HERITAGE - 33: NOW YOU SEE IT, Now You Don't - "It's All Done With Mirrors"

Is it illusion, disguise - or a smoke screen?

Maskelyne the great illusionist seen in this pre-WWII publicity shot with a cigarette
Maskelyne the great illusionist seen in this pre-WWII publicity shot with a cigarette | Source
A dummy Sherman tank - convincing enough in this shot until you see the 'wrinkles'. Seen from further away there would be no doubt of its authenticity
A dummy Sherman tank - convincing enough in this shot until you see the 'wrinkles'. Seen from further away there would be no doubt of its authenticity | Source

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen", the man bows and allows the handler to lead the elephant off stage...

"And now for something completely different", he says, fanning a deck of cards for his admiring audience. David Copperfield? No, the American magician wasn't even a glint in his father's eye at the time. For that matter this is not even Paul Daniels. Sleight of hand goes a long way back. The magician in question was successor to his father Nevil and grandfather John Nevil.

The name of the man I have in mind is Jasper Maskelyne. Born in 1902, for much of his adult life he was a stage musician. He had another claim to fame, if there was any substance to his stories of wartime exploits. Ladies and gentlemen I will give you the facts as I know them and leave it to you to judge the veracity of his tales...

One of a well established family in the 'vanishing' business, in 1939 he enlisted as an officer in the Royal Engineer Corps based at Chatham in East Kent - not far from the Thames, an important ingredient in the story of his emerging military career. British military intelligence contacted him with regards camouflage, ruses and misleading the enemy. In 1936 he had brought out a 'Book of Magic', where he laid out stage trickery and 'mind-reading'. A year later the British newsreel editors of Pathe News introduced him to the wider public in 'The Famous Illusionist', showing amongst other feats his razor blade eating stunt, swallowing the razor blades individually.

The illusionist - for king and country

Maskelyne in officer's uniform, Royal Engineers - signed photograph for a fan
Maskelyne in officer's uniform, Royal Engineers - signed photograph for a fan | Source

Is it, or isn't it?

See him? You'd see the rifle first, then the eye-holes and suddenly it's obvious - but not to someone who didn't have the time to concentrate before he was shot at
See him? You'd see the rifle first, then the eye-holes and suddenly it's obvious - but not to someone who didn't have the time to concentrate before he was shot at | Source
Classed as 'Sunshield Prototype' this disguised tank might not pull the wool over your eyes, but to someone miles away with binocculars, or high ip in the air in a plane... Think again
Classed as 'Sunshield Prototype' this disguised tank might not pull the wool over your eyes, but to someone miles away with binocculars, or high ip in the air in a plane... Think again | Source
The process of disguising a tank to make it look like a truck. Rommel was convinced when he saw pictures, then the wraps came off...
The process of disguising a tank to make it look like a truck. Rommel was convinced when he saw pictures, then the wraps came off... | Source
Dazzle lights under assembly near the Suez Canal - the aim was to 'hide' the canal with lights
Dazzle lights under assembly near the Suez Canal - the aim was to 'hide' the canal with lights | Source
"All smoke and mirrors", was it or wasn't it true?
"All smoke and mirrors", was it or wasn't it true? | Source
Ghost writer David Fisher seems to have been convinced of Maskelyne's authenticity. Was he a victim of the 'smoke and mirrors'?
Ghost writer David Fisher seems to have been convinced of Maskelyne's authenticity. Was he a victim of the 'smoke and mirrors'? | Source

As indicated, Maskelyne enlisted in September 1939...

There is an account of him persuading senior officers to his way of thinking by projecting the spectre of a German warship on the river nearby, using mirrors, lighting and a model. Training that followed at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle in Surrey during 1940 he found too tedious for his liking. He claimed in a later book that "a lifetime of hiding things on the stage" taught him more in the field of camouflage "than rabbits and tigers will ever know". Fellow camouflage trainee Julian Trevelyan observed that he "entertained us all with his tricks in the evenings". He also noted that Maskelyne's attempts to 'hide' concrete pillboxes (short term gun and observation emplacements) were less successful.

Head of 'A' Force Deception Unit, Brigadier Dudley Clarke took Marskelyne on to work for MI9 (Military Intelligence North Africa and Middle East in Cairo. The task was to develop equipment to help soldiers escape captivity. He also lectured on escape methods, with hidden tools in cricket balls for example, saw blades in combs and miniature maps hidden in table games for a short time (cards, board games etc).

Maskelyne was on the staff of Geoffrey Barkas' camouflage section in Helwan in the Nile Valley upriver of Cairo, established in November, 1941. He was subsequently made C.O. of the subsidiary 'camouflage experimental section' at Abbasia. It was soon clear to his seniors that his leadership was failing, so he was transferred to 'welfare' (entertainment). Peter Forbes wrote of the showy magician's input as being, "either absolutely central (if you believe his account and that of his biographer) or very marginal (if you believe the official documents and more recent research".

The furthering of the myth of his own inventive achievements was in his character. He probably fervently believed it himself as a showman. Clarke persuaded Maskelyne to take credit both as cover for the real creators of the dummy equipment, and to foster confidence in the methods used within Allied High Command. After all, as an internationally renowned showman he was more credible than complete unknowns who were kept in the shadows for security reasons.

Maskelyne's ghost-written version of his achievements, 'Magic: Top Secret' was published four years after hostilities ended with Germany and Japan, in 1949. Forbes dismissed the book as 'lurid' with extravagant claims of cities 'disappearing', armies re-locating, dummies proliferating - even submarines - all as a result of his knowledge of the magic arts. Forbes added that David Fisher's biography showed he was "clearly under the wizard's spell". In the book Maskelyne claimed his team produced

"...dummy men, dummy steel helmets, dummy guns by the ten thousand, dummy tanks, dummy shell flashes by the million, dummy aircraft..." and so on

Richard Stokes' research tells us much of Maskelyne's account of his role in counter-intelligence operations as related in his book was pure invention, and that no unit known as 'The Magic Gang' existed at the time, that his part in deception technology was minimal.

Christian House reviewed Rick Stroud's book, 'The Phantom Army of Alamein' in the UK newspaper 'The Independent', saying it "shows Maskelyine as one of the more grandiose members of the WWII desert camouflage unit" and as "a 'chancer' tasked with experimental developments, who 'fogged' his own reputation as much as any desert convoy".

David Hambling wrote on 'Wired' of David Fisher's acceptance of Maskelyne's tales, "A very colorful account of Maskelyne's role is given in the book 'The War Magician' - reading it you might think he won the war single-handed [What, it wasn't John Wayne after all?]. Hambling denies Maskelyne was able to 'hide' the Suez Canal. He explains:

"In spite of the book's claims, the dazzle lights were never actually built, although a prototype was tested".

David Fisher's account of Maskelyne's wartime career. Was he what he claimed to be? Was he as effective as Mr Fisher's book puts him across? Were his critics justified? You as readers are the jury, posterity is the judge. Will the sentence be damning?

The War Magician

High and dry in Africa - disbelieved at home

Jasper Maskelyne back in 'Civvy Street' - off to the tropics? He died dissolute in Kenya, ridiculed in Britain. Was it of his own making?
Jasper Maskelyne back in 'Civvy Street' - off to the tropics? He died dissolute in Kenya, ridiculed in Britain. Was it of his own making? | Source

In 2002 a newspaper article attested...

..."that Maskelyne received no official recognition". For a vain man this would have been intolerable. He died an embittered drunk. It gives his story a poignancy without which it would be mere chest-beating". Death came to him in 1973, a dissolute exile in Kenya.

Whether you believe him or his critics, whether you think his story credible or not, you have to look at preparations for D-Day in East Anglia, England. Dummy soldiers, tanks, other vehicles, air- and landing craft convinced German reconnaissance that the Western Allies planned to land in the Pas-de-Calais, led by General George 'Blood and guts' Patton. The ruse was strengthened by counter-intelligence supplied by the double agent 'Garbo' and his 'team' recruited across Britain.

Towns and cities did vanish in Britain, where street and factory lights were doused and decoys lit in nearby fields and hills to resemble bomb explosions, detonated by remote control. In theory his claims were plausible. Much of the dummy equipment was destroyed immediately after the war.

Naturally with the advent of the Cold War military intelligence wanted to keep its tricks secret from the Soviets. Maskelyne might have been luckier if things had turned out differently between the Allies - western and eastern - after Hitler's defeat. It was all down to mistrust - and smokescreens.

The oldest way out of a tight diplomatic corner or tricky situation for military intelligence when challenged was - probably still is - "Deny, deny, deny!" .

Whatever anyone says of him, Jasper Maskelyne the consummate egoist was nevertheless an accomplished magician and illusionist. Take a look at his book and judge for yourself - remembering that he convinced senior officers of the Royal Engineers with the illusion of a German warship in the Thames - whether he was just a big ego or that he had reason to blow his own trumpet.

Was Jasper Maskelyne right to blow his own trumpet?

Could his assertions have been construed as counter-productive in the light of the Cold War?

  • He couldn't have done any harm
  • He should have gauged the situation before publishing
  • He could have compromised Western Intelligence
See results without voting

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10 comments

lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 8 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Alan

I've heard about the 'camouflage' unit before but not Maskelyne. This was an interesting hub for me as the Army were still using 'blow up' tanks in the 1989s but to train Forward Air Controllers (FACs) to call in airstrikes!

I spent time setting up T62s in Wales and had the fun of watching Harriers and A10s carry out 'low level' airstrikes (one plane was so low my mate panicked and fell off the back of our truck!

Great hub

Lawrence


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 8 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Lawrence, there was a US Army unit recruited partly from art schools in New York, Philadelphia and so on to apply camouflage techniques as well as a radio section that 'created' radio traffic to simulate whole army units where there weren't any. They even sewed other units' badges to their uniforms and painted the symbols on their trucks to mislead German spies. Landing strips were conjured up, convincing enough for US pilots to land on and be shooed away. Jasper Maskelyne's outfit was featured in a documentary on the Yesterday channel (19) on Freeview as well as the US one, that nearly came to grief in the run-up to the Battle of the Bulge when they were stationed in Luxembourg. They took casualties in 1945 just before the crossing of the Rhine when the Germans took them for the real thing and bombarded their position.

Speaking of exercises, I was up near Harrogate, walking the route of the Leeds Northern Railway at the time of NATO flying exercises from nearby Dishforth (now closed), Leeming and Linton-on-Ouse. One plane came so low I felt I had to duck. I was on open ground at the time, near Ripley so it was ideal for l/f exercises.


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 8 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Akan

I've read the book about the US army unit and it's a darn good read! Many of them went on to have Hollywood careers after the war building movie sets.

Imagine how my mate felt when he fell off the back of a Bedford truck!!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 8 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Sore head, back and wounded pride I'd think. It's a long way down off the back of any truck, let alone a Bedford truck. Did he go down backwards? (Oo-er!)


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 8 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Yep! Landed on his head so be was fine!

Seriously we were in long grass in a clearing, made a great story at the pub that night!

Lawrence


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 8 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Free drinks all round for the next six months then?

That programme about the US 'Camouflage' unit was on again today. It's called 'Ghost Army'. There might be a dvd on it somewhere.

I'm not surprised Jerry never cottoned on. Not their sort of thing (lack of imagination, although their scientists and engineers came up with some novel solutions, such as the 'flying wing' - precursor to 'Blackbird')


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 8 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Alan

Something like that, or suffer the shame of others finding out!!

Talking of 'not cottoning on' the book tells of one of Omat Bradley's Brigadiers rolling into a position where he'd seen tanks going to demand "What the hell they were doing there?" only to realize the unit was a dummy squadron. The real one moved hours ago! Imagine the embarrassment!!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 8 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

It wasn't the same brigadier who landed at Anzio and refused to move inland, was it (What prompted Churchill to describe as 'a stranded whale' instead of his hoped for 'roaring tiger')?


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 8 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

No idea, the book 'tactfully' didn't mention his name!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 8 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

That's probably diplomacy more than tact. People like that have families - with lawyers...

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