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Jasper Maskelyne

Jasper Maskelyne

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Jasper Maskelyne was a British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 stage magician in the 1930s and 1940s. He was one of an established family of stage magicians, the son of Nevil Maskelyne
Nevil Maskelyne (magician)
Nevil Maskelyne was a British magician and inventor. The son of magician John Nevil Maskelyne, he continued his father's work at the Egyptian Hall in London...

 and a grandson of John Nevil Maskelyne
John Nevil Maskelyne
John Nevil Maskelyne was an English stage magician and inventor of the pay toilet, along with many other Victorian-era devices. His door lock for London toilets required the insertion of a penny coin to operate it, hence the euphemism to "spend a penny".-Biography:Maskelyne was born in Cheltenham,...

. He could also trace his ancestry to the royal astronomer Nevil Maskelyne
Nevil Maskelyne
The Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne FRS was the fifth English Astronomer Royal. He held the office from 1765 to 1811.-Biography:...

. He is most remembered, however, for the accounts of his work for British military intelligence during the Second World War, creating large-scale ruses, deception, and camouflage. Before the Second World War Maskelyne was a "blaster" in the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers, a charitable parody of the Freemasons
Freemasonry is a fraternal organisation that arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century. Freemasonry now exists in various forms all over the world, with a membership estimated at around six million, including approximately 150,000 under the jurisdictions of the Grand Lodge...

 that operated from 1926-31. His lodge (called a Vat) ran from Maskelyne's Theatre.

Wartime trickery

Maskelyne joined the Royal Engineers
Royal Engineers
The Corps of Royal Engineers, usually just called the Royal Engineers , and commonly known as the Sappers, is one of the corps of the British Army....

 when the Second World War broke out, thinking that his skills could be used in camouflage
Camouflage is a method of concealment that allows an otherwise visible animal, military vehicle, or other object to remain unnoticed, by blending with its environment. Examples include a leopard's spotted coat, the battledress of a modern soldier and a leaf-mimic butterfly...

. He convinced sceptical officers by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a model. The military eventually deployed him to the North African theatre in the Western Desert, although he spent most of his time entertaining the troops.

In January 1941, General Archibald Wavell created A Force
MI9, the British Military Intelligence Section 9, was a department of the British Directorate of Military Intelligence, part of the War Office...

 for subterfuge and counterintelligence. Maskelyne was assigned to serve in it and gathered a group of 14 assistants, including an architect, art restorer, carpenter, chemist, electrical engineer, electrician, painter, and stage-set builder. It was nicknamed the Magic Gang.

The Magic Gang built a number of illusions. They used painted canvas and plywood to make jeep
Jeep is an automobile marque of Chrysler . The first Willys Jeeps were produced in 1941 with the first civilian models in 1945, making it the oldest off-road vehicle and sport utility vehicle brand. It inspired a number of other light utility vehicles, such as the Land Rover which is the second...

s look like tanks — with fake tank tracks — and tanks look like trucks. They created illusions of armies and battleships.

His largest illusion was to conceal Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

 and the Suez Canal
Suez Canal
The Suez Canal , also known by the nickname "The Highway to India", is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Opened in November 1869 after 10 years of construction work, it allows water transportation between Europe and Asia without navigation...

 to misdirect German bombers. He built a mockup of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse
A lighthouse is a tower, building, or other type of structure designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses or, in older times, from a fire, and used as an aid to navigation for maritime pilots at sea or on inland waterways....

, and anti-aircraft batteries. To mask the Suez Canal he built a revolving cone of mirrors that created a wheel of spinning light nine miles wide, meant to dazzle and disorient enemy pilots so that their bombs would fall off-target.

In 1942 he worked in Operation Bertram, before the battle of El Alamein
Second Battle of El Alamein
The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. The battle took place over 20 days from 23 October – 11 November 1942. The First Battle of El Alamein had stalled the Axis advance. Thereafter, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery...

. His task was to make German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel , popularly known as the Desert Fox , was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops and the enemies he fought....

 think that the attack was coming from the south when British General Bernard Montgomery planned to attack from the north. In the north, 1,000 tanks were disguised as trucks. On the south, the Magic Gang created 2,000 fake tanks with convincing pyrotechnics. There was a fake railway line, fake radio conversations, and fake sounds of construction. They also built a fake water pipeline and made it look as if it would never be ready before attack.

The Magic Gang disbanded after the battle and, although Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

 praised his efforts, Maskelyne did not receive the appreciation he desired. Maskelyne tried to resume his stage career after the war without much success. He also published a book about his exploits, Magic: Top Secret in 1949. In 2002 The Guardian said: "Maskelyne received no official recognition. For a vain man this was intolerable and he died an embittered drunk. It gives his story a poignancy without which it would be mere chest-beating."

Maskelyne later moved to Kenya
Kenya , officially known as the Republic of Kenya, is a country in East Africa that lies on the equator, with the Indian Ocean to its south-east...

 and founded a driving school. He died in 1973.


A recent study by Richard Stokes revealed that much of the story concerning the involvement of Jasper Maskelyne in counterintelligence operations, as described in the books "White Magic" and "Magic: Top Secret", was pure invention, and that no such a unit christened "Magic Gang" ever existed. Maskelyne's actual role in the deception war was actually marginal.

Books of Jasper Maskelyne

  • White Magic (1936) — Maskelyne family history
  • Magic: Top Secret (1949) — ghost-written account of his WW2 exploits


Further reading

  • Latimer, Jon, Deception in War, London: John Murray, 2001. A factual account of 'A' Force and its development.
  • Salisse, John & Davenport, Anne. A Candid View of Maskelyne's 1916-1917 (1995).
  • Salisse, John & Davenport, Anne. St. George's Hall (2002).

External links