Jasper was the seventh in a line of Maskelyne stage magicians and his accounts of life during war time are among the most fascinating of any of the millions involved in the Second World War. Although it should be added that there’s no business like show business...
Maskelyne joined the Royal Engineers in 1940 and was trained at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle.
His account of this time differs somewhat from the official account. In his book, he says, "a lifetime of hiding things on the stage” had apparently taught him more about camouflage than, “rabbits and tigers will ever know".
In his memoirs, Indigo Days, Maskelyne’s supervisor Julian Trevelyan describes the magician’s time at Farnham Castle rather differently: “The course included others who had espoused camouflage for one reason or another. Jasper Maskelyne’s connection with it was obvious, since disappearing was his profession and he was called in when anyone wished anything to become invisible. He entertained us with his tricks in the evenings, and tried, rather unsuccessfully, to apply his techniques to the disguise of the concrete pill-boxes that were then appearing everywhere overnight. He was at once innocent and urbane, and he ended up as an Entertainments officer in the Middle East.”
Nevertheless, Maskelyne was recruited to work for Mi9 as part of the A Force Deception Department in Egypt.
He is said to have developed a variety of gadgets including saw blades in combs, tools within cricket bats and secreted maps into packs of playing cards, but accounts vary wildly and as some military records are sealed it is hard to get to the truth.
Maskelyne was clearly a talented raconteur and a variety of accounts of his deeds have been published over the years. Some may be true.
We do know that Jasper Maskelyne was put in charge of the Camouflage Experimental Section, and that he called it his ‘Magic Gang’, but it was disbanded and the personnel were absorbed into the development wing of the Camouflage Training and Development Centre.
Included within developments was a collapsible Dummy Tank made from canvas on a rod framework, which could be lifted onto a lorry by two men. This replaced the far heavier wooden deception type of tank.
Records reveal that Maskelyne was one of thirty camouflage officers who were sent to the Middle East Force in 1941. It also says that he was “transferred to Welfare.” It is suggested that this would mean Maskelyne was transferred to entertainment duties. Indeed, the magician was performing shows for army personnel by the end of 1941, including a show at the British Embassy on Christmas Eve.
The Special Operations Executive’s work was so Top Secret that family members did not know of much of their agents work. However, this appeared in the Daily Mail in the April prior to Maskelyne’s arrival in Egypt, “A famous illusionist, member of the world’s best-known family of illusionists, has been sent to Egypt—to help make the British Army disappear. He is Jasper Maskelyne, now Lieutenant Maskelyne of the Royal Engineers, a camouflage officer and one of several attached to our forces in the Middle East.
“Lieut. Maskelyne, instead of making beautiful girls vanish on the stage, is using his skill and practical craftsmanship to render men, tanks, and guns less conspicuous.
“Practical common sense is the secret of camouflage.
“I learnt that today at this Camouflage School of the British Army—the existence of which has itself been very carefully camouflaged...”
Was Maskelyne’s presence in Egypt a propaganda stunt?
It certainly appears that he was part of a team, but perhaps no more than that.
Again, accounts vary wildly over this period of Maskelyne’s work, but tales of hiding the Suez Canal, thousands of dummy tanks, dazzling searchlights that would knock planes out of the sky, were mostly fictionalised accounts relating to activities and propaganda that took place during the Middle East conflict.
As Maskelyne was well known and an interesting character, it did remove the focus from other men within operations such as General Sir Archibald Wavell, Lieutenant Colonel Barkas, and Captain RJ Morrison, about whom there is more evidence of involvement in the design of unique and innovative deception devices and gadgetry.
It is also recorded that the Middle East section were sent products manufactured at The Thatched Barn in Hertfordshire. Maskelyne may have been involved in the modification of such items, but he wasn’t the genius behind their development.
He was however, fully informed and involved. He became a respected escape and evasion lecturer after this period and is highly likely to have helped adapt and modify equipment while adding his own ideas to powerful people within the appropriate circles. Why fictional accounts have subsequently exaggerated his involvement in the war effort is a mystery. But then that’s what illusionists do...