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According to the autobiographical "Magic: Top Secret" and David Fisher's biography "The War Magician", Maskelyne's wartime career was as follows.
Maskelyne joined the Royal Engineers when the Second World War broke out, thinking that his skills could be used in camouflage. He convinced sceptical officers by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a model. He was eventually deployed to the African theater in the Western Desert, although he spent most of his time entertaining the troops.
In January 1941, General Archibald Wavell created A Force for subterfuge and counterintelligence. Maskelyne was assigned to serve in it and gathered a group of 14 assistants, including an architect, art restorer, carpenter, chemist, electrical engineer, electrician, painter, and stage-set builder. It was nicknamed the Magic Gang.
The Magic Gang built a number of tricks. They used painted canvas and plywood to make jeeps look like tanks — with fake tank tracks — and tanks look like trucks. They created illusions of armies and battleships.
His largest trick was to conceal Alexandria and the Suez Canal to misdirect German bombers. He built a mockup of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse, and anti-aircraft batteries. To mask the Suez Canal he built a revolving cone of mirrors that created a wheel of spinning light nine miles wide, meant to dazzle and disorient enemy pilots so that their bombs would fall off-target.
In 1942 he worked in Operation Bertram, before the battle of El Alamein. His task was to make German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel think that the attack was coming from the south when British General Bernard Montgomery planned to attack from the north. In the north, 1,000 tanks were disguised as trucks. On the south, the Magic Gang created 2,000 fake tanks with convincing pyrotechnics. There was a fake railway line, fake radio conversations, and fake sounds of construction. They also built a fake water pipeline and made it look as if it would never be ready before attack.
The Magic Gang was disbanded after the battle and, although Winston Churchill praised his efforts, Maskelyne did not receive the appreciation he desired. Maskelyne tried to resume his stage career after the war without much success. He moved to Kenya and founded a driving school.
A report in The Guardian of June 28, 2002, was more blunt: "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."
Jasper Maskelyne died in 1973.
The standard Maskelyne account has been critically analyzed by the military historian and magician Richard Stokes. In a 21-article series originally written in 1993-95 for the Australian magic magazine Geniis Magic Journal, Stokes documents many chronological inaccuracies and unsubstantiated events, concluding that Maskelyne's wartime exploits have been heavily fictionalized, particularly via the ghost-written Magic: Top Secret. Stokes has created a website where he has posted these articles and related materials.
Stokes also points out the existence of two Maskelyne genealogies, casting doubt that the line of magicians was descended from the astronomer Nevil Maskelyne.
Books of Jasper Maskelyne
- White Magic: The Story of the Maskelynes (1936)
- Magic: Top Secret (1949) — ghost-written account of his WW2 exploits
- Fisher, David. The War Magician (1983, reprinted 2004). A novelised biography.
- Latimer, Jon, Deception in War, London: John Murray, 2001. A factual account of 'A' Force and its development.
- Salisse, John & Davenport, Anne. A Candid View of Maskelyne's 1916-1917 (1995).
- Salisse, John & Davenport, Anne. St. George's Hall (2002).