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Jasper Maskelyne

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Category: Military
Reference No: 6778
Status: Available
Price: £95.00
  Jasper Maskelyne  Jasper Maskelyne

click on the small image to see a larger version

 

British magician, who never fired a shot in battle, but his amazing feats played a key role in the Allied victory in North Africa. 

The grandson of John Nevil Maskelyne, one of the founding fathers of British magic, Maskelyne was a celebrated stage magician before the Second World War. Convinced he could use his skills to help the army, Maskelyne wooed sceptical officials by creating the illusion of a German warship floating down the Thames using mirrors and a model. He was placed in charge of the Royal Engineers Camouflage Corps (soon known as The Magic Gang) and sent to Egypt where he performed some genuine “mission impossibles”. 

Applying his  knowledge of cheap and lightweight construction techniques Maskelyne’s group produced dummy tanks made of plywood and painted canvas and even devised a means of faking tank tracks after the dummies had been moved into position. Similar techniques were used to disguise real tanks as innocuous lorries.

In 1941, Maskelyne was involved in an elaborate operation which diverted German bombers from the port of Alexandria by setting up a fake harbour in a nearby bay; this involved constructing dummy buildings, a dummy lighthouse and even dummy anti-aircraft batteries which fired thunderflashes. He also “vanished” the Suez Canal by fitting searchlights with a revolving cone of mirrors, producing a dazzling wheel of spinning light beams nine miles across.

Maskelyne’s greatest triumph came in 1942 when he successfully convinced Rommel that the British Eighth Army was in the south of the Egyptian desert and that the Alamein attack would begin there rather than in the north.

In the North he camouflaged 1,000 real tanks lorries, while 30 miles south 2,000 fake tanks were assembled, complete with explosive special effects. To support the illusion, a fake railway line was built; there were even fake radio broadcasts and sound effects to mimic the noise of construction. Crucially, a fake water pipeline was built to supply the simulated armies. Its progress could easily be tracked from the air by German planes: the trick was to convince the Germans that it would not be ready, and therefore that no attack could begin, until November. The actual attack began on the night of 23 October, catching the German forces unprepared. After 10 days of bloody attrition, the British forced the Germans into retreat; of more than 30,000 casualties, nearly two-thirds were on the German side.

The role played by Maskelyne was recognised afterwards by Churchill, who paid tribute in the House of Commons to the 'marvellous system of camouflage' which had contributed to the victory.

Sadly, Maskelyne ended his days in relative obscurity as a farmer in Kenya, his critical role in the victory in North Africa unrecognized.

This is a very rare vintage photograph (10" x 6.5") of an elegantly dressed Jasper Maskelyne, signed across the image (""with every good wish, yours sincerely, Jasper Maskelyne") in dark blue fountain pen ink. Much of the writing is across a darker part of the photograph, reducing readability, but all of it is visible in good light. Very light staining from album adhesion to the reverse (not in any way affecting the front) but in very good overall condition.
Rarity of the image is suggested by an ink message to the reverse ("NOT TO BE PUBLISHED").