6 Insane Stories of a Magician Who Helped Win WWII
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 ...
The 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.
"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.
James 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.
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.
The Alexandria Harbor Deception
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?
"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.
"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 ...
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.
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.
Maskelyne, moments before stealing the pyramids and replacing them with replicas.
Seriously, the man was goddamn Keyser Soze.
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.
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.
World history is basically an epic-scale version of the telephone game.
The same can be said for ...
"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?
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?
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.
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.
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.