7 – Jasper Maskelyne
This list has been heavy on British eccentrics, whether they be sword-wielding pseudo-Scotsmen or umbrella-toting, bowler-hatted paratroopers, and our next entry might be the wackiest of the lot. Certainly, if Jasper Maskelyne had known was Jack Churchill and Digby Tatham-Warter had been up to, you can bet that he would have done something even more mad to make himself stand out. Maskelyne was a born performer and relentless self-publicist, as well as a noted teller of tall tales, so we must take many aspects of his life with a pinch of salt, but if even half of them are true then he deserves his place on this list.
Unlike so many of our previous entrants, he was not from a military background, though he was certainly performing in his own family business when he came to prominence. Jasper Maskelyne was the son and grandson of two of the most famous stage magicians in Britain and followed his conjuring ancestors into the trade, appearing to great success all over the country in the 1930s, starring in films and publishing books on the performance of magic. When war came, he volunteered for the Royal Engineers with the idea that he might put his talents to work for the war effort – with one tale being that he made a German dreadnought appear in the River Thames to convince his superiors of his worth.
He was assigned to camouflage, but paid little attention in training and was convinced that he was more talented than his peers: in fact, some of the other recruits reported that, predictably, he was poor in military affairs though very entertaining when they were relaxing in the evenings. Nevertheless, he was posted to North Africa and set about training infantry there in techniques to evade capture and disguising vehicles.
One later biographer described his time in North Africa as “either absolutely central (if you believe his account and that of his biographer) or very marginal (if you believe the official records and more recent research)”, and there is – as one might expect from a magician – quite some doubt about just how much he did. According to Maskelyne, he was responsible for feats as grand as making the Suez Canal disappear (which he did by shining lights upwards from the water to dazzling German fighter planes), making entire armies appear to be somewhere else via an elaborate system of dummy tanks and soldiers and relocating the entire city of Alexandria. Other reports say that the Suez Canal trick was merely planned and never executed, the dummy machinery plan was simply to labor intensive to have actually have been carried out and that by the end of the war, Maskelyne was doing nothing more vital to the military effort than what he had been busy with before the war: he was entertaining the troops with his stage magic.
If anything, the greatest deception that Maskelyne pulled off might well have been convincing people that he was important: his name lives on as one of the most unusual stories of the Second World War, despite there being little to no concrete proof that he did any of the things that he said he did. As any good conjurer know though, a great magician never reveals his tricks. And if the British Army were successfully able to make whole canals and cities disappear, then it was some trick indeed: and one not to be shared too widely.