World War II has no shortage of heroes especially those that had no previous military experience. However, when duty called a British magician decided to get in on the act using the skills he had honed on stage his entire life.
In the process, a legend – true but perhaps a bit embellished – was born and in the process the British would outsmart the invincible Desert Fox – Rommel.
Jasper Maskelyne was born in 1902 to a long line of magicians. His family had operated a theater for magic and illusions for decades. His father and grandfather were both masters at the craft.
Maskelyne worked as a stage performer until the war broke out and so joined the army hoping to contribute his illusionist skills. He struggled fitting in with Army life and had a large degree of difficulty convincing the British command of the value of his craft. Eventually, he was assigned to the British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate in Egypt in 1941.
From there the facts get shady.
Based on Maskelyne’s claims in his book Magic: Top Secret, written after the war, several operations were created and under his direction during the North African campaign in order to deceive the enemy.
The 1st of the most noteworthy operations was “disappearing” the harbor of Alexandria in June of 1941. According Maskelyne’s book and some other sources, it was impossible to actually camouflage the real harbor. Therefore, Maskelyne’s group endeavored to build a second harbor to convince the German Luftwaffe to bomb the incorrect location.
The ruse was completed by building a series of fake docks, buildings, lights, and even installing explosive devices. All lights are ordered out in Alexandria but are turned on at the dummy site at Maryut Bay located a few miles from Alexandria.
When the Luftwaffe bombers arrive at night to bomb the harbor full of new supply ships, the explosives in the fake harbor are ignited which light up the ground area for the German pilots and bombardiers who believed that one of their comrades had already dropped their bombs on the target.
The ruse worked, and the Luftwaffe bombed the fake harbor that night, but for two additional nights. According to Maskelyne, the success of the operation catapulted his group of men, known as the “Magic Gang”, to further assignments for the British Army in North Africa.
The Lights of Suez
In another operation claimed by Maskelyne but with little in the official record, his group was tasked with protecting the Suez Canal from bombardment by the Luftwaffe. There are contradicting reports, but the story goes that the “Magic Gang”, and Maskelyne in particular, invented a conversion to the searchlights used by anti-aircraft crews that essentially turned them into rotating strobe lights.
Using the skills he had honed as a magician, Maskelyne used lighting to distort and confuse his audience, which in this case were Luftwaffe pilots. These lights when aimed at enemy aircraft would then irritate, confuse, blind, and in some cases disorient the pilots rendering them useless during the attack.
While there are conflicting stories as to the source of the invention or its actual use, there are photos of a prototype and all information regarding the project are sealed as Top Secret by the British Government.
What is clear is that the Suez Canal and its locks didn’t suffer any significant damage during the war and remained an open and vital source for Allied logistics.
The 2nd Battle of El Alamein
One piece of deception used by the British in North Africa is not debated. Montgomery’s attack at El Alamein codenamed Operation Bertrum used a dummy army and tank force to convince German Field Marshal Rommel of an impending assault from the south.
The German and Italian forces at El Alamein knew that an attack was coming. They were prepared. The question for them was in determining from which direction or directions the attack would come. The British under Bernard Montgomery knew that the key to breaking through the Axis defenses would be difficult and sought out ways to improve their odds.
The British forces set about by stationing a large portion of their tanks and other units in the south in advance of their attack. During this stage, a series of illusions were created to keep the Axis focused on the southern build up.
Amongst the may different decoys were mockups of tanks, trucks, aircraft, and even soldiers in the area to the South and East of the Axis forces. A fake water pipeline was even built using discarded barrels in order to give the impression of a massive build up in the south.
Of course, the real thrust of the British attack would come from the North, which was closest to Montgomery’s supply lines.
In order to completely pull off the magic trick, the British used a device termed a “sun shield” to disguise their tanks as supply trucks. The disguise used a cover to completely throw off the appearance of the tank and even utilized another invention that distorted the tracks left by the tanks.
Under the cover of darkness, the real tanks in the British force left their positions in the south and were immediately replaced by dummy tanks. Their engines were muffled, and they proceeded north.
When the attack did occur from the North, Rommel was so convinced that it was a diversion that he failed to commit his reserves to the real attack because of fear of an advance from the south, which would never come.
The success of Operation Bertram was a key event for the Allies in securing North Africa and the beginning of the end for Germany’s Afrika Korps. Churchill himself would comment on the brilliant deception on the part of the British in the success of the operation.
Mysterious Until the End
Maskelyne’s book has come under a great deal of fire. Many of his claims are minimized by historians and critics as grandiose and they claim his role was not nearly as significant as the book claims.
However, with many of the operations for which he claims a role have been labeled as Top Secret by the British government it will continue be difficult to separate the fact from fiction.
Perhaps that is just how he would have wanted it. Afterall, a true magician never reveals his/her secrets. Jasper Maskelyne died in 1970 in Kenya.