The battlefield was no place for pulling off bunnies from hats and some other magic tricks, so when Jasper Maskelyne from a family of magicians entered the stage of World War II, no one was certain how he could cope up with his entirely new center stage. Moreover, no one really expected that he could make use of his magic tricks and translate them for war use. But he did.

Magician Went to War

Jasper Maskelyne was born in London, England, in 1902, to a world of magic. His parents were Ada Mary Ardley and magician Nevil Maskelyne. His father was also a son of a man well-known on the British stage, John Nevil Maskelyne: the man who invented the levitation trick.

The magician Jasper Maskelyne (Jasper Maskelyne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was not a surprise for Jasper to follow in his granddad and dad’s footsteps, so he also made a name for himself as a successful stage magician. In 1936, he published his book Maskelyne’s Book of Magic, where he described a range of stage tricks like sleight of hand, card, rope tricks, and illusions of “mind-reading.”

The year after, he appeared in a Pathe film titled “The Famous Illusionist,” where he performed his famous tricks of making it look like he was swallowing razor blades.

When World War II broke out, the sales of his tickets significantly dropped, and it affected his finances. To ease his financial difficulties, Maskelyne decided to join the army.

Making Use of His Talent

Due to his background, he reported for duty with the Camouflage Development and Training Centre of the Royal Engineers on October 14, 1940. One could easily assume that this area would be the best place for a successful magician, and perhaps he thought so too. This, however, was not the case, and his concepts were often met with skeptical faces. At that time, camouflage and other military tactics were studied, developed, and implemented in a methodical approach, and the use of magic trickery was frowned upon.

Jasper Maskelyne and a Force, Royal Engineers. Full-length photograph of Jasper Maskelyne, the illusionist whose talents were employed by A Force, Royal Engineers, to devise and develop methods of camouflage for Allied forces during the desert war. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

To Maskelyne, he would not easily give up his talent, so he still wanted to use it. The opportunity came when the Inspector General visited, and he showed off his talents by making a machine-gun bunker “disappear.” The Inspector-General was impressed that he signed Maskelyne up for a tour of duty in Cairo in 1941. There, he was given permission to form his own unit in exchange for performing in front of the troops, which he gladly did.

The Magic Gang and Its Tricks

Brigadier Dudley Clarke approached Maskelyne and asked if he would be interested in adapting his skills for espionage with MI9 as part of  “‘A’ Force,” a group created by General Sir Archibald Wavell to support MI9 in forms of deception.

In North Africa, he was given the command of “The Camouflage Experimental Section” within ‘A’ Force, commonly referred to as “The Magic Gang.” His group was composed of architects, art restorers, carpenters, a chemist, and some more people with unique skills. Together, they all pulled off a series of magic tricks among some of the best ever attempted in war.

Once, they created sunshields by stretching painted canvas over half of the tank to conceal it. To make sure that they worked, a British reconnaissance pilot flew overhead to test if he would be able to spot the tank, and he couldn’t.

The other one was when The Magic Gang was tasked to protect the city of Alexandria. There were too many ships to conceal using the sunshields, so they had to come up with something else. The solution was to construct a fake city of Alexandria, which was tasked to Maskelyne.

‘Sunshield’ split cover, one half on, one half off a tank in the workshops at Middle East Command Camouflage Development and Training Centre, Helwan, Egypt, 1941. (British Middle East Command Directorate of Camouflage, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so, they created a decoy harbor at Maryut Bay with nothing but cardboard and mud. They also placed lights along the fake harbor and then laced them with explosives. The show started once the Luftwaffe flew to attack Alexandria. When the German pilot dropped the bombs on the fake city, Maskelyne blew up some of the ships and buildings to make the pilot think he was successful. In reality, Alexandria was left unharmed.

One of their most ambitious tricks was making the Suez Canal disappear. To make this possible, they started by using 21 searchlights to form a chain of lights along the entire length of the canal, about 100 miles into the sky. When the lights were turned on, they created a swirling light that prevented the Luftwaffe bomber from attacking Allied ships along the channel.

Maskelyne’s group also played a crucial role in the battle of El Alamein, which was a strategic point in controlling North Africa. To lure the enemies and make it appear that an attack would be coming from the south, Maskelyne made the British trucks look like tanks in the south using canvas and painted plywood while the actual tanks in the north were disguised to appear like trucks.

They also left imitation tank track marks in the desert to make the deception more convincing, plus fake radio transmissions, construction sounds, and a fake water pipeline. Because of all these, the Eighth Army won the battle of Alamein.

The deception worked successfully, and Montgomery was able to attack with the Eighth Army from the north and win the battle of El Alamein.

‘A’ Force was disbanded after the war, while Maskelyne was added to the Blacklist of the Gestapo with a bounty placed on his head. After the war, he returned to England and later moved to Kenya in 1948, where he lived until the age of 70.