The real wizard of war: Jasper Maskelyne

Express News Service

Say, it’s only a paper moon/Sailing over a cardboard sea/But it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me…” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say these lines from the popular ditty summarise the contents of this page-turner under review. For it is about the fantastical and fabricated exploits of the renowned magician, Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973), who, if David Fisher is to be believed, had volunteered his services to the British Army, and had actually changed the course of World War II when he was posted in North Africa.

The only weapons in his arsenal were sleight of hands and smoke and mirrors. That allowed him to conceal, camouflage or “change” the sites of such strategic points in the region’s geography like the Suez Canal, Alexandria and Malta––then a British colony under fire from the Axis powers––and create battalions of dummy soldiers “armed” to the teeth, dummy tanks, battleships, luxury cruise ships that could turn into workaday vessels and submarines.

These looked realistic enough to bamboozle the Nazis, and none less than the Desert Fox––German field marshal Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel––who is said to have been endowed with uncanny powers of perception, virtually approaching the miraculous, which allowed him to preempt the deadly moves of his enemies.

Trojan Horse is proof enough of deception being used as a fair enough tactic in battles since time immemorial. But never before had chicanery been used on such a scale and with such audacity
as Maskelyne and his Magic Gang––as the group of men who had volunteered to help him out were known––did to outwit the Axis powers.

Maskelyne’s story––and it is a story––begins in London, where he was born, and where he lived happily with his wife Mary and two children. She was once a stagehand who worked with him. As a stage magician, Maskelyne is already an international star, but when London is the target of the brutal blitzkrieg, he decides he must go to the rescue of his country. In the beginning, he is not taken seriously, although camouflages were no strangers in armies, and the Germans already used their services.

But the enemy knew better, and Maskelyne would have ended his life on the ship itself as he sailed to the battlefront. The box of chocolates he received at Freetown, Sierra Leone, was obviously laced with poison as he fell ill after sampling them.

From London, the scene shifts to hedonistic Cairo, chock-a-block with Allied forces although America still refrained from joining forces, which it ultimately did as the narrative almost draws to a close. Fisher’s prose is pretty bald throughout, but lapses into purple prose once––“In the distance, the minarets of the elegant mosques stood poised like lances ready to prick the flaming sky.”

Maskelyne might have been a 10th-generation magician, but he had no illusions about his powers. He was well aware that it was legerdemain and had nothing to do with the black arts. And this knowledge comes to his aid as he confronts and exposes the anti-British Imam of the Whirling Dervish tribe, whose powers stemmed from his repute as a powerful magician.

The Magic Gang––a motley group of five––is introduced. Frank Knox, with whom  Maskelyne develops a camaraderie almost immediately, plays a pivotal role. Later comes streetwise Michael Hill, followed by the carpenter ‘Nails’ Graham, Punch cartoonist William Robson, the gangling and bespectacled Bill Robson and, lastly, the reclusive painter Philip Townsend. Confronted with the lack of resources, they are entirely dependent on their powers of innovation and ingenuity using everything,
from camel pats (to produce paint of a shade that would blend with the surrounding desert) to canvas, abandoned trams and railway carriages creating fake bomb craters and the world’s first portable holes. Fisher describes the nitty-gritty of each operation, which makes them sound quite convincing.

The thrill of success greets almost every top-secret operation. Fisher skillfully handles the tragic accident that threatens to open the floodgates of despair. Maskelyne bows out as he masterminds the entire dummy army at the Battle of El Alamein, which was to be Rommel’s undoing. Maskelyne is no forgotten hero, though. Hollywood has time and again planned films based on his life. Historians, however, have questioned the authenticity of the entire narrative based as it is on Maskelyne’s inflated account. He was the master of misdirection.

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