The story of the Maskelyne family of magicians could fill an entire series of books—we’ve even written about John Nevil Maskelyne’s attempt to expose the fraud behind the Davenport brothers’ tricks—but now, our attention turns to John Nevil’s grandson, Jasper. Jasper was a stage magician who followed in his family’s footsteps, but he’s less known for his showmanship than he is for his exploits during World War II.
Maskelyne was a successful magician during the 1930s, and was even the subject of a film called The Famous Illusionist, where Jasper can be seen munching on razor blades. He joined the Royal Engineers shortly after World War II began, and claimed to use his skills as a magician to aid the Allies in their triumph over Nazi Germany. His ghost-written 1949 book, Magic: Top Secret, was filled with his military adventures, with stories of his command of the “Magic Gang”, a special outfit created by Maskelyne that would use deception, camouflage, and illusion to fool entire enemy garrisons, make troops appear out of thin air, and more.
The story goes that Maskelyne had impressed British generals by using mirrors and an inflatable model to make a previously-destroyed battleship appear before their very eyes. The military granted him command of a platoon, who then traveled to Egypt to apply his expertise in deception in aid of the war effort. He created trick weapons, dummy soldiers, inflatable tanks, and allegedly went on numerous dangerous and important missions that, if true, would have made him one of the most important and successful soldiers in military history.
Seriously, the way he described his wild escapades could have made any one of them fodder for a Hollywood blockbuster. I mean, we’re talking about hooking up dozens of mirrors and spinning searchlights to blind incoming German bombers. We’re talking building an entire replica of the city of Alexandria out of plywood to trick the Axis powers into thinking they’ve destroyed the right target. We’re talking Operation Bertram, a plan designed to trick the Afrika Korps into thinking an attack was coming in from the south by fabricating an entire war production plant, complete with fake construction sounds that would ramp up in speed and noise as the days progressed.
Of course, nearly all of it was complete and utter baloney. For one, recent dives into any public record involving whatever Maskelyne described in his book (and later, the biography written by David Fisher called The War Magician, which took Maskelyne’s book at face value) showed that none of it holds up to even the slightest scrutiny. Many of his stories were complete lies or wildly embellished. The ones that were true either featured Maskelyne in a minor, supporting role, were reported by the military with enough details left out that anyone could take credit for them, or were performed by someone else entirely.
What we do know is that Maskelyne did join the military, and he did try to come up with illusions to aid the British, but his camouflage work was nowhere near adequate to conceal a concrete pillbox, let alone make multi-ton seacraft apparate. There certainly wasn’t any “Magic Gang” led by a plucky and ingenious magician gallivanting around the African front fooling German soldiers into losing the war.
Maskelyne’s role in the war may have been far more overblown than it actually was, but that’s not to say he was completely ineffective. He did work with MI6 to create some trick objects with concealed escape tools inside—rigged cricket bats, and even board games with real money for escaped POWs to use—and this was perhaps his most useful contribution to the military during the war. The British military also trumpeted up his presence in Africa for propaganda. After all, Jasper Maskelyne was a celebrity at the time, and having a famous magician in the armed forces made for an interesting recruitment tool, to say the least. If the Jerries thought twice about attacking them because it might be an illusion, so much the better.
Shortly after his work with MI6, though, he was made head of a “Camouflage Experimental Section” near Cairo and was largely unsuccessful. He was then transferred to welfare, which is basically military code for ‘performing magic tricks for bored soldiers.’
Unfortunately, life after the war wasn’t kind to Jasper. He tried to resume his prior career and found himself dwindling into further obscurity, eventually fleeing to Kenya to evade tax collectors. He would reside there until his death in 1973. And while many of his wartime stunts have over time been revealed as hoaxes, they prove one immutable fact: magicians are damn good liars.