Jasper Maskelyne, the magician who fooled the Germans with his tricks in World War II

Jasper Maskelyne in Cairo, 1942 / photo Jasper Maskelyne

In 1983, the famous magician David Copperfield caused a sensation by making the New York City Statue of Liberty disappear in a live television broadcast. It is curious that almost forty years before, in the middle of World War II, another illusionist also performed a magical feat of great proportions, although in his case it was not a disappearance but quite the opposite: the creation of a whole city, something that he later expanded by originating an army from nothing. His name was Jasper Maskelyne.

He was born in London in 1902 with the blood of a magician in his veins, since his father, Nevil, and his grandfather, John Nevil, were already dedicated to this profession. The grandfather discovered his vocation by attending the shows of the famous Davenport brothers, some American spiritualists who attributed their tricks to powers from beyond, taking advantage of the fashion of this subject that was beginning to become widespread in Victorian England (Harry Kellar collaborated with them).

Nevil Maskelyne circa 1903/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The fact is that, in a show he organized in 1865, John Nevil revealed to the audience that the couple’s most popular trick, the music box, had nothing supernatural about it -he always fought what he considered a mere superstition- and he proved it by recreating it himself with such success that he left the 10th Cotswold Rifle Corps, of which he was a member together with his assistant, to devote himself to the world of show business.

Jasper Maskelyne on New Year’s Day 1937/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

From someone like that, inventor of many illusions (among them levitation, which was sublimated by a famous collaborator, Robert-Houdin, although Kellar stole the idea by bribing an employee) but also of more practical things like public bathrooms with coin locks (which originated the euphemism of spending a penny to allude to the satisfaction of physiological needs), one could not expect but that his son would follow in his footsteps and he did. Nevil, born in 1863, inherited his father’s artistic enterprise, Maskelyne’s Ltd. He may not have been as successful as a magician, but he was successful as an inventor, being one of the pioneers of wireless telegraphy and confronting Marconi, whose demonstrations he tried to sabotage.

However, he published several books on magic, such as Our Magic: The Art in Magic, The Theory of Magic, The Practice of Magic and On the Performance of Magic. That is why after marrying Ada Marie Adley and having three children, it seemed inevitable that someone would follow the family tradition by devoting himself to illusionism. The two youngest did so, the youngest being the most successful: Jasper. Like his father, in 1936 he also wrote a treatise, The Book of Magic, in which he outlined a number of tricks, some of them hand games, others of cards and several of a larger scale, based on the subjectivity of perceptions, which prefigured what was to be his great professional achievement.

In 1937 he even starred in a film by Pathé (a film business group founded in 1896 by the brothers Charles, Émilie, Théophile and Jacques Pathé), The Famous Illusionist, in which Jasper appeared eating razor blades. These were buoyant years, but the black clouds of war were looming on the horizon, and when it finally broke out, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers, thinking that his knowledge could help in matters of camouflage. It was not petulance, as we shall see; but, if we pay attention to the legend, he could not persuade the officers of his skepticism until, resorting to mirrors and a model, he left them astonished seeing a ship of the Kriegsmarine sailing on the Thames.

If that story is true, it was so compelling that in 1940 he was assigned to Farnham Castle, a 12th century castle in Surrey, whose 20,000 square meters served as the headquarters for the Camouflage Development and Training Centre. There he met with other artists, all good representatives of Surrealism, such as Roland Penrose (Quaker historian and poet, author of Home Guard Manual of Camouflage), Stanley William Hayter (painter and printmaker) and Julian Trevelyan (poet and printmaker).

Renaissance tower of Farnham Castle/Image: BabelStone on Wikimedia Commons

Jasper would later declare that it was a boring period because he had learned much more about the art of hiding and pretending on stage than he had there. For his part, Trevelyan said that his partner had failed to camouflage pillboxes (a type of bunker made of concrete blocks), although he admitted that he entertained them at night with his sleight of hand.

Brigadier Dudley Clark, the creator of the British Commandos, who had received from a former superior, General Archibald Wavell, the commission to develop an intelligence section whose specialty was camouflage, with a view to applying it to the North African campaign he was in charge of, then entered the scene. Jasper went to Cairo, where Wavell had created the A Force and let the magician gather a group of fourteen men from different specialties who became known as The Magic Gang. He was to teach the soldiers evasion techniques and design small tools that could be hidden in everyday objects, such as saws on cricket bats or maps on apparently normal cards.

Archibald Wavell, between Bernard L. Montgomery and Claude Auchinleck/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In November 1941 he joined the Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate, the unit of Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Barkas, a former filmmaker who had written manuals on vehicle camouflage techniques with nets, in addition to having one of his officers, artist Steven Sykes, who had in his resume the decoration of a chapel in Coventry Cathedral, manufactured a false train that diverted the attention of the enemy bombers from the real railway line, the one that linked the coast with Misheifa, a fundamental route for the arrival of supplies.

But that stage was brief because he later moved to the Camouflage Experimental Section of Abbassia, also in Egypt, and in February 1942, since that section was dissolved, he was assigned to entertain the troop with his magic tricks. Doubts remain about the degree of participation and responsibility he had in certain actions that, in the end, were what made him famous. The first was the protection of the port of Alexandria against air attacks, for which a prop city was built a few miles away, in the town of Maryut Bay, in the summer of 1941. Likewise, the lighting reflectors of the Suez Canal were used to make the work of the German pilots more difficult by reflecting the light beams in rotating stroboscopic mirrors.

Operation Bertram Map/Image: Chiswick Chap on Wikimedia Commons

More notorious would have been the aforementioned collaboration with Steven Sykes in Operation Bertram, a plan to trick Rommel into believing that there was an army that did not really exist. To this end, six hundred tanks were built and thousands of dummies were placed, as well as barracks, tanks and even a mock oil pipeline, all made of improvised materials and accompanied by radio signals that imitated the hustle and bustle of the activity to confuse the Afrika Korps. Incredibly, the trap worked and influenced the course of the Battle of El Alamein, since, as General Wilhelm Josef Ritter von Thoma later confessed to Montgomery, they thought there was a hidden armored division to attack them from the south.

Although in his book Magic Top Secret, published in 1949, Jasper concedes a fundamental role to himself in this deception, it seems that in reality he did not take part directly and that only his ephemeral passage under the orders of Barkas had made him remember some tricks that he had proposed to them, which were the ones that inspired the final applications. At least that’s what many authors who have reviewed the subject say today, some of whom accuse him of claiming to have “won the war alone“.

Maskelyne and his troupe on an African tour that took them from Nairobi to Cape Town in 1950/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Now, another interesting theory is that the magician exaggerated his role by order of Clarke, to protect the real architects of Operation Bertram from German counter-intelligence, as well as to highlight the importance of those techniques, until then not taken too seriously by the Allied commanders (for Operation Overlord, on the other hand, they took good note and created a phantom army). The truth about Jasper will probably not be known until 2046, when the archives that are still under secret will be declassified.

In any case, when the war was over, the magician returned to the stage and was appointed president of the Wessex Magical Association. But times had changed and neither those shows attracted as much as before because of the television competition nor his son Alistair wanted to continue the profession. Although he was left with the nickname of War Magician, his role was never officially recognized, which made him sad and fell into alcoholism. He died in Kenya, where he had retired from debt to run a driving school, in 1973.


Sources

White magic. The story of Maskelynes (Jasper Maskelyne)/The War Magician. The man who conjured victory in the desert (David Fisher)/Churchill’s wizards: The british genius for deception 1914-1945 (Nicholas Rankin)/Dazzled and deceived. Mimicry and camouflage/(Peter Forbes)/La palmera y la esvástica. La odisea del Afrika Korps (Carlos Canales Torres y Miguel del Rey)/Wikipedia