Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

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Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Zig Zagger » June 21st, 2020, 4:51 am

"Great liars are also great magicians," Adolf Hitler supposedly once said or wrote. I have yet to find a German source for this alleged quote (any help?), but hey, it's all over the internet, so it must be true, right?! And it's printed in this book, like many other tales, semi-truths and lies. But if you turn the quote around, you will get an undisputed truth: Great magicians are also great liars. Just like, among others, many politicians or trumping spin doctors. So I wouldn't dream of buying juicy or heroic stories from any of them easily. You have to take them with a grain of salt, if not with a big handful of woofledust.

Yet magic lore is full of these stories, and we all love them, don't we? Because it sounds so exciting, so great and reassuring for our magic passion or profession: "How Espionage and Deceit Changed History" (subtitle of this book); "The Card Trick That Stopped WWII" (title of chapter 5); "Magicians in history have literally changed the world" (final chapter). Yeah, right! Sadly, the backstage view of magic is less glorious, less interesting and often shabby.

The author, H. Wayne Capps, is both a professional magician (under the name of Howard Blackwell) and a U.S. Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel. With this slim booklet, which has grown out of a magic club mini lecture, he has tried to fuse his two occupations and passions. As the author states, this book was mainly written in the back of a C-17 cargo aircraft that took him around the world on military missions. That may explain why his offer is somewhat drafty and shaky. Why exactly?

Despite a fascinating and broad topic, the author has chosen the path of least resistence and has limited his work to mainly retelling the best, and already best-known, rehashed stories. Now, if you are a bit proficient in magic history, which names would you list with regard to magicians in and around the battlefields of war and espionage? Right, Robert-Houdin, Jasper Maskelyne, John Mulholland, Kalanag, maybe Houdini, "the spy" (?). And yes, all of them are covered in this book, plus a few other obvious ones (see http://www.magiciansatwar.com for the table of contents). Surprisingly, neither the Trojan Horse nor The Man Who Never Was nor The Death Camp Magicians are covered, not to mention Dudley Clarke, the real British master deceiver in World War II.

Capps is aware of the lore and its questionable lure, as he points out several times. At the same time, he exploits these myths carelessly, in order to tell and sell, and shows little interest in unlinking the rings of fiction and facts. I find this annoying, as uninitiated readers have no chance of making up their own mind because of the poor crediting. With a few notable exceptions, only the most basic sources are given.

The two main sources on Jasper Maskelyne, for example, are his own, largely fictitious "autobiography" and David Fisher's subsequent super-fiction novel, The War Magician. Richard Stokes, who has done so much research to investigate and debunk the Maskelyne myths, is not even mentioned. At times, the crediting is also sloppy. Robert-Houdin's seminal autobiography is not even listed as a primary source; and as I looked up a supposed author named Clarke Sternberg, "he" turned out be the U.K.-based Sternberg Clarke entertainment agency which once ran a blog post on Robert-Houdin on their website. Duh!

Yet the author emphasizes more than once that he has "thoroughly researched" the field, despite quoting sources like ABC News or writing sentences like this: "John Mulholland was a New York based magician and according to his widow, performed several times at Radio City Music Hall and wrote a number of books on magic." He also claims that Robert-Houdin had toured the United States. And we learn that his in-depth research of the obscure (?) artist Paul Potassy made the author discover two important sources, Potassy's biography & trick book by Uwe Schenk and Michael Sondermeyer and his 3-DVD set from L&L Publishing. Wow!

Sadly, and although announced in the introduction, there is no noticeable attempt of the reserve author to cast the actions and magic principles described into a bigger theoretical context on the role of deception in warfare or the parallels between the theaters of war and theater illusions. With a bit more care and effort, he could have dug into Sun Tzu or the eminent works of Barton Whaley and many other scholars.

Capps' original contributions are limited to interviews with two fellow magicians, one an Army veteran, the other a former CIA director. While the brief chapter on military veterans "who used magic as a healing tool to fight the war within" taps into uncharted territory that I feel would have deserved a much bigger expedition, the CIA chapter falls short of its promise of top secrets revealed. As we learn, the CIA magician was merely fond of showing tricks to foreign diplomats and helped train his team on hostile deception tactics "to benefit a nation." Abraca-poof!

Like almost any self-published book, this one could have used an editor and a spell checker to good results. Without, the "proverbial" cat becomes "preverbal", the "ruse" a "rouse", and Eugene Burger is misspelled as Berger. Ouch! If the chapters are in any meaningful order, I must have missed it. I also find it both amusing and irritating that the book's cover image of my Kindle edition is still speckled with the watermark logo from fiverr, a web platform for freelance services...

I realize this review is already much longer than some of the book's chapters, which is not a good thing. So to conclude, if you have never heard of any of the magicians mentioned above and are mildly interested in their claimed endeavors and achievements in the wars of the world, this slim book of 72 pages might serve as a quick and unambitious introduction. I would advise you, however, to consider getting the Kindle version via Amazon for about $5 and not bother with the paperback edition for a hefty $24,95.

But if you have some background in magic history and more than a passing interest in this topic, you likely won't find much of value here. For an in-depth, no-nonsense approach on the bigger context of military deception, let me recommend some major sources instead (out of about 30+ books on this subject in my library): Jon Latimer's Deception in War, Thaddeus Holt's The Deceivers, and any book by Barton Whaley, like Stratagem.

To end on a positive note, I fully agree with the author's final assessment: "All of these stories, no matter how far-fetched, are certainly fun to tell and will no doubt outlive us all." Amen to that, and cheers to all you great liars and master deceivers out there!

++++++++++

Full disclosure: I consider myself rather well-read in this particular area of magic and military deception, and I have delivered a detailed lecture about "Magicians at War" (sic!) at the recent 8th European Magic History Conference in Vienna in 2019 (see https://emhc2019.com/). That's why I'm both a bit saddened and annoyed that this book underdelivers on a truly fascinating facet of our beloved art.

++++++++++

A slightly shorter version of this review has appeared in Marco Pusterla's fine Ye Olde Magic Mag (see https://yeoldemagicmag.com/), Vol. 6, Issue 3.
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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Jack Shalom » June 21st, 2020, 9:20 am

I love that he referenced L&L DVDs. Did he quote Scotty, David, or Cassandra?
ZZ, is there anywhere we can read your talk in English?

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Diego » June 21st, 2020, 12:28 pm

RE: "Stories, no matter how far-fetched, are fun to tell."

I was talking with a fellow historian about the reality vs. the telling of Robert Houdin quashing an uprising in Alegeria, and noted he was
doing the showman's M.O. of "cutting up jackpots", where the entertainment value of the story, is more valued than it's veracity.
Robert Houdin back home, "Oh you think scoring with _____ when playing England last year, was a big deal, I stopped a revolution in Algeria last year!"

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Zig Zagger » June 22nd, 2020, 4:06 pm

Jack Shalom wrote:I love that he referenced L&L DVDs. Did he quote Scotty, David, or Cassandra?

:lol: Haha, I don't think so.
Jack Shalom wrote:ZZ, is there anywhere we can read your talk in English?

It's not on my blog yet, but if you PM me your e-mail address I'd be happy to send you a PDF file of my (English) presentation.
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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Richard Stokes » July 13th, 2020, 6:25 pm

Magic History for Dummies?
I downloaded Kapps book out of curiosity. But it was money wasted.
Fisher’s accounts of Maskelyne have been heavily discredited since being published.
He’s probably referring to me.

Fisher’s book seems to rely heavily on the 1949 book (ghost-written by Frank S. Stuart) about Maskelyne titled Magic: Top Secret. Who knows if one story inspired the other, but if I were a betting man, I would say there is a connection.

Here he has lifted my research without citing me.
In 2004 after returning from Australia to England, I uncovered the identity of the invisible ghostwriter behind White Magic(1936) and Magic–Top Secret!(1949) , the two Maskelyne ‘autobiographies’. The late Doreen Montgomery of the Rupert Crew Agency gave me the name of the in-house ghostwriter for publisher Stanley Paul. Frank S. Stuart. The British Library contained further important clues. The clincher was confirmatory evidence in Maskelyne's wartime scrapbook, a copy of which was given to Alistair by Peter Weir when he dropped out of the Paramount film. I saw this material when I visited Alistair on January 2006 in Brisbane.
I possess a photo duplicate of the scrapbook which I will leave to the Davenport Maskelyne archive in Cambridge. Finally, I tracked down Archie Stuart, the ghostwriter's son who gave me valuable information about his father.

There are even reports of Maskelyne’s own son saying many of the stories in the book about his father were made up in order to sell more books.
This is paraphrasing a comment by Alistair Maskelyne when I first interviewed him in the 1990s.

Maskelyne’s story seems eerily similar to the Marvel superhero, Captain American’s origin story.. Who knows if one story inspired the other, but if I were a betting man, I would say there is a connection.
I doubt very much that Jasper Maskelyne would have read the Captain America comics!

His first task was to make a fake, yet realistic version of the German warship Admiral Graf Spee. The real naval cruiser was destroyed the previous year and the goal was to make Hitler believe the Allies possessed German technology and had more fire-power than they actually did.
This is not mentioned in Magic–Top Secret. Fisher makes this claim in The War Magician (1983).

The bamboozle worked so well, when reconnaissance photos were taken the next day, it looked like Alexandria harbor was well on its way to being destroyed. The amazing thing is the bombardment continued for a total of nine nights and the rouse worked the entire time
This exaggerates the account presented in Magic–Top Secret. My own theory is that is was Maskelyne's camouflage mate Captain R. Morrison who implemented a modest decoy site near Alexandria. I'll present the evidence for and against in a future book.

In the north, the Magic Gang disguised 1,000 tanks as trucks and in the south, they made nearly 2,000 inflatable tanks.
Inflatable tanks at El Alamein by October 1942? Not at this battle. You clearly have not examined the photographs of the Alamein dummies. Some were quite hard to move around due to excessive weight. The dummy tanks were bolstered by whatever local material was at hand - palm fronds, wood, and canvas. I think inflatable dummies were mainly being produced in 1944.

In October 1942, the Axis forces started losing ground but desperately wanting (sic) to take Egypt. As an impending showdown was inevitable, Maskelyne and the A-Force were asked to create a deception to fool the German Afrika Korps into thinking an attack was coming from the south…
Maskelyne joined A-Force 19/11/1942 after the Battle of Alamein, not before. I have a copy of his war service with specific dates of transfers.

Many Maskelyne naysayers argue that he was not the genius who planned the successful operation, but rather an assistant that toiled with his gang ensuring the minor details were complete. But, this was certainly the most documented of the many Maskelyne operations and by in large, he is generally the person given the credit for the success of the operation.
I'm the naysayer. The genius behind Plan Bertram, the code name for the Alamein deception Plan, was Tony Ayrton.

Ayrton wrote the post-battle assessment. Makelyne’s name is not mentioned.
Ayrton died in tragic wasteful circumstances in 1943, after contracting meningitis.

What was Maskelyne up to? He was a stage magician not a miracle worker. In September 1942 Maskelyne was organising Magic Shows in Cairo for the troops in the build-up to the big battle. I'm sure this was good for morale, but it didn't change history!

I can confidently say that Maskelyne was not involved in the conception of the Alamein Deception Plan. This is a fabrication by Fisher.
Furthermore, I've found not a shred of evidence that Maskelyne was even involved in the implementation of Bertram.

I will say this : Maskelyne definitely developed 'sunshields' – a way of disguising tanks as trucks. These were frequently used in the desert war. And they even played a role in the Alamein camouflage plan. Sunshields were developed in late April/early May 1941, almost 18 months before Alamein. Even if the original idea for sunshields came from General Wavell, I believe that Maskelyne and his Camouflage Experimental Section deserve huge credit for their clever design and swift implementation.

Looking at the original photo of the first sunshield, I am still struck by its brilliant simplicity.

The ‘sunshield’ prototype was a masterpiece of misdirection and may well be the most useful prop ever manufactured in wartime by a magician.
How deceptive were they in practice? In the scrapbook I found a candid report by British Intelligence: “The enemy has captured Sunshields and knows all about them.” As early as August 6 th 1941, the British came across an Italian document warning its infantry units about the new method of tank concealment:” The enemy to save its own heavy tanks from being observed from the air, has camouflaged them in such a way as to make them appear like heavy lorries.”

Despite this setback, the British believed that the ‘sunshield’ device was not completely compromised: “The fact that the enemy knows all about this device is not thought to have seriously prejudiced its value. It is still just as hard to detect tanks from the air or in distant ground view.”
Jasper Maskelyne, the serving officer, was aware of these worrying developments and kept copies of these reports for his future scrapbook. However, the sanitized accounts of ‘sunshields’ in Magic–Top Secret and The War Magician gloss over these battlefield complications.

Operation Zig Zag: faked bomb damage at the de Havilland Mosquito factory in Hatfield, north of London. While MI5 doesn’t say anything about Maskelyne’s participation, they also did not deny that he was involved, so the jury is still out on this one.
No, I sorted out this mystery some years ago.
An enthusiastic writer for the MI5 website had written: "The "attack" itself was one of the most remarkable deception operations of the Second World War. A former stage magician, Jasper Maskelyne, was brought in to fake the attack on the night of 29/30 January 1943. His "Magic Team" created an elaborate system of camouflage to make it appear to German reconnaissance aircraft that a very large bomb had exploded inside the factory's power plant..." I emailed MI5 and pointed out the absurdities and they promptly withdrew their references to Maskelyne on their website. The operation is genuine and photographic evidence exists. However, in January, 1943, Maskelyne was still in the Middle East. He was definitely not involved in this operation. Maskelyne’s own service record shows that he remained in the Mediterranean area throughout 1943. None of this appears in Magic–Top Secret anycase.
And surely MI5 would be able to make use of the many stage designers in nearby film studios? They did not need to fly Maskelyne back from Cairo.
The MI5 writer based his web article on Ben Macintyre’s book on Agent ZigZag (2007). Ben is a well-known author on WW2 & Cold War spies, but he blundered by claiming that Maskelyne was involved in the de Havilland deception. The paperback edition has still not been revised. Macintyre makes at least five factual errors when he introduces Maskelyne on pages 163-164.

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Bob Farmer » July 14th, 2020, 7:40 am

This is also a subject I'm interested in and I have quite a few books on the subject. One of the best is the 1,148-page book, The Deceivers, Allied Military Deception in the Second World War by Thaddeus Holt:

https://www.amazon.com/Deceivers-Allied ... B003L77W0U

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Jack Shalom » July 14th, 2020, 3:39 pm

I assume many recent documents would still be highly classified, but any more info on this subject as pertains to more recent wars?

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby MagicbyAlfred » July 14th, 2020, 9:30 pm

Diego Wrote: "I was talking with a fellow historian about the reality vs. the telling of Robert Houdin quashing an uprising in Alegeria, and noted he was doing the showman's M.O. of 'cutting up jackpots', where the entertainment value of the story, is more valued than it's veracity."

The same could be said for the presentation of many a magic routine, n'est-ce pas?

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Joe Lyons » July 14th, 2020, 10:18 pm

MagicbyAlfred wrote:The same could be said for the presentation of many a magic routine, n'est-ce pas?

C’est vrai! I would rather read Robert-Houdins biography than another version more grounded in fact.

From “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” - When the legend becomes fact - print the legend.
It’s so much more interesting.

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Bob Farmer » July 15th, 2020, 7:17 am

The best and most extensive account of the Robert-Houdin episode that I have read is in Graham M. Jones' wonderful book, Magic's Reason, pp. 27-43. See:

https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/bo ... 51943.html

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Jonathan R Allen » July 25th, 2020, 9:43 am

I did some work in this area a few year back for an issue of the American art and culture quarterly 'Cabinet', dedicated to magic. See 'Deceptionists at War' (2007):

http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/26/allen.php

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Bob Farmer » July 25th, 2020, 10:07 am

Excellent article. Thank you.

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Leo Garet » July 25th, 2020, 11:51 am

Agreed. Excellent.

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Re: Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020) / A Slightly Biased Review

Postby Zig Zagger » July 26th, 2020, 9:47 am

Thank you for your comments and additions, gentlemen!

It's great that Mr Stokes is sharing his deep research here and Jonathan his fine article.

On Robert-Houdin's mission, you may also want to check out the interesting findings of Francois Bost.
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