How's this for a disclaimer: Much of what follows might be complete bullshit.
No one knows for sure.
Every now and then, we come across a man so epic, so larger-than-life, so PIMPTACULAR, that our sense of admiration compels us to tell his story. Jasper Maskelyne -- the magician who used his skills to fight Hitler -- was such a man, and then some. Or at least that's what the stories claim. Some of what's below has been confirmed as true; some of it is just too insane to be real. All of it was top secret.
That means that the world has to rely on Maskelyne's own retelling of his exploits and, you know, the guy was a goddamned magician. Illusion and self-promotion were his business. For that reason, his legend has grown over the decades. But if even half of this is real ... holy shit.
It all supposedly started with ...
Here's the part we know is true:
Jasper Maskelyne was a third-generation magician who volunteered his services to the Royal Engineers when World War II broke out. He hated Hitler as much as the next guy, so why shouldn't he get to employ his unique illusionist skills in taking the Nazis down? OK, so it's hard to imagine what a magician would have to offer -- pulling a rabbit out of a top hat while wearing a flamboyant sequined jumpsuit only makes the enemy want to kill you more. Hell, there wasn't even a "magician soldier" in the G.I. Joe universe, and they had a guy who did nothing but throw crocodiles at people.
But, despite the idea being seemingly too silly for even a Saturday-morning cartoon, the Allies agreed. Not only did Maskelyne get his fancy ass promoted to major, he got an entire unit made up of handpicked artists, magicians, carpenters, electricians and criminals called the A-Force, aka The Magic Gang.
Yes, this really happened.
The A-Force's mission was to use magic to trick Axis forces. Correction: to use illusions to trick Axis forces.
As exciting as it must sound to have a real-life magician working on your behalf, the brass in charge weren't exactly keen on employing Maskelyne's unusual skill set. When he first enlisted, he was used as a freakin' troop entertainer, like some kind of Bob Hope. Somehow, being a glorified carny was not what Maskelyne had in mind when he enlisted. Just look at him. Clearly, this was a man who didn't have time for malarkey.
Via Maskelyne Magic
"This is bullshit."
The solution, as the story goes, was simple. And by "simple," we mean "cartoonish and insane." To convince the higher-ups that they could use an illusionist on the battlefield, he would float a fake but realistic version of the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee down the Thames. Just so we're clear, this wasn't a little tugboat that Maskelyne whipped together in his backyard. The Graf Spee was a 610-foot long juggernaut ...
... that had been scuttled the year before. So when Maskelyne created the illusion of the floating ship using a small balloon model and mirrors, his superiors were duly impressed. Because as much as the Allied forces wanted to defeat Hitler with their massive armament, what they really wanted to do was not have to fight Hitler because of their massive armament. A guy like Jasper Maskelyne could probably do some damage in that department.
Now, here is where we have to note that there are no surviving photographs of this balloon battleship (to be fair, there wouldn't necessarily be any even if it were true), so there are people who doubt that the illusion was actually pulled off. If not, whatever he did do persuaded the higher-ups to let him take his act to the battlefield. In other words, the man either showed them some mind-blowing magic or gave them an equally impressive line of bullshit.
"For my next trick, I'll turn her ass into a battleship."
That will be a running theme in this account.
Regardless, everyone seems to agree that this part is true:
In 1939, the British military established MI9, a unit of intelligence agents devoted to aiding resistance fighters and freeing captured POWs. Getting key equipment inside hostile prison camps took some high-end trickery, and Jasper Maskelyne was one of the key advisers in that department.
Via Maskelyne Magic
Above: Maskelyne, showing off his combination cigarette/entrenching tool.
Nazi prison camps, it turned out, had to obey a few rules of the Geneva Conventions to maintain their good standing in the "Fair and Humanitarian Nations (Except for the One Part About the Holocaust) Club." And one of those rules was allowing care packages for prisoners from humanitarian groups, a fact that MI9 exploited mightily.
Even the Nazis from Hogan's Heroes would get suspicious if they started mailing saw-shaped packages to prisoners, so Maskelyne and his buddies created a number of clever, James Bond-esque contraptions such as playing cards that contained maps of the surrounding area and cricket bats where the handle contained a concealed saw, while the blade of the bat could be used as a shovel.
This baseball glove was actually an ingeniously concealed jackhammer.
Other trickery included shoelaces embedded with wire that could saw through bars, and they supposedly even embedded a map inside a gramophone record that the prisoners would never have found if somebody hadn't accidentally broken it. Another nifty plan was to send board games that contained real local currency, ensuring probably the most impassioned games of Monopoly in human history.
"Go directly to the firing squad. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 reichsmarks."
The MI9 team wound up getting more than 1,600 spy gadget care packages into German POW camps, slipping them right by the guards thanks to Maskelyne's trickery. But Maskelyne was thinking bigger.
Although Egypt was technically an independent country at the outbreak of the war, its habit of hosting British troops made it a ripe target for Axis forces, especially since the Suez Canal was just a boat ride away from the Alexandria harbor. Speaking of the Alexandria harbor, wouldn't it be crazy if a magician and his ragtag gang of magical misfits hid an entire harbor from aerial bombers there?
Via German Federal Archive
"Repeat: The entire target area has vanished in a puff of blue smoke. Please advise."
If you said, "Yes!" you win at reading Cracked articles. The mission was simple. The harbor at Alexandria was critical to the Allies; it housed the royal fleet and served as the avenue to deploy reinforcements. Naturally, the Axis powers wanted to destroy it. Jasper Maskelyne was supposedly charged with the task of not letting that happen.
To set up his trick, Maskelyne first needed to move the entire harbor. About a mile away from Alexandria was another body of water called Lake Mariout. The port and the lake were separated only by a narrow isthmus of land:
So at night, and from 8,000 feet in the air, a bomber might have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. But it wasn't just a matter of setting up full-scale dummy harbor. Maskelyne had to make the Germans believe they were actually engaged in battle and that they had won. Otherwise, they'd just hit the right target the next day. So Maskelyne not only had to build a fake Alexandria harbor but also had to fake a war zone for the next day's reconnaissance pictures.
In the weeks leading up to the bombing (that intelligence assured them was totally going to happen), Maskelyne and his team created a 1:1 scale model of the Alexandria harbor using canvas ships and plywood buildings. More importantly, he duplicated the light grid and harbor lighthouse. But that was only half of the illusion. The other half was painting bomb craters on huge sheets of canvas and creating papier-mache bricks by the truckload.
German Federal Archive
"Of course it's the right harbor, Fritz. What do you think the British did, build a giant fake harbor replica in an adjacent lake?"
When the night of the attack arrived, the lights at Alexandria went off, the lights at Mariout went on and the Luftwaffe totally fell for the switcharoo. Maskelyne had anti-aircraft batteries on the ground fake-fighting back with fake shells, as well as a whole team over at the real Alexandria, setting up the rubble show for the next day. The craziest part of the story wasn't just that it worked, but that it worked for eight more nights.
While the story has been reported in publications as reputable as The Boston Globe, some skeptics say the massive trick would have been impossible or ineffective, or that the actual stunt was much smaller or was the work of someone else and that Maskelyne just took credit like the asshole he was.
"Bastogne? Stalingrad? That shit was all Maskelyne, baby."
If you're about to take to Google to try to find out the truth, good luck. Maskelyne's Wikipedia entry repeats these stories as historical fact, citing a 1983 book about Maskelyne which itself seems to rely on a 1949 book about Maskelyne called Magic: Top Secret, whose main source was, uh, Jasper Maskelyne.
Above: A totally objective account of absolute truth.
Again: Either the man was the greatest illusionist in history or was one of its biggest bullshit artists. Because the stories only get bigger and stranger from here ...