Jasper Maskelyne - war wizard
Jasper Maskelyne (1902–1973) was a larger than life character who practised conjuring on a grand scale for military purposes. From a famous family of English stage magicians, he offered his services as a wartime illusionist and escapologist during the Second World War.
He claimed to have built fake cities to fool German bombers, and to have even hidden the Suez Canal using his genius for camouflage and trickery.
Maskelyne joined the Royal Engineers when the Second World War broke out, thinking that his skills could be of use in the War Effort. A story runs that he convinced sceptical officers by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a model. Sent to Cairo, Maskelyne lectured on escape techniques and created small devices intended to assist soldiers to escape if captured. These included tools hidden in cricket bats, saw blades inside combs, and small maps on objects such as playing cards.
Maskelyne told of his exploits during the war in the book Magic: Top Secret, published in 1949. He describes how he built a replica of the port of Alexandria in Egypt out of models. It is said that together with his unit, the “Magic Gang”, he erected buildings, vehicles and even fake boats to throw off the German pilots, who in the absence of radar had to be guided by the naked eye, and who ended up bombing the fake port instead of the real one.
He also had the idea of concealing the Suez Canal by means of rotating stroboscopic mirrors and reflectors that at key moments would blind Luftwaffe pilots to miss the shot.
Naturally, much intelligence activity during the war remains obscure, but some have claimed that Maskelyne exaggerated his role. This was discovered much to the chagrin of Hollywood director Peter Weir and actor Tom Cruise who started work on a film about his exploits in 2003, but decided to drop the story over doubts over the book's veracity.
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