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The War Magician

Jasper Maskelyne's clever illusions helped win WWII

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Jasper Maskelyne

Jasper Maskelyne

Jasper Maskelyne Tank


Illusion Becomes Reality

Jasper Maskelyne, grandson of John Nevil Maskelyne, was an invaluable resource to his native Britain during World War II. Maskelyne became an integral part of a special unit focused on the action along the Suez Canal. With his great knowledge of illusion, Maskelyne was able to devise ingenious- and very large scale- illusion systems that virtually made tanks invisible from the air, hid whole buildings full of ammunition and supplies, and even made an entire city vanish and reappear several miles away.

Maskelyne joined the Royal Engineers at the start of the Second World War, thinking that his skills could be used to create camouflage. He convinced skeptical officers by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using only 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 there entertaining the troops.

In January 1941, General Archibald Wavell created "A Force" for subterfuge and counterintelligence. Maskelyne was assigned to it and gathered a group of 14 assistants, including an architect, art restorer, carpenter, chemist, electrical engineer, electrician, painter, and stage-set builder. The group was nicknamed the "Magic Gang".

The Magic Gang built a number of remarkably effective illusions. They used painted canvas and plywood to make jeeps look like tanks - with fake tank tracks - and make tanks look like trucks. They created illusions of whole armies and huge battleships.

Maskelyne's largest illusion was to conceal Alexandria and the Suez Canal in order to misdirect German bombers. He built a mockup of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse, 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, Maskelyn worked on Operation Bertram, before the battle of El Alamein. His task was to make German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel think that the attack was coming from the south, when in fact British General Bernard Montgomery planned to attack from the north. In the north, 1,000 tanks were disguised to look like common trucks. In 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, made it look as if it would never be ready before the attack.

The Magic Gang disbanded after the battle and, although Winston Churchill praised his efforts, Maskelyne did not receive the appreciation he deserved. He retired to Kenya, and lived his life as a favorite resident, giving driving instructions and magic lessons.

Shown here is an example of the camouflage tactics he was able to devise. This is really a dimensional illustration of a tank, boosted with padding underneath. From the air, it was convincingly real to the German pilots.

Maskelyne's wartime accomplishments were the subject of a 1983 book by David Fisher titled The War Magician. In early 2003, there was talk of making a feature film starring Tom Cruise, but the movie has yet to be made.