Ooh, Interesting! - The War Magicians of World War II

March 04, 2016

We love magic facts. There’s just something about facts about magic that get us going. How on earth did David Copperfield fly? Well, you could always search out the patent for the effect online. How does Lance Burton do that thing with the candles? How does Dynamo walk on water? Yes, there are just so many magic facts that it’s hard to find time to write about them all. Today, we’re lucky to be looking at a very cool magic fact indeed. The story of the war magicians, who helped the Allies to victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in World War II and many other things besides!

Led by filmmaker Goffrey Barkas, the incredibly named British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate were a team of camouflage officers (or camoufleurs), which included Jasper Maskelyne, noted stage magician and grandson of John Nevil Maskelyne, the first editor of The Magic Circle’s magazine in 1906. Rumour has it that Jasper convinced his superiors to be allowed on the team after convincing them a German warship was floating up the Thames using only a few mirrors and a model.

The Camouflage Directorate included a training school, a factory, an experiment section and a development wing, all based in Egypt. The general belief was that camouflage would be most useful in Africa, where the troop would work to camouflage genuine artillery and tanks, whilst at the same time working to waste the enemy’s time and ammo with various dummy operations. The first success was in building a dummy railway as part of Operation Crusader in 1941. Made from the wood of palm trees, the illusion involved 6 miles of dummy railway, a dummy train, a few dummy tanks, dummy men in full costume and a dummy engine to blow smoke at the enemy. Needless to say, this complex deception resulted in more than 100 bombs being dropped upon it, halving the attacks on the real railway that had been built in Capuzzo.

Thankfully, because these magic facts are so darn interesting, there was more to come from the war magicians, whom provided camouflage and deception in the siege of Tobruk that very same year. During the Eighth Army’s retreat across Libya, Peter Proud and William Murray Dixon found themselves trapped in the port of Tobruk, which provided three critical resources to the Allies; the harbour, the small Royal Air Force landing ground (where three Hurricane fighters resided) and the town’s water desalination plant, which was the main supply of drinking water for the town.

Looking to protect the British army’s key interests, Proud quickly got a team together – comprised of Australian engineers, Indian pioneers and the transport corps – and built dummy docks and barges for the real ships to hide beneath. For the planes, Proud had caves dug into the side of a wadi to hide two of the Hurricanes and dug a plane-shaped hole for the third, which was covered by a large lid and some tents. To add to the illusion, he then had his team build fake aircraft hangars; these were marked as real on a map later found on a German Luftwaffe officer. For the desalination plant, there were no chances of hiding it as the Germans already knew exactly where it was. Undeterred, the assembled band of brothers created a trompe l’oeil; a black hole was drawn onto the roof and various debris surrounded the rest of the building, depicting a smouldering mess from above. The plant was not attacked for the rest of World War II despite being in full working order!

The most famous work of the war magicians was undoubtedly at the Second Battle of El Alamein as part of Operation Bertram, where 600 tanks were disguised as supply lorries in the northern sector, while dummy tanks, supplies and a fake water pipeline were being deployed in the south. The deception was yet another success with Rommel believing the attack would be from the south and deploying substantial forces to the area. At the last moment, under cover of darkness, the truth of the matter was laid bare and the Allies attacked in the north, leaving their fake army for dust.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “Woah! That was a cool history lesson!” then it gets better, for you can hire a magician for your event! Yes, these are exactly the same type of men who would have been drafted into the Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate had they been around and will certainly wow your guests! You can also find more information on the War Magicians in an upcoming film featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Maskelyne, which will undoubtedly be the most enjoyable movie experience of the year. You have our word.

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By Henry Fosdike