Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell is set in an alternate Georgian-era Britain at a time when magic has fallen into disuse. The two eponymous characters resurrect the art, becoming the first practising magicians in centuries, and find themselves duty-bound to use their powers in furthering Britain’s war efforts against Napoleon. They conjure up phantom ships, move entire towns and resurrect dead soldiers for interrogation (putting them to rest again proves more difficult).
Of course, none of those things really happened during the Napoleonic wars. However, the autobiography of one of the most remarkable figures of the Second World War claims many of them occurred during that conflict.
Jasper Maskelyne was born into a long line of stage magicians. His father, Nevil Maskelyne, was a magician and an early proponent of wireless telegraphy. He once interrupted one of Marconi’s early demonstrations by transmitting his own message to the receivers in London. The message was a poem ridiculing Marconi’s claims that his technology was immune to eavesdropping.
Jasper’s grandfather John, a contemporary of Houdini, was one of the greatest stage magicians of his age. He created many famous illusions that are still popular today. Strangely, he also invented the pay toilet, inadvertently giving birth to the euphemism to spend a penny.
Jasper himself achieved fame when he published his autobiography, Magic: Top Secret. The book details an amazing series of events during the Second World War in which Maskelyne used his skills of illusion to outwit the German forces. He began by convincing the British military establishment that he had something to offer. He created the illusion of a German battleship, the 180-metre long Admiral Graf Spree, floating on the Thames.
Suitable impressed, the army put him to work. Maskelyne assembled a team of assistants dubbed the Magic Gang and put into operation a widescale project of camouflage and deception in the south of England intended to defend the nation against a German invasion.
Maskelyne and the Magic Gang were sent to the North Africa where they conducted outrageous operations including making the entire city of Alexandria disappear and reappear one mile from its actual site, and protected the 160km long Suez Canal from German bombers using an invention Maskelyne called Dazzle Lights. One of Maskelyne’s most memorable feats occurred during the battle of El Alamein in 1942. Using a complex arrangement of illlusions including camouflaging thousands of tanks as trucks and creating fake tanks elsewhere, he fooled Erwin Rommel, arguably the most talented Nazi military leader, into believing that the Allied forces were massing south of the town when they were in fact to the north. The result was the most decisive victory over the Germans in Africa.
Maskelyne’s most impressive feat of deception, however, may be his autobiography. He may have made some valuable contributions to the war effort but the stories above probably weren’t them. Much of Magic:Top Secret was a fabrication, either by Maskelyne or his ghost-writer, Frank Stuart. Yet it has received remarkably scant critical analysis and has largely been swallowed whole by subsequent biographers. As recently as 2004, a biographical film of Jasper Maskelyne’s adventures was being considered by Paramount. Director Peter Weir pulled out of the project after speaking to Maskelyne’s son Alistair and discovering how little truth the script contained.