re. The War Magician
David Fisher based his novelised account on Maskelynes purported memoirs, 'Magic Top Secret'(1949) and on a private scrapbook, 'Deceptive Camouflage Ideas 1941-45', compiled by Maskelyne after the war.
I have examined both sources and have studied relevant declassified files in the National Archives. I have also corresponded in depth with Alistair Maskelyne, Jaspers son who lives in Brisbane, Australia.
My independent research reveals that Jasper Maskelyne did not write 'Magic Top Secret'. The real author was Frank S. Stuart who produced several sham biographies before the war.
To unravel the Maskelyne myth, we need to appreciate Stuart's earlier publications: 'Nothing Up My Sleeve'(1938), a bizarre autobiography of society magician Douglas Beaufort, and 'Immortal Wings'(1943), a melodramatic collection of deathless deeds by heroic aviators. (These can be found in the British Library.)
After the war, Stuart combined these genres of pseudo-biography and wartime 'ripping yarns' and came up with the semi-fictional concoction 'Magic Top Secret.
Stuart's fabrications have fooled many gullible magicians, historians, journalists and reviewers.
Ben Macintyre, the author of the Times article, is merely the latest to join this distinguished list.
Alas, Maskelyne's main war illusions were illusory.
In October 2004 Australian director, Peter Weir, withdrew from the Paramount film project after finding out the War Magican story had no solid factual base.
For the record, Maskelyne did not conjure up a battleship on the Thames.
In 1941 Maskelyne did not build an elaborate decoy harbour to protect Alexandria Harbour from German night-time attack. This myth probably grew out of the creation of decoy fire sites or QFs around Alexandria in early 1942. This work was performed by other camouflage officers, not Maskelyne. These glorified bonfires were not as sophisticated as the Starfish decoy sites already established in the United Kingdom.
In 1941 Maskelyne did not vanish the Suez Canal. In 1942 he built a prototype spinning searchlight, but this was never battle tested. Even if it had worked, the successful defence of the Canal from German aerial attack had already been fought and won the previous year using conventional methods. Maskelyne's
'miracle weapon' would have been irrelevant.
In the early 1980s, Fisher, who never met Maskelyne, embellished these far-fetched tales and claimed Maskelyne was the architect of the Alamein deception plan. This is nonsense. The Archives contradict Fisher's account.
Maskelyne was not involved in either the creation or the implementation of this deception operation. Tony Ayrton was the camouflage officer who deserves most of the credit, but he died tragically of meningitis during the war.
Maskelyne certainly deserves some recognition for developing 'sunshields', a clever form of tank camouflage.
However, the original idea of transforming tanks into lorries came from General Wavell. Maskelyne's wooden protoype, designed in May 1941, fell to bits under transport. An improved version, made from tubular metal, was more resilient.
Predictably, the disguised tanks left tell-tale tacks in the sand. To rectify this flaw, weighted track erasing devices were attached, but these proved impractical.
Also, British tanks regularly broke down in the desert and sometimes had to be abandoned. As early as August 1941, the cover was literally blown. Enemy intelligence knew the British were disguising their tanks as lorries. These problems are documented in Maskelyne's private scrapbook, but Fisher's sanitised account of 'sunshields' glosses over these battlefield complications.
Sunshields were used at Alamein in September 1942 as part of the deception plan, but Maskelyne played no direct part. Credit should go to the South African 85th Camouflage Company (which, incidentally, Ayrton helped establish!)
Maskelynes main contribution to the battle was entertaining the troops with magic shows in the month before the showdown.
Jasper Munchausen Maskelyne was a great showman and a fine stage magician, but was often in dire financial straits. After the war, he desperately needed money and publicity. He authorised his ghost writer to produce an entertaining yarn based loosely on his wartime adventures. Advance extracts were sold to the People newspaper.
Frank S. Stuart, the anonymous ghost, was arguably the greatest hoaxer in modern magic. Maskelyne's marvelous illusions did not require a legion of assistants. These masterpieces of misdirection merely required a typewriter.
Stuart deserves a shrine at the Magic Circle for his services to the Maskelyne magic dynasty.