Why you should care
Because not every war story is as it seems.
World War II was raging and resources were scarce, so the dashing stage magician maximized what he had by using mirrors to divide each search light into 24 spinning beams, shining them at passing enemy aircraft to blind and distract the pilots. Jasper Maskelyne’s invention for making the bad guys see things that weren’t really there was ready. With a bit of razzle-dazzle, he said, he made the Suez Canal vanish and hid the city of Alexandria from German planes, fighting the war in North Africa with a sleight of hand so powerful that it seemed like magic. But Maskelyne’s story of fighting — and defeating — the Nazis would prove his greatest trick.
Though Maskelyne trumpeted his war efforts in his autobiography … his casting of himself as a war hero may have been his greatest invention.
Hailing from a family of renowned stage magicians, including dad Nevil and grandfather John Nevil, Maskelyne liked being the center of attention and knew how to put on a show. According to the prolific fibber, he designed a prototype for his dazzle light while working for the British army’s camouflage unit during World War I that turned out to be too expensive to build. So the Suez Canal had to stay put, and Maskelyne was transferred to the entertainment unit to perform card tricks for the troops. But the magician’s flashy story has stuck around, largely by capturing the imagination — if not the fact-checking skills — of writers like David Fisher, whose 1983 book The War Magician accepted Maskelyne’s fish stories wholeheartedly.
The magic man, apparently, was all talk. Though Maskelyne trumpeted his war efforts in his autobiography, Magic: Top Secret, his casting of himself as a war hero may have been his greatest invention. “Everything in [his memoir] is fantasy,” says Rick Stroud, author of The Phantom Army of Alamein, a history of one of the climactic battles Maskelyne claimed to have almost single-handedly won. Maskelyne was transferred, Stroud says, “before many of the things that he claimed to have done even happened.”
In fact, Maskelyne — whose career had foundered before the war — saw military life as a chance for a new start in an era when the tradition of the music hall, where his father and grandfather had found fame, was dying. “It was an opportunity for him to become a completely different, heroic person,” Stroud says, noting how Maskelyne shipped his family to Australia and talked his way into the Royal Engineers by boasting about his knowledge of camouflage.
Before being shipped off to the entertainment unit, Maskelyne made an effort to contribute to the war effort. He designed the dazzle lights, which made it to the prototype stage, and a paste that could repel fire. The trouble with the latter was its impracticality: Pilots whose planes had been hit weren’t going to waste precious moments applying paste while spiraling toward certain death. But Maskelyne did see one of his inventions put to use. He created the so-called sun shield, canvas frames that disguised tanks as innocuous trucks. The sun shield helped the Allies win the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 by fooling the German army into believing Allied tanks were further from enemy lines than they actually were. But while Maskelyne helped design the shield, there’s no evidence that he masterminded how it was deployed.
There were plenty of artists aiding the war effort via camouflage, according to art historian and Camouflage author Tim Newark. “Camouflage during the Second World War was not yet in the hands of the scientists,” he says, noting that it was artists who “knew how light and color and shade worked, and that disguising something at a distance [was] more about texture than color.” As for Maskelyne, Newark’s research uncovered both the magician’s disdain for the camouflage training center in Britain and his colleagues’ disdain for him. “It makes an entertaining story,” Newark says, “but he wasn’t considered that important.”
A professional liar telling more lies is hardly a surprise, and Maskelyne’s deception, which burgeoned when he decamped to South Africa after the war, is hardly unique. Soldiers and politicians in every war find ways to pump up their credentials — even Winston Churchill himself, says Shroud, took allowances when writing about his role. “You’d have thought the Americans and Russians were minor players to the drum that [Churchill] beat,” he says.
Everyone looms large in his own imagination. But for Maskelyne, whose life’s work was entertainment and illusion, his greatest trick was trying — with some success — to fool history into remembering him as something he wasn’t.