Jasper Maskelyne and Magic Machine Guns in WW2 March 5, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
***Dedicated to Moon Man who put me onto Jasper Maskelyne***
Jasper Maskelyne is a fascinating character from the ranks of fighting WW2 Britons. A stage magician, he found himself in the Royal Engineers at the start of the War and gave himself over to camouflage work. His book, Magic Top Secret (1949), which I’m itching to get my hands upon, presently retails for about 200 dollars. By his own estimate he was one of the reasons (along with spitfires, Admiral Cunningham and German over ambition) that the British Empire pulled through a conflict that it shouldn’t really have survived…
Here is a typical passage: you get a sense here both of Jasper Maskelyne’s grandstanding and his flair for the moment. Enter stage left Lord Gort, the man who would, in the summer of 1940 save the British Expeditionary Force in northern France and an individual who famously lacked a sense of humour.
The Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies, Lord Gort, was scheduled to come and inspect us. Desperately I decided to give this august personage a taste of the stuff that djinns are made of. In the normal course of my duties, I was supposed to prepare a machine-gun post for his inspection. I got to work on that machine-gun post with everything short of Black Magic; and my men were as excited as I was to make a job of it. Presently, the Commander-in-Chief and his staff walked into the large, open meadow where the machine-gun post was sited, and began to look round for it. The officers who were escorting them frowned. Surely, they thought, not even an actor would have forgotten to establish the post altogether! There was a hasty, furtive glancing at maps, an alert puzzled stare round the field. Someone born to be an ambassador suavely suggested that he believed that orders had been changed at the last minute, and that the post was in the next field. The little group heroically supporting its red tabs, began to advance across the empty meadow to investigate.
John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, Sixth Viscount Gort, a smallish man with fair hair, pale blue eyes like Kitchener’s, and the hard, direct stare of a fighting man, stood gazing into the business end of a machine-gun which one of my men was training grimly on his middle from about six feet away
Perhaps the most fascinating question though is not Gort’s reaction, he allegedly showed a ‘quick mind’ and much interest: but the rather more delicate matter of whether this episode actually happened. Maskelyne’s book is full of reminiscences that depend on his own memory alone. The few other accounts of Maskelyne’s role in the war suggest that he was a relative if interesting failure and he was – as a matter of record – moved from camouflage duties to welfare activities, entertaining the troops by pulling rabbits out of hats. Of course, the last person you should trust to tell the truth in an autobiography is an illusionist…
For an inspired work of revisionism, which deserves prizes and a proper publication check out maskelynemagic and the essays gathered together there by Richard Stokes.
Any other magicians at war: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com