Together they were remarkable, not least, Maskelyne claimed, in concealing the entire city of Alexandria from German bombers. To do so, they reportedly mocked up night-lights, fake buildings, a lighthouse and anti-aircraft batteries in a bay three miles away and when the Luftwaffe flew in, even blew up some of the fake buildings so the pilots believed they had successfully hit their target.
“Deceptions like these are as old as warfare itself,” Kirby tells me. “There are photos from the American Civil War of logs made to look like mounted guns, and [in the exhibition] we have a papier mâché decoy head that drew sniper fire in the trenches. But it had never been done on such a grand scale before.”
His biggest moment?
According to his memoir, Maskelyne’s greatest contribution to Bertram was making German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel think the Allied attack was coming from the south, when in fact Allied Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery intended to attack from the north. The magician allegedly used canvas and plywood to disguise 1,000 tanks as trucks in the north, and created 2,000 fake tanks, plus a fake railway line, fake water pipeline, fake radio conversations and fake sounds of construction in the south. The tanks even had their own pyrotechnics.