskelyne before WWII
Born into a family of well-known magicians in 1902, Jasper Maskelyne followed in his family’s footsteps. He carved out an interesting career as a Close up Magician by performing sleight-of-hand tricks and swallowing razor blades without injury on the streets of London before World War II began.
Why did the British Army hire a Magician for their WWII effort?
Joining the War Effort
Maskelyne was a man with an idea. A strange idea that he knew would be good for the war effort, but it was not taken seriously at first. He campaigned hard to convince the British armed forces that magic could assist against the axis forces. The military was skeptical of his idea until he finally persuaded them by creating an illusion of a German warship on the Thames river.
He did this using only a model ship and mirrors!
After convincing the military his illusions would be valuable to the war effort, he was sent by the British army to the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle. While there, his magic was met with disdain. Camouflage during the early parts of WWII was developed and implemented in a clinical, methodical manner. This magician trickery was not welcomed by his wartime colleagues with open arms or hearts.
His colleagues weren’t listening to him. Maskelyne had no choice but to find another audience, so he decided that an impending visit by an Inspector General was the perfect time for a demonstration of his talents – and what better way than disguising a machine gun bunker?
During the General’s tour of the facility, a broom handle that simulated a machine gun whacked him on his legs. The inspector General signed Maskelyne up for a tour of duty in North Africa after being impressed by his ingenuity.
The War Begins
In North Africa, Maskelyne was assigned to the ‘A’ Force deception department. Within that department, he was given command of “The Camouflage Experimental Section” or more commonly known as “The Magic Gang.” His group of professionals included an architect, art restorer, carpenter, a chemist, and other types of people with unique skills. The special group composition was specifically designed to handle any sort of magical operations the British military had for them.
Picture courtesy of https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/jasper-maskelyne-the-magician.html
The British warships were being attacked by the German Luftwaffe when they sailed across the Mediterranean to Alexandria Harbor. After exhausting all their options, the British army tasked the Magic Gang to make Alexandria harbour disappear in order to protect their waships.
The Magic Gang, led by Maskelyne, was bold, pushing their limits to new heights. One of the members had a genius idea: they could replicate an entire harbor out of cardboard! This would serve as a decoy for Luftwaffe fire and draw attention away from where the real port city lay hidden in secrecy.
The faux harbor was not designed at full size, but to appear as if it were from aircraft high in the sky. This form of trickery was created by many soldiers and other support personnel a few miles away on Maryut Bay. They used shadows, ground lights, and explosive charges to mimic an under-siege location when viewed from above by enemy pilots.
The illusion was a success, drawing the pilots’ fire on the first night and then two more consecutive nights after that. The Magic Gang’s technique demonstrated how to disguise other naval bases with decoy installations of light shadow and dummy structures. The use of ‘magic’ in warfare was legitimized after this operation.
The Magic Gang’s next major task was to convince German forces led by Field Marshal Rommel to think that the next British attack would come from the south when in fact British General Montgomery intended to attack Germans from the north. They led the effort to do this. Tanks were disguised to look like everyday trucks in the north and 2000 fake tanks were created in the south. The intent was to convince the Nazis that tanks were storming them from the south while only supply convoys were to their north. They also built a fake railway line, broadcasted fake radio conversations, and even added fake sounds of construction to the illusion.
The deception worked successfully and Montgomery was able to attack the Germans from the north, taking them by surprise in their own territory.
The Magic Gang disbanded after this operation and it is unclear what Maskelyne did for the rest of the war. Some say he was relegated to entertaining soldiers with magic tricks for the rest of WWII while others claim that his talents were used in more important ways.
Maskelyne wrote a book called Magic: Top Secret in 1949 after the war where he describes his exploits. Some believe his book is a work of fiction while others appreciate the contribution he made to the war effort. Given how secretive certain aspects of World War II were, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know if this story is true or not.
The story of Jasper Maskelyne and his wartime accomplishments, regardless of their truth, have inspired many people. His exploits were detailed in a book called The War Magician that was written in 1983 by David Fisher, and in 2003 an action movie starring Tom Cruise was going to be made about his adventures during the war. However, the movie was never made.
Life After the War
Maskelyne moved to Kenya in 1948 where he gave driving and magic lessons to the locals until he died at age 73.
War Magician Film Update!
It looks like the film is actually going to be made