Did A British Magician Help Britain Beat Hitler in North Africa?

Did A British Magician Help Britain Beat Hitler in North Africa?

Jasper Maskelyne used his talents in deception to trick the Nazis on several occasions.

Admiral Cunningham was so delighted with Maskelyne’s dummy submarine fleet that he wanted a 720-foot battleship to replace those in dry dock. The Magic Gang labored over converting a dilapidated cruiser that was decaying on a salt lake in the Suez. Crews trucked in from Magic Valley began converting the aging cruiser into a modern warship. The sham battleship was completed in mid-February. It was named HMS Houdin, but it could not pass for a battleship in the eyes of Admiral Cunningham.

However, Maskelyne would find a use for Houdin. He explained to Cunningham that it could serve as a Royal Navy attempt to camouflage a real battleship. Maskelyne told the admiral, “If we take obvious pains to camouflage our boat but do a bad job of it, their intelligence people will be quite happy to discover a real battleship beneath all our canvas and papier-mâché….” Cunningham was so delighted with the audacious plan that he immediately agreed to implement it.

Night and Day Decoys

In the winter of 1942, Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, air officer commander-in-chief, knew of the marvels the Magic Gang had produced for the Army and Navy and wanted them to “hide” the island of Malta from devastating Luftwaffe attacks. Unlike Alexandria Harbor or the Suez Canal, Malta could not be moved or hidden or made invisible.

The two parts of the Malta camouflage plan presented by Maskelyne were based on deception at night and decoys during the day. The deception plan would be based on the Maryut Bay ploy where dummy airstrips would be lighted at night to draw enemy bombers away. Maskelyne’s associate, Professor Knox, proposed the plans for various decoy airplanes to be employed during the daylight hours.

Military Deception Under Montgomery

After the Eighth Army’s crushing defeat of at Gazala and the grueling slugfest between Auchinleck and Rommel in July 1942, Churchill conducted his August purge, replacing “the Auk” with General Sir Harold Alexander and ordering General Bernard Law Montgomery to assume command of Eighth Army after the accidental death of “Strafer” Gott in a fiery air crash. Major Barkas informed his camofleurs of their next objective, Operation Sentinel. They had to use their talents to delay Rommel until the 51st Highland Division and 25 Sherman tanks in British service arrived.

The graduates of Buckley’s classes at Farnham would now be given ample supplies and manpower to “put into the field all the techniques and tricks they’d mastered during the two years in the desert.” Montgomery was an enthusiast of “war magic,” and all he wanted from Barkas’s men was that they make two motorized divisions appear on the barren sands north of Cairo. These notional camps expanded each day as more and more notional troops and weapons arrived. Then, after reaching the assigned strength of two motorized divisions, it began to thin out as the notional men and guns were trucked forward to bolster the Alamein line. The ensuing Battle of Alam Halfa saw Montgomery win his first battle using both tough defensive tactics and military deception.

The Magic Gang at El Alamein

On September 16, 1942, Montgomery held a meeting at his advance headquarters at Bug-el-Arab. Montgomery wanted to convince Rommel’s intelligence section that the main thrust of Eighth Army’s attack would be made at the southern end of the Alamein line, while everyone expected the main thrust of the assault to be in the north. If this ploy was successful, Rommel would be forced to hold back his reserve divisions until he was certain the British were attacking in the north.

Bertram required a large group of seemingly harmless transport and supply vehicles assembling in the north, while the armored force would appear to be headed south.

An artificial pipeline heading in a southerly direction was laid out on the desert floor at a rate of five miles per day. At night the pipeline, which was made of flattened fuel cans laid end to end was picked up and laid down alongside the following day’s five-mile stretch. An even greater piece of deception was incorporated into this feint since the pipeline at its current rate could not reach the southern terminus until early November, and German intelligence would undoubtedly assume that the offensive would not begin until it was completed.

Despite all the deception, the first few days of the Battle of El Alamein were a slugfest for the armored formations of Eighth Army as they struggled through the northern minefields. However, General Ritter von Thoma, one of Rommel’s top commanders, who had been captured during the fighting, admitted to Montgomery that the Afrika Korps had been led to believe the attack would be made in the south, and they prepared for that.

Was Maskelyne a True Master of Camouflage?

Maskelyne’s Magic Gang split up soon after the Battle of El Alamein. By the end of the war, Maskelyne had been promoted to the rank of major and served in 16 countries. As testimonial to his success, Maskelyne’s name was added to a Gestapo “Black List,” and a bounty was placed on his head by the Nazis.

Maskelyne returned to England in 1946. In 1948, he and his family migrated to Kenya. He died there in 1973.

Recently, controversy has developed around Maskelyne’s exploits as scrutiny of his deceptions and illusions has heightened with the release of declassified documents and Maskelyne’s missing private scrapbook, Deceptive Camouflage Ideas 1941-1945.

In Terry Crowdy’s book, Deceiving Hitler, the author commented that a fellow Farnham alumnus, Julian Trevelyan, was sent from Britain to investigate the deceptions being carried out in the Middle East and concluded, “Maskelyne’s actual involvement in military deception appears to have been a bit of a sham.”

However, Crowdy goes on to comment, “Curiously enough, people appeared much more confident with the dummy vehicles when they were told they had been devised by a well-known illusionist. And yet illusionists and stage magicians do catch people’s imaginations. This is one reason why Dudley Clarke employed Maskelyne in A Force.”

Jon Diamond practices medicine and lives in Hershey, Pennsylvania. His biography of Field Marshal Archibald Wavell is part of the Osprey Publications Command series.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons