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 ...
6The Balloon Battleship Illusion
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.
5James Bond Gadgets for POWs
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.