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  • Writer's pictureK.E. Berr

Jasper Maskelyne

The Allies Illusionist

Jasper Maskelyne was a magician who also fought for the allies after the outbreak of the second world war. During his time in service, his two careers would meet. Over the course of the war, he apparently made an entire harbour disappear, made the Suez Canal vanish and manifested a full army out of thin air.

Maskelyne photographed in his magician's tux for "Maskelyne's Book of Magic". Circa 1937.

Before the War

Born in London in 1902, Jasper Maskelyne was expected to be a magician from the time he was born. He was the grandson of famed magician John Nevil Maskelyne, who is often credited with inventing the levitation trick. Like his grandfather, Maskelyne's father, Nevil, was also a magician who owned and operated his own theatre specifically for magic and illusions. His grandfather and father had been masters of the craft, and there was no doubt that Maskelyne would be the same.

As a child, Maskelyne watched his father's performances and grew up exploring their theatre. His father gave him lessons on how to perform tricks, and Maskelyne would end up leaving school early in order to pursue his own career.

As he got older, Maskelyne was determined to make a name for himself. Always described as someone who loved the attention of an audience, Maskelyne quickly succeeded in doing so. He was particularly skilled at sleight-of-hand tricks and illusions, and this earned him a spot performing at the theatre. Maskelyne's most popular act involved him swallowing razor blades before, at the end of the trick, he would eat a string and pull the razor blades out in a long chain. Every time he performed the trick, it drew in large crowds.

Home-Douglas and Maskelyne walking together around 1925.

After their father's death in 1924, Maskelyne's older brother, Clive, took over the family theatre. Maskelyne continued his performances and also hired an assistant, Evelyn Enid Mary Home-Douglas. In 1926, Maskelyne and Home-Douglas were married. The next year, in 1927, they had a son named Alistair. A year later, they would have a daughter named Jasmine.

The theatre passed to Maskelyne in 1927, after Clive suddenly died. When the stock market crashed two years later, the theatres business did not suffer. In fact, as the Great Depression went on, the theatre, and Maskelyne too, became more popular. Maskelyne would even have two books published about his magic during this time.

This success could not last forever though. In 1940, the United Kingdom entered into the war against Germany. As men left to fight, women went to work, while others left the country for a safer place. Audiences and ticket sales dropped, and Maskelyne's success began to falter.

Home-Douglas and their children would pack up and move to New Zealand, where they could safely stay with a family member. Maskelyne said his goodbyes and saw them off, but he could not simply leave while others went off to battle. He stayed behind in England, where he was determined to enlist in the army. He felt that with his skills in illusion, he would be a good part of the Camouflage Unit, a branch of the Royal Engineers.

A letter of recommendation regarding Maskelyne, and written to Prime Minister Churchill.

The selection process for the Camouflage Unit was competitive, though. It is believed that over three hundred people applied and only thirty of those people were accepted. Even less than that actually finished training and were sent into the field.

When Maskelyne first applied, he was unsuccessful. He was not the candidate such a highly trained group was looking for. Maskelyne was older than the other soldiers and he had no higher education, he had not even finished high school. When he brought up his idea to use magic, he was laughed at by officials.

But Maskelyne was determined to make it into the unit. He continued to campaign hard for a spot, to the point that he had a letter written to Prime Minister Winston Churchill advocating for him. According to Maskelyne, he was finally able to convince officers after he used mirrors and a model ship to trick them into believing that there was a German warship on the River Thames. It is debatable whether or not that is true, but either way, Maskelyne eventually convinced officials that he could be of help and he was finally accepted into the Camoflauge Unit of the Royal Engineers.

Farnham Castle, the base for the CDTC.


Maskelyne reported for duty on October 14, 1940. The Royal Engineers were sent to Farnham Castle, just outside of London. It was then serving as a makeshift base for the Camouflage Development and Training Centre, or the CDTC.

They had recruits from many different fields. Not only was there Maskelyne, but there was a circus manager, painters, sculptors, a magazine editor, and an art expert as well as an expert on animal camouflage. Most, if not all, of the recruits had little to no experience in the military.

The main goal of the unit was to develop a camouflage that could be mass-produced for the troops. Before this, there had not been such a device, so this would be new for the second world war. This wide variety of artistic backgrounds would ideally work together to help in the creation.

Maskelyne always described himself as a standout during his time at Farnham. Not only did he apparently excel in daily tasks, but he was also outstanding at tasks that others struggled to even complete. With so much extra time on his hands, Maskelyne often played tricks on his superiors, and he often revelled in finding different ways to confuse his superiors.

Maskelyne performing in North Africa in 1942.

Although, these claims come directly from Maskelyne. In reality, it seems as though Maskelyne was not so successful. He often performed his tasks the same as others and spent evenings entertaining the recruits. It is likely that Maskelyne was simply bored. He had been in training for two months and the unit had not had any excitement. The only brush with battle had come during the Battle of Britain, though it had ended just after Maskelyne's enlistment. Maskelyne would later claim to have his own triumphant role in the battle, but he had never actually taken part in it. Julian Trevelyan, who trained with Maskelyne would say of him, "[Maskelyne] was called in when anyone wished anything to become invisible. He entertained us with his tricks in the evening, and tried, rather unsuccessfully, to apply his techniques to the disguises of the concrete pill-boxes that were then appearing everywhere overnight."

Things changed before the year was over, though. The Inspector-General was set to visit, and Maskelyne made it his mission to impress him. Details vary on how he did this. Some accounts say he hid a large machine gun bunker in plain sight, and the Inspector-General was impressed by his quick thinking and skills in illusion. Another account says Maskelyne recreated the previously mentioned trick with the German battleship on the Thames. Either way, he impressed the Inspector-General, who promoted Maskelyne to lieutenant and enrolled him in the MI9, where he would be sent to Cairo to work with the "A-Force".

Service in Egypt

On January 5, 1941, Maskelyne left England for Egypt. But it was not smooth sailing. The story goes that while en route to Egypt, the ship stopped in Sierra Leone, where Maskelyne was gifted with a box of chocolates. After eating some of the sweets, he became deathly ill. He suffered from fever, nausea and dizziness. Maskelyne eventually recovered and suspected that German officers had targeted British officers, though they had failed to kill any this time.

Although, it is far more likely that Maskelyne had simply been a victim of food poisoning, not some German scheme. The ship he was travelling on was far from luxurious; it was unhygienic and overcrowded. Other soldiers were reported as having come down with the same symptoms, though they attested that they had never eaten any chocolates. Considering Maskelyne's penchant for embellishing stories, it is likely that this is just another one of them. After all, being the target of a stealthy German spy attack sounds far more interesting than a bout of food poisoning.

Maskelyne arrived in Egypt on March 3, 1941, fully recovered from the effects of his illness. After arrival, Maskelyne and his convoy waited offshore for a week. Right before their arrival, Italian troops had been driven out of the country and in retaliation, the axis powers had threatened air raids. It was not until March 10 that Maskelyne and 11 other men were let off at Port Tewfiq. Later that same day they arrived in Cairo.

As a part of the A-Force (also known as the Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate), Maskelyne expected that he would become a vital part of an elite team, one in which he would be able to outwit the axis powers with illusions and magic. Instead, he again spent most of his time entertaining the troops.

Maskelyne, as usual, was determined to get what he wanted, and he wanted to head his own unit. So, he negotiated a deal with his superior officer, Geoffrey Barkas. Maskelyne offered to continue entertaining the troops as long as he was assigned to his own unit. Barkas agreed and appointed Maskelyne to head of the newly formed Camouflage Experimental Section.

Maskelyne's next step was to assemble his team. It is unclear how many people he interviewed for his team, but Maskelyne claimed it was somewhere in the 400s. In the end, he picked only 14 people to work with him. The team had a wide range of different skills, with recruits that included a chemist, a carpenter, an electrical engineer, an electrician, an architect, a stage-set builder, an art restorer, a painter, and a cartoonist, among others. Maskelyne dubbed his team "The Magic Gang", a name he had settled on to honour a group of comedians he had once performed with known as the Crazy Gang.

Maskelyne in uniform.

They would receive their first assignment in May of 1941 after Barkas set them to developing camouflage paint to hide their supply of tanks. Luckily, they found an old warehouse full of supplies. For a while, the team experimented with these supplies with no luck. But after weeks of toil, they found the perfect mix. As a base, they used spoiled Worcestershire sauce. They balanced that out with flour, which gave it a thicker consistency. To get the proper pigment, they used camel manure, which was regularly collected by the gang.

Despite the odd list of ingredients, the paint seemed to work, and they quickly made more. The allies needed their tanks disguised, and they needed it done quickly. Operation Battleaxe was approaching quickly, and with any luck, it would drive out Italian and German forces once and for all.

Camouflage paint may seem like another tall tale dreamed up by Maskelyne, but it really was something created and used by the allies during the second world war. Although, it was likely not Maskelyne's creation. The official recipe camouflage paint apparently lists ingredients similar to Maskelynes, including spoiled Worcestershire sauce and flour. But it does not call for the ingredient Maskelyne claimed to be most useful in the creation of the paint; camel manure. The official recipe has also never been credited to Maskelyne or the Magic Gang.

An anti-semitic cartoon of Maskelyne from a German newspaper, run after news of Maskelynes exploits became public.

Maskelyne's gang did serve a purpose at this time -- even if they were not doing much more than waiting for a new assignment. In fact, Maskelyne had been of great use, at least when it came to the British Army's propaganda campaign. With the famous magician in the army, he was a perfect draw for new recruits. In early April of 1941, the British Army began to give (likely heavily exaggerated) information about the exploits of the Magic Gang to newspapers, encouraging them to publish articles with it. Once the British papers picked it up, so did papers from other countries. Soon, Maskelyne was promoting the hard work of the army all over the world.

Maskelyne, who was convinced that what he was doing was crucial and should remain secret, was adamant that it had not been his own superiors alerting the papers to his work. Rather, he believed it had been a spy ring who had leaked the information. According to Maskelyne, this spy ring smuggled information from Egypt, through the Balkans, into Turkey, and all the way to top German officers. He would also claim that the spy who had first leaked the information had been arrested and executed. Of course, there is little evidence to prove this claim. It is not absurd to believe there was a spy ring operating in Egypt, but if they were operating, Maskelynes camouflage paint likely was not the intel they would be looking for.

This series of photos demonstrates the first prototypes of the sunshields, made out of wood and canvas

On April 23, 1941, a week or so after the first article had come out and garnered some attention towards their work, the Magic Gang were given a new assignment. Now, they had to use their paint to actually camouflage the tanks. This task was incredibly time-consuming, far too much for any frontline soldiers to undertake. The tanks would need to continually be repainted, so the paint would constantly need to be made. But supplies would run short from time to time, and even once the tanks had been painted, they were still somewhat visible to planes overhead. What they needed was something that was quick, more effective and would take fewer supplies. General Wavell, another one of Maskelyne's superiors, drew up a quick sketch of a tank with something thrown over the top of it. With this idea in mind, Maskelyne devised a device made out of lightweight wood and canvas. When it was thrown over the tank, it would make the tank look like a truck. Maskelyne called this a 'sunshield' and with the help of the Mechanical Experimental Establishment, the first prototype was finished on April 30. On May 3, it went through its first rounds of tests.

Allied planes flew over the tanks, trying to search for the tanks down below. Instead of tanks though, they only saw trucks. The sunshields had worked. Maskelyne, of course, was glad that his experiment had worked so well. He claimed that they were so effective that even the people on the ground could not tell that they were tanks, even though they were right in front of them.

While the device was ingenious and proved to work much better than the paint, it was not without its own problems. They looked odd, but not so suspicious. As long as the tanks did not move, that is. The slow-rolling of the tank might have given it away, but the real problem came from close up, with the obvious tank tracks that were left behind.

The finished sunshield, complete with metal rods instead of wood.
The track erasers attached to a sunshield.

So, they went back to the drawing board. First, they replaced the wood with metal. This made the whole structure more stable and easier to move, in case they ever had to move quickly with their disguise. They also added track erasers. This was a simple device that attached to the back of the sunshield and moved the sand to disguise tank tracks. With these changes, 400 more sunshields were put into production.

The sunshields seemed to prove effective; in an Italian report sent out to their troops, they made a special note, warning any pilots that the tanks would look like trucks.

It is unclear when exactly the sunshields were first used, but it was likely sometime after the summer of 1941. That summer saw the previously mentioned Operation Battleaxe take place. The operation would prove to be one of the worst failures of World War II, at least when it came to the operation of the tanks. During the operation, the allies lost at least 91 tanks. For comparison, the axis powers lost only 12. It was an embarrassing and huge loss, which suggests that the sunshields may not have been involved in this battle. Although, several months later in November, we know that they were definitely used for Operation Crusader.

Operation Crusader, unlike Battleaxe, was an accomplishment on the part of the allies. It saw few losses for their tanks, and they came out victorious. With this under their belt, the Egyptian units and Maskelyne were now given a much bigger task. This time, they had to make the port of Alexandria disappear.

Almost every night, Luftwaffe bombers had attacked the British ships that came into the port. With the constant loss of ships, the British troops found themselves lacking certain supplies, like ammo and weapons. It also meant that the number of men being sent to Egypt became scarcer, to the point that they could not stand to lose any more. With no sign of the Luftwaffe units going away, they needed to find some sort of solution. How they would do that was Maskelyne's task to figure out.

A photo of the harbour, taken by an Italian reconnaissance team.
The docks of the Alexandria port, as mapped by the Germans. The warehouses roofs had been painted to resemble the surrounding civilian buildings.

After arriving in Alexandria, though, they quickly realized how big a task this really was. This could not simply be dealt with in the same way the tanks had been; it was far too large to cover in any way. Others had already tried to paint the tops of the buildings, and the Germans simply mapped out the port so they would know where to aim. But Maskelyne had an idea. In his own words, "We can't cover it up. We can't disguise it. And we can't hide it. There's only one solution left to us, isn't there? We've got to move it."

Maskelyne's plan had to be efficient, but it also had to be eye-catching. This was finally an opportunity for Maskelyne to show off his skills. So, Maskelyne began to figure out a way to make the port disappear. He decided that if he could make an identical port, they could simply place it in a neighbouring bay.

The first step in the creation of the fake port was to find a place for it to go. It had to be somewhere far enough away from Alexandria that the city would not be hit, but it also had to be geographically similar, so that the land would look similar from above. Maskelyne would claim that they built on Maryut Bay (also spelled Mariut Bay). Although, there is no Maryut Bay, only Maryut Lake. It sits just outside Alexandria and would have been far too close to be the spot for their decoy. So, it is unclear where exactly the decoy was built, whether it was the lake or some unknown location.

Wherever it was, the next step was to build the fake port. Using the pictures that had been taken by German spies, they began to create a replica. Soldiers had been brought in to help build, though their supplies were limited. Cardboard and wood filled in for buildings and model ships were placed in the water. Hundreds of electric lanterns were placed in the replica to serve as the lights of Alexandria's port. They even rigged a light that could be switched on and off to mimic a lighthouse. Though it was much smaller, shadows and lights were utilized to make it seem much bigger.

To top it all off, fake explosions were rigged to make it seem as though the Luftwaffe had hit its mark. Real anti-aircraft guns and searchlights were also brought in to make it seem more authentic. It was elaborate, but with any luck, it would prove to be worth it. From above, it looked nearly identical.

In the daytime, soldiers would cover the replica with a camouflaged net while they worked on it underneath. When it came time to put the model to work, the lights in the real port were shut off and everyone waited with bated breath. It proved successful that first night. The bombers completely passed over the real port, and aimed directly for the fake port. In fact, they passed over the real port for eight nights. After that, they were called away to help with the invasion of Russia.

Maskelyne's next assignment would be of much more importance. In November of 1941, he finally received the top-secret spy mission he had always wanted.

It was suspected that in Abdeen Palace, King Farouk of Egypt was hiding a powerful radio transmitter, one that he was using to communicate with axis forces. Maskelyne's task was to find the radio. Or at least, he was to perform a magic show for the king while A-Force agents pretending to be a part of the gang scoured the palace for the radio. Security would have been low, and Maskelyne was believed to be trustworthy, so they would have had easy access to even the prohibited areas.

However, no one could seem to find this radio. Maskelyne, thinking quickly, invited the king onstage to see an elaborate trick up close. During the trick, Maskelyne snuck offstage through a trapdoor. In only six short minutes, he had to find the radio. Somehow, he was able to find it in the printing room and still make it back on stage with time to spare.

Afterwards, the crew had dinner with the king, who did not suspect a thing. The king even gifted Maskelyne with a gold watch, which he would wear for many years. By the next morning, the palace was surrounded by troops.

However, only two things are confirmed from Maskelyne's story: he did perform for the king, and the palace was taken over by the Allied forces. Although, these happened three months apart, and the palace was not taken over in search of a radio. Instead, the allies ended up taking over the palace because the king had brought a pro-Italian minister into the cabinet. Although, he would eventually relent and take him out of the cabinet.

We do know that there is some truth to Maskelyne's next claim, though how much is unclear. After proving that he could make the port disappear, he now had to do the same to the Suez Canal.

The canal was another vital line of supply, and the British realized that losing it would cripple their forces. It would not be long before the German and Italian forces realized the same.

Maskelyne faced more problems with the canal. Like the port, it could not simply be covered. It was 172 kilometres long, which also meant that there was no way to build a reasonable replica. So, Maskelyne devised another new device; dazzle lights, also called whirling spray.

Soldiers working on one of the dazzle lights.

Using a bright light and a revolving cone of mirrors, these lights would be projected directly into the sky. They were blindingly bright and incredibly disorientating, and any pilots who encountered them would be unable to see the canal. Therefore, they would be unlikely to drop their bombs and even if they did, they were almost certain to miss their target. This proved to work, and Maskelyne -- sort of -- made the Suez Canal disappear. At the very least, it had been saved.

In October of 1942, Operation Bertram would take place. Maskelyne, or at least his sunshields, would play one of the most important roles in the operation. The plan was to make Erwin Rommel (also nicknamed the Desert Fox for his prowess) think that an attack was coming from the south while the allies really attacked from the north. If they succeeded, they would gain the coastal city of El-Alamein for the allies, which would give the allies control of North Africa. They would also defeat Rommel, who always seemed to be one step ahead.

A truck disguised as a tank during Operation Bertram.
A tank disguised as a truck during Operation Bertram.

Along with Barkas and several other officials, Maskelyne helped to think up a plan that would utilize the sunshields while using little ammo and men. It was decided that 2000 real tanks would be placed in the south the day before the battle was set to take place. During the cover of night, they would switch the real tanks out for trucks disguised with sunshields as well as inflatable tanks. If they were placed back far enough, no one would be able to tell the difference. These trucks would also be equipped with everything they needed to make them seem real. Their engines were muffled so they would not sound different from tanks and they had pyrotechnics rigged up to make it seem like they were firing. They were also filled with fake soldiers, fake guns, fake radio conversations and even left fake tank tracks.

While the fake tanks were moved into position in the south, 1000 real tanks disguised with sunshields were moved into position in the north. Beforehand, a half-constructed pipeline had been placed in the northern area so that it would look like the field was unable to be used in battle.

The next day, the allies were well prepared for battle. Once it began, German and Italian troops focused only on the south. Rommel had all his power concentrated there, convinced that anything that happened in the north would only be a diversion from the south. So, when the north began to attack, they faced little resistance.

The battle was easily won, and they were able to take El-Alamein. Once they had gained the town, Germany's Afrika Korps faltered, and eventually left altogether. The battle was impressive, and it gained praise straight from Churchill himself. Maskelyne, as always, did not receive the praise that he felt he deserved. Most likely because he had little involvement outside of the use of the sunshields.

In his memoirs, Maskelyne had his own story of the battle. He claimed that he was instrumental in the battle's victory, but there are few details outside of the known accounts of the battle. There is little to suggest he had an insider's view.

Maskelyne's involvement in the battle would not be enough to save the Magic Gang. Soon after, in late 1942, they were absorbed into the development wing of the Camouflage Training and Development Centre. Maskelyne was sent back to Cairo, where he would work with the Advanced HQ A-Force. Here, he helped design items that spies could use, like boots with maps and compasses hidden in the heels or cricket bats with hidden tools. He even designed fake cow pies with bombs hidden inside them. He later revised his original design when soldiers began to realize they were bombs, including tire tracks in the final product.

This is where Maskelyne remained for the rest of the war. During the last few years, Maskelyne was promoted to Major. According to Maskelyne, this earned him a spot on the Gestapo's blacklist. When he was not busy getting on the bad side of the Germans, Maskelyne performed for the troops, local civilians and anyone else who would watch.

After the War

Once the war ended, Maskelyne went back to England. Home-Douglas and Jasmine had returned from New Zealand two years earlier in 1943, while their son had decided to stay there. During Maskelyne's time in Egypt, Home-Douglas had learned that she had terminal cancer, and was in the midst of undergoing treatment when Maskelyne returned.

Finally back home, Maskelyne returned to performing. He assembled a team of performers, but the venues had seemingly gotten smaller while he was gone. The success of his performances hardly measured up to the success he had before the war. The world of entertainment had changed while he was away, and he had failed to change with it. At least, not in the way he should have.

Maskelyne made a habit of performing in his military uniform and dressed his assistants in similar costumes. He had changed his stage name, too, going under Major Maskelyne. It did not sit well with his stagehands and assistants, and even worse, his audience. They had all been caught up in the war for five years and while Maskelyne was hung up on the success the war had brought him, they did not feel the same. All it left the audience with was a bad taste.

Maskelyne did not seem to notice this, though. He attested that he was no longer performing for the money, he was already able to live comfortably. Why he continued was so that he could bring the same joy he once had with his tricks. It also could have been because he missed the attention he had received from audiences. His son would later describe Maskelyne as a vain man, though it seemed to peak during this time.

Maskelyne saw the most attention during his Christmas shows. It was then that he gained the majority of his earnings, enough to provide him with funds to take the show on tour for the rest of the year. As the years passed though, even these shows would move from theatres to local stages to bars.

Alistair, Maskelyne's son, soon returned home. He had been told that his mother was only becoming more and more sick and no amount of treatment was able to help her. She was slowly and painfully dying. Alistair wanted to be with his mother and repair the relationship he had lost with his father. While he spent the day caring for Home-Douglas, at nights he worked with his father. In 1947, Home-Douglas died. Maskelyne returned to performing only a week after her death.

It soon became clear that Maskelyne had picked up a heavy drinking habit. He became a frequent visitor of bars and clubs, ones that had a reputation for not being of the best quality. At one bar called The White Room, Maskelyne met a woman named Evelyne Mary Scotcher. They did not have a lot in common, aside from their habit of heavy drinking. They were married in 1948, not long after they met. Alistair left England for good shortly before the wedding. He claimed that Scotcher was the reason there would be almost no contact between him and his father after this.

In 1949, Maskelyne put out a book on his exploits during WWII. It was called Magic: Top Secret. Most of Maskelyne's stories, all of which are unverified, come from this book. It should be noted, though, that this book was not actually written by him, but was instead written by a ghostwriter. Possibly, Maskelyne did dictate it to the author.

Scotcher had contacts in Kenya, and once Maskelyne fell into a bit of debt over his and Scotcher's addiction, the two decided to move. In 1950, the two bought a farm and moved to Kiambu, seven miles outside of Nairobi. He formed a new troupe and briefly attempted another career revival touring South Africa. It was fairly unsuccessful and did not last long. Little attention meant that there was little money to support the troupe, so they ended up disbanding fairly quickly.

During the Mau Mau Uprising, which saw Kenyan forces facing off against the British, Maskelyne took command of a police squad. It lasted for eight years between 1952 and 1960. Once the conflict ended, Maskelyne opened a driving school in Nairobi, which became one of his first true successes in many years.

An older Maskelyne attending an event while living in Africa.

Maskelyne had not given up magic despite the fact he stopped touring. It remained his passion after all those years, even though it saw so many unsuccessful ones. He would often perform small magic shows for people of the town, most often for the children. Really though, he would perform for whoever cared to watch.

While in Kenya, Maskelyne found himself living next door to the Hawkins family. After introducing himself, he quickly became close friends with Dudley Hawkins, the family's patriarch. Maskelyne began to spend most of his time at their home. Often, the two men worked on models or simply drank tea and discussed their former lives. Maskelyne seemed to be at his happiest when he was with his new friends. To Hawkins' children, he became a grandfather figure.

For Maskelyne, spending time with Hawkins was a relief. At home, it only got worse with Scotcher. Her mother had moved in with them, and she also had a problem with alcohol. This increased Scotcher's own drinking habit, and Maskelyne's with it. Hawkins' daughter would comment on Maskelyne, saying "He was married to a woman who was not right for him and pulled him down to her own level. There is no doubt that he made a mess-up of his personal life and really regretted it. I can honestly say that I never saw Jasper drunk."

As Maskelyne and Hawkins became better friends, Maskelyne began to recount to Hawkins his time in the war. Hawkins, who was a former newspaper editor, felt that Maskelyne's life could be worthy of a movie. Hawkins recorded an interview with Maskelyne and sent the tapes to Twentieth Century Fox.

Unsurprisingly, the executives agreed that Maskelyne's memoirs could make a good movie, and they picked it up. It was put into production for a short time but it was dropped soon after when they realized that many of Maskelyne's stories were untrue.

In his final years, Maskelyne spent his time upset over his lack of recognition. His vanity had never faded away with the years. It had only increased with his alcohol consumption.

As Maskelyne got older, he performed less and less. Money began to run out, and what little he did have was spent on alcohol.

In 1973, at age 70, Jasper Maskelyne died, likely as a result of his alcoholism.

After His Death

In 2001, the movie on Maskelyne was picked up again, this time by Paramount. It was to be based on a biography about Maskelyne called The War Magician, despite the fact that this biography was even more embellished than Maskelyne's own. It would get further into production than the first movie, and Peter Weir was hired to direct while Tom Cruise would play Maskelyne. In 2003, it was again dropped after Paramount was threatened with legal action over the rights to Maskelyne's life.

In 2015, yet another version of the movie was confirmed, this time starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Colin Trevorrow. Little information has been released, but this third attempt has so far been the most successful.


Over the years, most of Maskelyne's war stories have been called into question. Since most of them originated from his own ghost-written autobiography, there is little evidence to support most of his claims, and even the ones that seem to be true are full of embellishments.

Although, all this doubt could still prove to be unfounded. While there no photos of Maskelyne's model ports or few records of other inventions, that could change. In 2049, sealed records of Maskelyne's time in the army will be released to the public. Maybe the evidence lies hidden in there.

It seems though, that the end of Maskelyne's life seems to be the only thing he did not lie about. And even when the less truthful parts of Maskelyne's life are stripped away, what remains is still an impressive career. Before the war, Maskelyne was an accomplished magician who could always draw a crowd. Even during the war, he was a trusted and high-ranking officer.

It leads one to question why exactly he might lie. If it was out of vanity, or a part of his persona as a performer. Maybe it was just a way to make the reality seem much more glamourous than it really was, or it could have all been a drunken daydream.

No one knows for sure, except for Maskelyne himself. It is a secret that died with him, the same as the secret of how he performed his famous razor blade trick.

The Victoria Palace Theatre, with Jasper Maskelyne's name in lights.

Further Resources

  • The show History's Mysteries covered an episode on Maskelyne, called The War Illusionist. It can be found on YouTube here.

Resources that should be disregarded

  • Maskelynes autobiography contains as many lies as it contains truths. It includes stories on events we have no verification of as well as includes people who do not even seem to exist.

  • The War Magician is a biography about Maskelyne, which focuses more on the unproven claims of Maskelyne rather than what we accurately know.




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