The War Magician

The life of Jasper Maskelyne, stage magician and illusionist, was one of great accomplishments that many have never heard of due to the shroud of secrecy surrounding it.

Born in England in 1902, Jasper was the third generation of a famed family line of illusionists that started with his grandfather, John Nevil Maskelyne, founder of the Magic Circle and famed magician of the Victorian era. Trained by his family, Jasper continued the family business and went on to stage fame in the 1930s.

In 1939, during the outbreak of World War II, Jasper enlisted with the British army. The British were not entirely sure what to do with him so they assigned him to the Royal Engineers Camouflage Corps. While training in Britain, Jasper's superiors were still not convinced that he could provide any more help other than being a good source of entertainment for the troops.

Convinced that he was capable of much more, Jasper set about to convince them otherwise. Aware that Lord Gort, Inspector General of the British Army, was about to make an inspection round of the camouflage training center, Jasper used mirrors to hide a machine gun nest on the facilities and ambush the inspector. He then created an illusion of a German warship floating on the Thames.

Lord Gort realized that Jasper could be put to good use in creating the illusion of armaments. To put the talents to use, he sent Jasper to the North Africa battlefields where the British army was lacking in numbers.

In 1941, General Wavell, who commanded the British forces in North Africa, put together the A Force. This unit was dedicated to counter-intelligence and deception, a tactic that was certainly being used to great effect by the Axis and Allies. Jasper was posted to this unit where he was expected to use his illusionist skills to assist the British war efforts.

To that effect, Jasper assembled a group of 14 individuals with backgrounds in chemistry, electrical engineering, and stage construction. This group, referred to as the Magic Gang, used their creative skills to develop innovative deceptions.

With the idea of making the British armaments looking larger than they were, the Magic Gang created fake tanks out of plywood. Fake tank tracks were even developed after the plywood tanks were put into place. This led German forces to attack the fakes and, therefore, wasting valuable time and resources and also protecting the real troops and armaments from harm.

The Magic Gang also designed spy equipment and escape tools that could be hidden effectively in pilot uniforms if they were captured.

In 1941, Jasper and the Magic Gang protected Alexandria Harbour from German bombers by creating a fake harbour nearby. This fake harbour, complete with a lighthouse, buildings, and even fake anti-aircraft guns with flashes to simulate fire, convinced the Germans enough for them to continue bombing it for days without realizing their error.

During that same period, he also helped protect the Suez Canal by setting up searchlights with a revolving cone of mirrors. This setup produced a blinding spinning wheel of light that distracted the Germans so much that they could not see where the canal was.

In 1942, Operation Bertram became the defining moment for Jasper and the Magic Gang. The operation's mission was to mislead the German forces under Erwin Rommel as to where and when a British counter-attack would take place.

About a 1,000 tanks camouflaged as service trucks were placed at the northern German line while 2,000 fakes were set up about 30 miles south. The fakes were outfitted with special effects to mimic tank fire. Furthermore, a fake railway line was built and fake radio transmissions and sound effects were created to mimic the noise of construction.

Finally, a fake water pipline was built as a supply line to the simulated armaments. Built in full view of German spy planes, the progress was deliberately made to look slow to convince the Germans that an attack would not be ready until some time in November. Convinced of that ruse and of the apparent attack plan from the south, the Germans concentrated their line to that end.

On October 23rd, the battle of El Alamein began as British troops stormed in and caught the Germans unprepared. The battle continued for 10 days and at its conclusion, about 30,000 lives were lost - 2/3 of them were German. This decisive battle allowed the British to eventually control the North Africa battefront and Prime Minister Winston Churchill praised Jasper and the Magic Gang in the House of Commons.

After the El Alamein battle, however, the Magic Gang was disbanded as there was no further need for its services. Other than the kind words of the Prime Minister, Jasper received no official decoration nor honour as recognition for his contributions. As further insult, official records of the war in North Africa made little to no mention of him and his Magic Gang.

Jasper later published a book in 1949 recounting his war efforts. Titled Magic: Top Secret, it was a very colourful account of his accomplishments. A somewhat more factual retelling of his work would come later in the form of The War Magician by David Fisher in 1983.

After the war, Jasper tried to revive his stage career but found that stage magic was not as highly regarded as it once was. Bitter from not receiving the same recognition as other war veterans, Jasper moved to Kenya where he established a driving school and died in 1973, a forgotten hero.

It should be worth noting that Tom Cruise has plans to produce a film based on Fisher's account of Jasper Maskelyne. Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Witness, The Truman Show) is in talks to direct.

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