Forty-nine-year-old General Erwin Rommel was elated. At his command caravan in the scorching desert of Libya in North Africa, he had just read a decoded message sent by the U.S. military attaché in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Fellers, to Washington, D.C. Unbeknownst to General Archibald Wavell, British commander in the Middle East, the Germans had cracked the Black Code used by the Americans in various embassies around the world. It was June 15, 1941.
Three days earlier, Wavell, with high hopes for a smashing victory, had sent his Western Desert Force in an all-out assault, code-named Operation Battleaxe, against Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps. The Desert Fox, as the wily German general had become known, had been forewarned of the British attack through wireless intercepts of the Black Code. He set an ambush of powerful 88-millimeter guns.
Battleaxe, Rommel gleefully learned from the intercept, had been a disaster for the British. The Western Desert Force had lost ninety-nine tanks out of the two hundred and twenty-five in the assault, and numerous others had broken down. More than a thousand Tommies (as British foot soldiers were called) had been casualties.
Rommel, who had become a legend on the homefront, stood at the Egyptian border with Libya, waiting for a green light from Adolf Hitler to plunge forward, seize Alexandria, then capture Cairo and the nearby northsouth Suez Canal, Great Britain’s lifeline to the Middle East.
Now the bloody conflict in North Africa had become a race for supplies. Rommel also had suffered sizeable losses in crushing Battleaxe, so before he could strike, he would have to receive large amounts of weapons, ammunition, food, clothing, and other war gear. His supply line stretched from Europe southward across the Mediterranean Sea to Tripoli, Libya, then hundreds of miles eastward by truck to the front lines.
Wavell was resupplied almost entirely by convoys dodging German U-boats and bombers on the Mediterranean to Alexandria, a city of one million Egyptians.
If Wavell could replenish his force by sea before Rommel could get his needed supplies across the vast distances of barren desert, the British might be able to hold Alexandria, Cairo, and the nearby Suez Canal.
Both Wavell and Rommel were acutely aware that the harbor at Alexandria was the key to the looming showdown. So the British rushed in all the antiaircraft guns that could be spared from other locales in the Middle East and ringed the Alexandria harbor with them. The Royal Air Force, also hardpressed, brought in more fighter planes.
Rommel, meanwhile, stepped up Luftwaffe bombing assaults against Alexandria, especially its waterfront and the shipping there. Almost every other night, the air raid sirens wailed over the large city, searchlights criss-crossed the dark sky, and bomb explosions rocked the region.
In the wake of the Battleaxe disaster, one of General Wavell’s staff officers called on Major Geoffrey Barkas, head of Middle Eastern camouflage, and gave him a seemingly impossible task: conceal Alexandria harbor to protect it against German bombing attacks.
Barkas was a prewar film producer who had volunteered for the army within days of the outbreak of war in September 1939. At the time, he told senior officers that he would serve in any worthwhile job, never dreaming that his eventual mission would be to try to outsmart the craftiest of German generals, Erwin Rommel.
Now Barkas promptly called on an old friend from the peacetime entertainment world, Lieutenant Jasper Maskelyne, who had been born into the world of magic thirty-eight years earlier. For sixty-six years, he, his grandfather, and his father had been Europe’s first family of conjuring. Jasper had been only nine years old when he made his debut on the stage—and mystified the audiences.
On May 10, 1940, Jasper had been on a London stage drinking a glass of razor blades. When he began withdrawing from his mouth the six sharp blades, knotted to a cotton string that kept him from swallowing them, a British army officer burst into the crowded theater. “Hitler’s just invaded France, Belgium, and the Netherlands!” he shouted excitedly.
Patriotic fervor swept the British Isles, just as it had when Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939, two days after Adolf Hitler had sent his potent war juggernaut charging into militarily weak Poland. Among those standing in long lines to enlist was Jasper Maskelyne. Other men were volunteering to take up arms against the Nazis, but Jasper stunned the recruiting officers by declaring that he planned to mobilize the domain of magic against the Führer.
High-ranking British army officers were reluctant to grant a commission to a man, albeit a famous one, who apparently wanted to help win the war by waving magic wands or casting spells over German leaders. However, with the surrender of France on June 22, 1940, England was in dire danger of invasion. In this desperate situation, even a magician might be useful, so Maskelyne was awarded a lieutenant’s commission.
Now, at the encampment of the Camouflage Experimental Section in the desert outside Cairo, Major Barkas told Maskelyne that “hiding” Alexandria harbor was in his hands. Jasper seemed to be elated by the herculean task. Alexandria harbor would be by far the largest stage on which he, or any magician, had ever performed. During his conjuring career, he had vanished people, motorcycles, and even an elephant. But an entire harbor!
Soon after dawn the next day, Maskelyne and his Magic Gang—six magicians, artists, movie set designers, and cartoonists—were standing on a bluff looking down on Alexandria harbor, which was crammed with vessels of all types and sizes. Guarding the entrance to the busy waterfront was the giant lighthouse on Pharos Island, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The beacon had been built around 240 B.C. and was higher than a thirty-six story skyscraper.
The Britons were sobered by the thought of concealing such a large and bustling area. Alexandria harbor was an easily located target for German bombardiers. They would home in on the Pharos lighthouse from a long distance in the desert. A pathfinder plane preceding the main flight would follow the familiar Egyptian coastline, then light Alexandria harbor with flares and incendiary bombs. Succeeding waves of bombers would unload their lethal cargoes into the brightly burning fires.
At the end of a day of inspection of the harbor, members of the Magic Gang set up their operation in a quonset hut and traded fanciful ideas on how to hide the vast target. Finally, Jasper Maskelyne declared: “There’s only one solution. We’ve got to move it!”
As his associates watched eagerly, Maskelyne tapped his pipe on a large wall map of the Cairo–Alexandria region. “Here’s Alexandria harbor,” he stated. “And over here”—he moved his finger a few inches across the map—“is Maryut Bay, about a mile down the coast.”
Now the others were getting the picture. “See how the Maryut shoreline curves? Almost like here in Alex!” Jasper pointed out.
“At eight thousand feet, a Jerry bombardier would have trouble telling one from the other,” one man chimed in. Exclaimed another: “Particularly at night, and with ack-ack shells exploding around him!”
“Exactly!” Maskelyne declared. “The beauty of the idea is that we won’t have to move or cover anything. All we’ve got to do is to lay down a network of ground lights and structures at Maryut resembling those in Alex. When we know Jerry planes are on the way, we just turn out the Alex harbor lights and switch them on at Maryut. Then we set off explosives we’ve planted at Maryut, and the fires will draw Jerry like bees to honey!”
“Well, what about the next morning when Jerry recon planes come over to take pictures of the damage at Alex harbor?” one man asked.
“As long as the Jerry recon boys see rubble around Alex harbor, they’ll become convinced that their bombardiers had been right on target,” Jasper said. “If Jerry wants rubble, we’ll give him rubble—plenty of it!”
Maskelyne and his gang plunged into their daunting task. The area around Maryut was sealed off to keep out inquisitive natives—and German spies. Some two hundred army engineers and other craftsmen were assigned to the project.
Working with Royal Navy people, one member of the Magic Gang supervised the creation of canvas ship superstructures. Dim night lights were placed on these dummies. Tall wooden stakes with similar lights atop them were planted in Maryut Bay to give the impression from high above that scores of other ships were at anchor.
Night aerial photos of Alexandria harbor were used as a pattern for Maryut, where hundreds of electric lanterns were staked into the sand and mud. Then they were wired together to be switched on when Luftwaffe bombers were approaching.
Scores of plywood sheds and small buildings were built. Many of them were packed with explosives that would give off flash and smoke identical to that of detonating bombs.
“Duplicating” the towering Pharos lighthouse was a major task in itself. The masquerade was built around the fact that German bombardiers, high in the sky in the blackness, would be unable to determine how high a structure was. A working “lighthouse” was created by mounting truck searchlights on a plywood slab held up by six stilt legs. These genuine lights were connected to a timer that would switch them on and off, giving the impression that the platform appeared to be rotating.
Making this ploy work would require delicate timing. Once German airmen had time to take a bearing on the phony lighthouse, it would be switched off, just as the Pharos lighthouse had been.
Jasper Maskelyne clearly was reveling in his role of master manipulator for the entire project. All of the lights and explosives detonators at Maryut Bay were connected to a console that Jasper would operate atop the genuine Pharos lighthouse.
In the meantime, feverish work was underway to “bomb” the real harbor at Alexandria when the time came. Thousands of tons of rubble were trucked in and distributed in numerous places, then covered with tarpaulins. After a Luftwaffe attack—hopefully on Maryut—the entire rubble would be uncovered for the benefit of German aerial photographs after daylight.
Bomb craters were painted on huge slabs of canvas, and these would be laid on the ground or hung from Alexandria buildings to simulate heavy damage. Scrap piles were raided throughout the region. Truck and vehicle hulks, already wrecked, were hauled in and would be put next to the phony craters.
Thousands of papier-mâché bricks were rapidly manufactured, and these would be strewn about the premises. As a mute testimony to the “accuracy” of German bombardiers, dummy masts would protrude from the water in the harbor, graphic testimony that ships had been sunk.
If the Maryut machination was to bamboozle the Germans, bombers would have to be met by a good-sized amount of antiaircraft fire. So Maskelyne coerced the Alexandria harbor defense commander to shift—reluctantly—many guns and crews to Maryut. At the same time, orders were given to the gunners remaining at Alexandria not to fire unless directly attacked.
Now everything was ready for the Great Performance. The show’s schedule had been refined, the scenery and props were in place, and the performers had been rehearsed. Like actors in prewar music halls of Europe, all the thespians were nervous. “Opening night” was at hand. Only the “audience”—the German bomber force—would decide if the performance would be a hit or a miserable failure.
Two nights later, reports from the desert told Maskelyne and Frank Knox, an Oxford professor, that a German bomber force was winging toward Alexandria. The two men were both elated and anxious. Atop the Pharos lighthouse, they were prime targets to be killed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Maskelyne reassured the other. “If we get done in, we won’t have to explain why our project had been a disaster!”
Minutes later, after it was estimated that the lead Luftwaffe bombardier had taken his bearings from the powerful illumination atop Pharos lighthouse, Maskelyne slammed down a switch—and Alexandria harbor was gripped by blackness. Another lever was activated, and the dummy lighthouse at Maryut was ablaze. Then the searchlights at Maryut began to crisscross the sky, and as the Luftwaffe flight neared, the antiaircraft guns at Maryut opened fire.
When the sky force came ever closer and the magicians in the Pharos lighthouse felt the bombardiers were close enough to spot the Maryut illumination, the dummy harbor was suddenly blacked out, just as had been the case for months when Alexandria had been attacked. Much to the delight of Maskelyne and his companion, the Luftwaffe bombers ignored Alexandria and began dropping bombs on the phony harbor at Maryut.
Now, as planned, a series of blasts were set off at Maryut by the two men in the Pharos lighthouse. Thick fingers of flame—all planted earlier by the Magic Gang—leaped into the black sky. Piles of dry timber, previously placed, were ignited. Succeeding flights dropped their explosives on the sandy desolate beaches. The dummy harbor had been virtually “destroyed.”
In the meantime, Maskelyne’s “rubble strewers” raced through the dark streets and alleys of Alexandria, removing the tarpaulins from the crushed masonry and bricks, spreading the canvases with painted bomb craters, and scattering thousands of papier-mâché bricks.
As soon as the final German bomber headed back to its base, scores of Royal Engineers went to work at Maryut. Fires were extinguished, the genuine wreckage was covered by sand, and the destroyed “stage props”—shrubbery, cardboard buildings, and harbor lights—were replaced. The dummy harbor had to be ready for a return engagement by the Luftwaffe.
All that day, the joy of the Magic Gang was tempered. After receiving aerial photos of the “damage” inflicted on Alexandria harbor, would the Germans realize that they had been duped? Only if another bomber force swallowed the bait and again pounded the dummy harbor at Maryut would it be known if the deception had been successful.
That night, the bombers roared in lower than usual, no doubt bent on inflicting even more damage. They pounced on Maryut, which soon was engulfed in flames. For eight successive nights, the Luftwaffe returned. Each morning, the Magic Gang, along with the Royal Engineers, replaced the “destruction” at Maryut and created “wreckage” at Alexandria.
Suddenly, the Germans lost interest in Alexandria. Ultra, the ingenious British interception and decoding machine at Bletchley Park, north of London, disclosed the reason. Adolf Hitler was about to launch Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, and large numbers of bomber units were transferred from North Africa to support Barbarossa.
In the next twenty months, millions of tons of the accoutrements of war would land safely at Alexandria harbor, supplies eventually used to help drive the Germans out of North Africa.