A book by David Fisher, published in 1983, and now sadly out of print. This is the bizarre but true story of Jasper Maskelyne, an English magician who, without firing a single shot, helped the Allies win World War II.

Jasper, grandson of the famous magician John Nevil Maskelyne, was born in 1902. In the 30's he became famous in the music hall scene with his feats of magic, but his life changed when he joined the army to help fight the Nazi menace. Maskelyne was convinced that his flair for conjuring could help the Allies, but his army colleagues were unimpressed, sending him to the Royal Engineers Camouflage Corps to keep him busy. What possible use could a magician be to the war effort? Maskelyne's point was that if he could fool an audience merely yards away, he could easily fool an enemy who was a mile or more away. To prove his point, Maskelyne managed to hide a machine gun nest using mirrors and ambushed the army Inspector General. Later, using more mirrors and trickery, Maskelyne made it look as if a German warship was casually patrolling the river Thames. By now convinced, the army sent him off to see what he could do in North Africa, where there was a shortage of soldiers and equipment, in the hope that he could create more wonders from nothing. The strategists were starting to realise that during a war, it helped to deceive the enemy as to your actual intentions and positions.

Arriving in Damascus, Maskelyne had a "magic duel" with the Iman of the Whirling Dervish tribe - coincidentally, Maskelyne's father Nevil had once carried out a similar duty for Lawrence of Arabia. After winning the duel, Maskelyne was placed in charge of the camouflage unit in North Africa, and was pretty much left to do as he pleased. (Go here for another example of a magic duel).

Maskelyne came into his own at this point, creating tanks, ships, and armies using (literally) smoke and mirrors. Tanks were disguised so that they looked like harmless old trucks. Harmless old trucks were disguised so that they looked like tanks. German planes were fooled into bombing harmless empty land. Every night, Maskelyne "hid" Alexandria Harbour and the Suez Canal. Alexandria Harbour was hidden by creating a full scale replica three miles away, with fake buildings, fake lights, and fake anti-aircraft guns. The Suez Canal had a complex system of spinning mirrors and lights which created a nine-mile wide pattern of moving lights in the sky, making it impossible for bombers to see their target.

But all these feats paled into insignificance in 1942. Rommel's forces were waiting for Monty's El Alamein attack, and Maskelyne threw all his energy into convincing Rommel that the attack would come from the South, whereas the real attack would come from the North. In the North, a thousand tanks were made to look like trucks. In the South, two thousand fake tanks were created, with flash powder and sound effects to complete the illusion. A fake railway line and water pipeline were constructed, with sound effects mimicking the sounds of the building work. Rommel saw what appeared to be a half finished project, and decided that the attack would be a long time coming. Suddenly, the real attack came from the North, catching the Germans with their collective pants down, and forcing them to retreat. Maskelyne had done it again.

Sadly, after the war, things didn't go so well. Although Maskelyne was praised by Winston Churchill for his role in the war, it was in private. He didn't get any medals or official recognition, and is hardly even mentioned in the history books - Monty gets all the credit for winning El Alamein. Maskelyne never again found the same level of success, the public had lost interest in stage magic. He moved to Kenya, started a driving school, and died in 1973.

In 2001, it was announced that Tom Cruise was to star in a movie version of Maskelyne's wartime exploits. Cruise seems to really want to portray a magician in a movie; a few years ago he was linked to a rumoured film about the life of Harry Houdini, apparently spending hours a day working on his prestidigitation, but nothing came of it. It would be great if this movie was made, for two reasons: it would make a cracking film, and Maskelyne would finally be able to get the recognition he deserved.



If anyone has a copy of the David Fisher book, or knows where to get one, please please please let me know, I'd love to read the whole thing. Update: I found a copy, on www.abebooks.com - it searches second hand shops around the world for you, and you can buy with your credit card, wherever you are. There is a History Channel documentary called The War Illusionist which tells the Maskelyne story; again, if anyone has a copy on video and is willing to lend it to me, I'll be your best friend (until I've watched it, then you're on you're own again).