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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.