Jasper Maskelyne was a British magician who created monumental illusions that tricked the German army and helped the Allies win World War II.
Jasper was born in London in 1902 to a family of magicians. His grandfather John Nevil Maskelyne was the inventor of the classic levitation trick that is still popular today.
At the beginning of World War II, Jasper joined the Royal Engineers, a corps of the British Army. He suggested to his superiors that his unique skill set could be useful to the war effort. They were skeptical, until Jasper created the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a cardboard model.
Jasper was recruited to work for military intelligence in Cairo. He created ingenious devices to help soldiers escape if they were captured. These life-saving tricks included saw blades inside combs, and maps hidden in playing cards.
In 1941, Jasper was assigned to a new deception department known as “A Force.” He immediately gathered a group of talented artisans including a carpenter, electrician, architect, set designer, artist, and art restorer. They called themselves the Magic Gang.
The Gang’s first job was disguising army vehicles, using painted canvas and plywood to make jeeps look like tanks and tanks look like jeeps. They then moved on to a much bigger project: protecting the harbor in Alexandria, Egypt from attacks by the German air force.
Incredibly, Jasper and the Magic Gang created a fake harbor near the real Alexandria harbor, using dummy ships and houses made of mud and cardboard. They lit up the fake one, and turned off all the lights in the real one. During a German raid, Jasper set off bombs in the fake harbor. The Germans were confused and assumed other pilots were hitting the target, so they dropped their missiles on the fake harbor, thereby protecting the real port of Alexandria.
Jasper’s next project involved the Suez canal. He was instructed to increase anti-aircraft lights around the canal so British soldiers could spot Nazi planes in the dark. Instead, Jasper created a revolving cone of mirrors that turned regular lights into strobe lights. This disoriented German pilots and made them crash into each other.
The Magic Gang’s biggest illusion occurred in July 1942, during the Battle of El Alamein. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had conquered large parts of North Africa, and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery wanted to capture back El Alamein, a town on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.
Jasper’s job was to mislead the Germans into believing that the Allied attack was coming from the south rather than the north. In the north, he and his team disguised 1000 tanks as regular trucks, while in the south they created 2000 fake tanks. Using sound effects and other illusions, Jasper and his gang misled the Germans into heading south, while Montgomery attacked the north. The Allies won the battle – the first decisive victory against the Axis powers in North Africa.
The Magic Gang split up after the Battle of El Alamein, and Jasper spent the rest of the war entertaining troops. Winston Churchill thanked him for his valuable service, but the magician was frustrated that he never received formal recognition for his heroic actions.
After the war, Jasper created a traveling magic show which performed in small towns around the United Kingdom. The troupe began by headlining at top-level venues, but Jasper began drinking heavily and gradually the venues got smaller and seedier.
With his second wife Mary, Jasper moved to Kenya, where he bought a farm and gave magic lessons to residents and tourists. He died in 1973.
Under the British Official Secrets Act, the complete story of the Magic Gang can only be made public in 2046.
For using his incredible talent as a magician to fight Hitler, we honor Jasper Maskelyne as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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