Sunday, 6 July 2014

Jasper Maskelyne , The War Magician.

Maskelyne joined the Royal Engineers when the Second World War broke out, thinking that his skills could be used in camouflage. A story runs that he convinced sceptical officers by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a model.

Maskelyne was trained at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle in 1940. He found the training boring, asserting in his book that "a lifetime of hiding things on the stage" had taught him more about camouflage "than rabbits and tigers will ever know". The camoufleur Julian Trevelyan commented that he "entertained us with his tricks in the evenings" at Farnham, but that Maskelyne was "rather unsuccessful" at actually camouflaging "concrete pill-boxes".

Brigadier Dudley Clarke, the head of the 'A' Force deception department, recruited Maskelyne to work for MI9 in Cairo. He created small devices intended to assist soldiers to escape if captured and lectured on escape techniques. These included tools hidden in cricket bats, saw blades inside combs, and small maps on objects such as playing cards.

Maskelyne was then briefly a member of Geoffrey Barkas's camouflage unit at Helwan, near Cairo, which was set up in November 1941. He was made head of the subsidiary "Camouflage Experimental Section" at Abbassia. By February 1942 it became clear that this command was not successful, and so he was "transferred to welfare"—in other words, to entertaining soldiers with magic tricks. Peter Forbes writes that the "flamboyant" magician's contribution was.

either absolutely central (if you believe his account and that of his biographer) or very marginal (if you believe the official records and more recent research).

His nature was "to perpetuate the myth of his own inventive genius, and perhaps he even believed it himself". However, Clarke had encouraged Maskelyne to take credit for two reasons: as cover for the true inventors of the dummy machinery and to encourage confidence in these techniques amongst Allied high command.

Maskelyne's book about his exploits, Magic: Top Secret, ghost-written, was published in 1949. Forbes describes it as lurid, with "extravagant claims of cities disappearing, armies re-locating, dummies proliferating (even submarines)—all as a result of his knowledge of the magic arts". Further, Forbes notes, the biography of Maskelyne by David Fisher was "clearly under the wizard's spell". In his book, Maskelyne claims his team produced

dummy men, dummy steel helmets, dummy guns by the ten thousand, dummy tanks, dummy shell flashes by the million, dummy aircraft...

A study by Richard Stokes argues that much of the story concerning the involvement of Maskelyne in counterintelligence operations as described in the book "Magic: Top Secret" was pure invention and that no unit called the "Magic Gang" ever existed. Maskelyne's role in the deception war was marginal.

Christian House, reviewing Rick Stroud's book The Phantom Army of Alamein in The Independent, describes Maskelyne as "one of the more grandiose members" of the Second World War desert camouflage unit and "a chancer tasked with experimental developments, who fogged his own reputation as much as any desert convoy".

David Hambling, writing on Wired, critiques David Fisher's uncritical acceptance of Maskelyne's stories: "A very colorful account of Maskelyne’s role is given in the book The War Magician—reading it you might think he won the war single-handed". Hambling denies Maskelyne's supposed concealment of the Suez Canal: "In spite of the book's claims, the dazzle light/s were never actually built (although a prototype was once tested)".

In 2002 The Guardian wrote: "Maskelyne received no official recognition. For a vain man this was intolerable and he died an embittered drunk. It gives his story a poignancy without which it would be mere chest-beating"

Maskelyne's Book of Magic
by Jasper Maskelyne and Arthur Groom

 Maskelyne's Book of MagicBeing married to someone who enjoys magic and conjuring in their spare time (and who hopes to one day transform this hobby into a career) can, at times, be difficult! We have a house full of a wide array of texts ranging from basic children's conjuring books to complex plans detailing the design and construction of large-scale illusions, and no space to store them! Every surface houses piles of this 'essential' reading matter but a vital tome missing from my husband's already considerable collection comes in the form of Maskelyne's Book Of Magic, first published in 1936 by George G. Harrap and Co Ltd.

Title Page Maskelyne's Book of MagicProviding a charming insight into the world of early twentieth century stage magic and outlining various performance techniques ranging from sleight of hand with coins, cards and rope to more elaborate and thought-provoking illusions involving mind-reading techniques, Maskelyne's Book Of Magic provides a comprehensive guide to starting out as a stage magician. Although famous in the 1930s for his ambitious stage shows and membership of the Magic Circle, the most noted work of Jasper Maskelyne - one of an already long family line of established stage magicians - was that undertaken for British Military Intelligence during the Second World War.
Born in 1902, Maskelyne worked as a stage magician predominantly in the 1930s and 40s. He joined the Royal Engineers at the outbreak of World War II, inspired by the belief that his exceptional skills could be used in the art of camouflage to deceive the enemy. In a bid to convince a group of officers who were sceptical about the implementation of such theatrical devices, Maskelyne created the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a replica ship made from modelling materials. Although the deception was convincing he was deployed to the African Theatre in the Western Desert where he used his talents mostly to entertain the troops.

Harry Houdini, 'the Handcuff King'Then, in January 1941, General Archibald Wavell formed a military body dedicated to subterfuge and counterintelligence. This group of 14 recruits, informally known as 'The Magic Gang', was headed by Maskelyne and included an architect, a chemist, a painter and a stage set builder. Maskelyne built a vast number of large scale illusions from painted canvas and plywood to pull off numerous deceptions. The largest of these was designed to conceal Alexandria and the Suez Canal by building a mock-up of the city's night lights in a bay three miles away and disguising the canal with a revolving cone of mirrors to dazzle, disorientate and misdirect German bombers!
Maskelyne did not receive the praise he deserved and, although commended for his efforts by Winston Churchill, his post-war career was not to be a successful one. Jasper Maskelyne died in 1973 having moved to Kenya to set up a driving school.

White Magic

The aim of Maskelyne's Book of Magic, as stated in the foreword, is "To turn amateur into performer", and with chapter headings so diverse as 'Starting in Magic' and 'Where Magic is Bought' to 'Stage Management' and 'Entertaining in Dress Clothes', there are both valuable and timeless pearls of wisdom to be found within these pages, in addition to some highly amusing period observations. The black and white plates depict Houdini (above right), Carl Hertz and Ellis Stanyon to name but a few masters of the illusion. Sixty line drawings illustrate various methods described in the text. This book reflects an exciting period in the development of stage magic and - I am assured by my husband - a copy is a must for any aspiring magician of today, as many of the foundations of modern conjuring can be observed through its numerous pages. As for us I fear that, due to the desirable titles I have listed below, we will have to buy another book shelf before the month is out!

Last night's television 

That's magic

Magic at War | The Bill 

Nancy Banks-Smith
Friday 28 June 2002
The Guardian /,3604,745452,00.html
Personally, I think that the best way to wrongfoot Rommel would be to tell him he was fighting Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. According to Milligan, the sight of Secombe, spectacles akimbo, crying shrilly "We're with you, sir!" put Monty off his stroke completely. God knows what it would have done to the enemy. The military mind is not geared to jokes.
Which is where Jasper Maskelyne came in. He was the most famous magician of the 30s and that superbly eerie name still carries a certain resonance. A dapper man. Patent-leather hair parted in the middle, matinee idol moustache, a fluent dancer's figure. "A handsome bugger," as one desert rat recalled, without, you felt, excessive warmth. Another said: "He wasn't easy to get on with. He was a hard taskmaster. His favourite expression - it didn't matter if you were a colonel or a private - was 'Go to hell!'"
In Maskelyne's memoirs, the basis of Magic at War (Channel 4), he tends to repeat the phrases "I think I may say without undue vanity..." and "I think I may say without particular vanity..." Have a little guess which quality one can confidently credit him with.
All the Maskelynes were magicians. A Maskelyne invented the coin-in-the-slot lavatory door and was, therefore, responsible for the enduring euphemism of spending a penny, which has defied inflation and decimalisation.
On the outbreak of war, he was posted to the western desert. Resisting the army's assumption that he was good for nothing but amusing the troops, he collected a group of like-minded mavericks to work on camouflage. He called them his crazy gang. An electrician, chemist, stage-scenery maker, architect, picture restorer, painter and a carpenter who, he added, had never earned more than £3 a week in his life.
For his first trick he made jeeps look like tanks with a superstructure of plywood. (As the jeep scuttled across the sand it looked endearingly like an old lady at the seaside holding up her skirts.) For his second, he made tanks look like trucks. For his big finish, and David Copperfield would appreciate this, he made Alexandria Harbour and the Suez Canal vanish. German bombers were misdirected to a mock Alexandria built in an adjacent bay and the Suez canal was masked with mirrors.
This trick was so clever I could not understand it even when a professor of physics and astronomy explained it. Particularly when a professor of physics and astronomy explained it. He devised a spinning mirrored cone which split a searchlight beam into a dazzling vortex nine miles wide at the top. Imagine a spinning shuttlecock with feathers of light. Then he filled the night sky with shuttlecocks.
Dr Badsey of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst said drily, "A number of people with unusual jobs end up writing How I Won the War Single-Handedly. You are not actually under oath when writing your own memoirs."
Nobody can deny that Maskelyne helped to win the Battle of El Alamein. Montgomery's counter-attack was coming from the north. It was, therefore, crucial that Rommel should expect it from the south. Maskelyne mass-produced, as he put it, "Tricks and swindles and devices intended to bewilder and mislead the crop-headed Axis commanders." His 2000 dummy tanks left dummy tracks and spat dummy gunfire. The airwaves were full of dummy bustle: "People rivetting things together and muffled oaths as they dropped hammers on their toes." Rommel calculated that the dummy pipeline could not be completed before November so he went home on leave. Monty attacked. Making Rommel vanish was Maskelyne's masterpiece.
Somehow you feel that, because the ghost army never existed, it is still there, sweating, swearing, waiting for the order to attack.
Maskelyne received no official recognition. For a vain man this was intolerable and he died an embittered drunk. It gives his story a poignancy without which it would be mere chest-beating

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