Jasper Maskelyne came from a long line of stage magicians. Born in 1902, he was the son of Nevil Maskelyne and the grandson of John Nevil Maskelyne, perhaps the preeminent magician of the Victorian age and inventor of the pay toilet – but that, as they say, is another story.
While Jasper Maskelyne followed in their footsteps with a successful stage career his greatest contribution to history was as the War Magician of WWII.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Maskelyne decided that his talent for illusion would be of most use in the field of camouflage and he volunteered to join the Royal Engineers.
The recruiting officer is said to have been sceptical about how useful a magician would be to the war effort and that Maskelyne convinced him by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a model.
Maskelyne was trained at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle. He found the training boring and in his memoirs he said that ‘a lifetime of hiding things on the stage’ had taught him more about camouflage ‘than rabbits and tigers will ever know’.
The camoufleur Julian Trevelyan observed that he ‘entertained us with his tricks in the evenings’, but that Maskelyne was ‘rather unsuccessful at actually camouflaging concrete pill-boxes’.
Nevertheless, Maskelyne was recruited by MI9, the wartime department of military intelligence tasked with aiding resistance fighters in enemy-occupied territory and recovering Allied troops who found themselves behind enemy lines.
His job was to create small devices intended to help soldiers to escape if captured which included tools hidden in cricket bats, saw blades inside combs, and small maps on objects such as playing cards. he also lectured on escape techniques.
In 1941 Maskelyne joined the Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate based near Cairo which was headed by the filmmaker Geoffrey Barkas who was later responsible for the ‘film set’ of the Operation Bertram deception at the Battle of El Alamein in 1942.
But Maskelyne had moved on by then. He was made the head of the subsidiary Camouflage Experimental Section at Abbassia. This wasn’t a success and in February 1942 he was transferred to welfare – in other words, he was to entertain the troops.
Opinion is divided on just how significant he was to the war effort. The author Peter Forbes writes that Maskelyne’s contribution was ‘either absolutely central (if you believe his account and that of his biographer) or very marginal (if you believe the official records and more recent research)’.
Maskelyne was certainly encouraged to perpetuate the myth of his own inventive genius by the head of MI9 and to take credit for ideas like the dummy Sherman tank on the left, but this was primarily aimed at bolstering the confidence of Allied High Command in these techniques.
Maybe Maskelyne believed his own publicity. He certainly appeared to do so in Magic: Top Secret published in 1949 in which he made all sorts of outlandish claims, such as making cities disappear, and that he and his Magic Gang created ‘dummy men, dummy steel helmets, dummy guns by the ten thousand, dummy tanks, dummy shell flashes by the million, dummy aircraft…’
Maskelyne attempted to resume his stage career after the war without much success and he eventually moved to Kenya to set up a diving school and where he died in 1973.
Even if his story was exaggerated or a figment of his imagination, it is one of those that ought to be true. The History Channel thinks so and below is part one of The War Illusionist that perpetuates the Maskelyne myth. (You can find part two here)