Wars have always offered opportunities for extraordinary adventure—and extraordinary tall tales. Jasper Maskelyne had his share of each, mostly the latter.
A well-known magician on the London stage in the years before the war, Maskelyne was the scion of a theatrical dynasty that spanned 60 years: his father and grandfather had been famous magicians before him. A film clip from 1937 shows a very dapper Jasper delivering comic patter as he swallows a dozen razor blades, then pulls them from his mouth neatly tied to a thread.
When it came to details of his own life, Maskelyne had never let facts get in the way of a good story. A ghost-written book about the Maskelynes, which he published in 1936, contained “little that was related to the truth,” his son would later note. It was Maskelyne’s accounts of his wartime exploits that would really make him famous, even as they stretched the truth to new bounds. According to stories that would become legendary—they are still repeated in articles, documentaries, even serious histories—the magician led a super-secret team of artists, set designers, and camouflage experts known as the “Magic Gang” that pulled off one feat after another, creating vast open-air illusions to deceive the enemy.
Maskelyne was said to have talked his way into the job when he astonished the British brass by conjuring a life-size German battleship on the Thames (he used mirrors, he said) and concealing a machine-gun post so thoroughly that it seemed to vanish altogether. Deployed to Egypt, he decoyed German night bombers from the city of Alexandria with an illusory harbor; he concealed the Suez Canal with ingenious rotating lights to distract German air crews; and he masterminded a vast deception plan for the Battle of Alamein.
Maskelyne was inarguably a master of illusion, just not in the way most people have thought. A few years ago, an indefatigable researcher named Richard Stokes with an interest in the history of magic began to discover that nearly every one of Maskelyne’s supposed wartime triumphs was a complete fabrication, embroidered from a tiny thread of truth. Maskelyne was indeed trained as a camouflage engineer and sent to Egypt, where he briefly commanded a small section; his unit made some minor but hardly astonishing contributions, most notably designing canvas covers to dis guise trucks as tanks and vice versa.
But after just a few months he was transferred to “Welfare” duty—putting on magic shows for the troops. His sensational accounts of making battleships appear and Alexandria and the Suez Canal disappear never happened. There was no “Magic Gang.” Other dramatic incidents that fill his postwar memoir (ghostwritten by the author of his earlier book)—hair’s breadth escapes, secret spy missions, a duel of magical one-ups-manship with the imam of the “whirling dervishes”—were also inventions.
In fact, the magician’s major contribution from the start, as British officials apparently realized, was publicity. Far from keeping his arrival in Egypt a secret, the authorities trumpeted it; the Daily Mail ran a story at the time that began:
“A famous illusionist, member of the world’s best-known family of illusionists, has been sent to Egypt—to help make the British Army disappear. He is Jasper Maskelyne, now Lieutenant Maskelyne of the Royal Engineers, a camouflage officer and one of several attached to our forces in the Middle East. Lieut. Maskelyne, instead of making beautiful girls vanish on the stage, is using his skill and practical craftsmanship to render men, tanks, and guns less conspicuous.”
After the war he tried to revive his stage act, but the show soon went from first-line London halls to the second and third string and finally to playing small towns with a not-so-young strip artist added to the act. (An earlier assistant was arrested when she turned out to be a female impersonator, wanted by the U.S. Army as a deserter.) Maskelyne then fled to Kenya ahead of the tax authorities, where he founded a successful driving school. “The profits were large,” his son said, “but so was his appetite for gin.”
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.