6 Insane Stories of a Magician Who Helped Win WWII

#3.
The Suez Canal and the Ol' Razzle Dazzle

Maskelyne's next trick would be tougher -- hiding the Suez Canal itself. And if you're thinking that building a dummy canal a mile away was an option, it wasn't. The landmark was too well-mapped and too bloody huge. Also not an option: turning off its lights, covering it with a tarp or staging a Broadway-style musical on its banks in hopes of charming the Germans to death.


Say what you will about the Nazi high command: They appreciated the shit out of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

No, what this operation needed was some razzle dazzle. No, really. Because the Luftwaffe conducted its raids at night, Maskelyne knew a flashy light show would dramatically impair the bombers' ability to hit their targets. So if staging the world's highest-stakes light display was what it took to take down the Nazis, you can bet your ass that Jasper Maskelyne was the man to deliver.

Specifically, the A-Force used revolving tin mirrors with spinning searchlights, which created light cones that stretched nine miles across. As German bombers flew into what had now turned into a fabulous desert rave, they were far too blinded to spot the canal itself.

Via Maskelyne Magic
You just got Maskelyned!

Oh, we almost forgot to mention that other sources say absolutely none of this happened. Apparently it's not clear whether the lights ever existed or whether Maskelyne was even there.

Via Maskelyne Magic
Maskelyne, moments before stealing the pyramids and replacing them with replicas.

Seriously, the man was goddamn Keyser Soze.

#2.
Fritz Fakery

In January 1943, a German agent code-named Fritz radioed his contact in the German army to report that he had successfully detonated a bomb inside the Royal Aircraft powerhouse. The German army didn't believe him, no doubt crossing their arms and pouting at the thought of being Maskelyned again, but flew a reconnaissance mission that confirmed that the factory, in fact, had a lot of holes in the roof and lots of debris scattered about. Even an RAF mission over the area confirmed the explosion.


"Eh, looks like there are some holes in it. Let's go get hammered."

Fritz was welcomed home by the Nazi intelligence agents, briefed on his next mission and sent back into the fray. What the Nazis didn't realize was that "Fritz" was also "Agent ZigZag," also known as Eddie Chapman, the most successful double agent in history. And that the so-called bombing Fritz pulled off was actually nothing more than Jasper Maskelyning the hell out of the building with some painted canvas and fake bricks. The man had created a perfect illusion of a destroyed building -- just like he did in North Africa.

Via Maskelyne Magic
Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, fuuuuuuu ...

That allowed Chapman to spend the rest of the war playing the Germans like a sexy violin. They gave him a yacht, 110,000 reichmarks and an Iron Cross and promoted him to first lieutenant, all while he was slipping German secrets to the British.

All of the above is true, too -- you can read the official documents at the MI5 website. Well, notice that they don't mention Maskelyne. They don't say he didn't work on the project, but they don't give credit to any specific people for setting up the illusion. All we have are a lot of other people repeating the story and, of course, Maskelyne himself.

Getty
World history is basically an epic-scale version of the telephone game.

The same can be said for ...

#1.
Operation Bertram

"Sure," you're probably saying by this point, "even if all of this is true, any magician worth his weight in galleons can paint up some fake bomb damage or conceal a harbor or dazzle-blind some bombers. David Blaine probably craps out illusions like that in his sleep." One, you're really hard to impress; and two, how about building a fake army, complete with tanks, ammunition and all the other trappings of a war zone? Not so smug anymore, are we?

Getty
But in fairness, anyone who looks this much like Prince has the right to be smug.

By October 1942, the Axis forces were stalled and losing steam. The dream of conquering Egypt was slipping away as supplies dwindled and the British gained ground. Everyone knew a showdown was coming and the Allies would be the aggressors. What no one knew was when or where the Allies would make their move. That was where Jasper Maskelyne and the A-Force came in.

The job sounded deceptively simple. All they had to do was trick the Afrika Korps into thinking their attack was coming from the south, when it was actually coming from the north. So in the north, the Magic Gang disguised 1,000 tanks by making them look like trucks, and in the south, the tricky tricksters concocted an army of inflatable dummy tanks 2,000 strong. So far, so good, right?

Via Maskelyne Magic
Right.

Now, in case you're thinking 2,000 rubber tanks sounds a bit like Jasp was phoning it in, we're not done. Not by a long shot. Because battle prep isn't just about getting tanks situated -- it's about radio chatter, supply dumps, construction sounds, storage buildings, ammunition piles and railway lines -- all of which were manufactured for the deception.

But even that sounds too easy. They were actually amassed for the deception. In other words, the A-Force created a phantom war prep zone over the course of several weeks, adding dummy guns to the pile of other dummy guns, increasing the radio chatter to make it sound like shit was about to go down and accelerating the fake sounds of construction as if people were actually building more war stuff, when none was getting built in the first place.

Via Maskelyne Magic
Some dummies were more convincing than others.

But the icing was when they created a dummy water pipeline that never seemed to be quite done. That one detail convinced Rommel that the Allies wouldn't be ready for battle anytime soon. And it was why the actual invasion beginning on Oct. 23 was a complete surprise and total success.

Now, let's be clear: The above fake army deception totally happened. It's a historical fact and is one of the more awesome stories of the war. Even Maskelyne's doubters say the above is true ... as long as you take out the "Jasper Maskelyne" parts.

In this case, they say another camouflage expert by the name of Anthony Ayrton was the genius behind the plan -- a man who wasn't around to demand credit because he died before the war ended, in 1943. Which allegedly meant Maskelyne was free to steal the credit and add to the gigantic monument he was building to himself made entirely out of bullshit.

Via Maskelyne Magic
The Jasper Maskelyne Monument: A fake tank made entirely out of unsold magic sets.

And that's where we have to leave it. One way or another, Jasper Maskelyne was a fascinating man, and there is no question he helped the war effort. But the real details have been blurred by secrecy, lost documents, exaggerated war stories and the fact that time has killed off almost everyone who would know for certain.

But we admit: We want to believe it's all true. The idea that one man and his gang of rogue theater rats tricked the Nazis through Bugs Bunny-style tomfoolery? Who doesn't want to believe that?

For more of Eric Yosomono's writing, visit Gaijinass.

For more tall tales from World War II, check out The 5 Most Widely Believed WWII Facts (That Are Bullshit). Or learn about 11 Celebrities Who Were Secretly Total Badasses.

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