In late 1942, while serving with the British Army in North Africa, Lieutenant (later Major) Jasper Maskelyne joined the regional branch of MI9. This was a secret military intelligence department set-up to help service personnel evade capture and, if captured, to escape.
MI9’s formal aims were to aid escapers by providing them with tools and training to escape; to train potential evaders to evade; to encourage secret routes along which either could travel; and to glean such intelligence as was in prisoner of war camps, or from escapers or evaders who made it home. Against these aims, Jasper played a key role. He trained frontline personnel on how to evade capture and to escape captivity, and he designed and issued escape and evasion devices to military personnel.
A signed photo of Major Jasper Maskelyne, Royal Engineers (Source: Author’s collection)
Jasper was the ideal lecturer on this secretive topic. Lecturing to large groups of service personnel was the dominant method of military training. Most audiences, overexposed to this approach, were numb to the contents. Many lectures blended into one unmemorable download of information. Jasper’s lectures were something different. He was a celebrity with a famous family name. This enticed people to turn up when they may have sneaked off to avoid ‘another lecture.’ More than this, his public speaking and performing skills, along with his charismatic character, drew their attention and kept them listening. Add on the interesting and important nature of the topic, occasional displays of magic to illustrate points, stories of daring escapes, and demonstrations of secret gadgets, and you have a compelling mix.
Attention-focusing techniques to keep audiences attentive and awake weren’t uncommon. Jasper’s former camouflage officer colleagues had their own approaches. Julian Trevelyan laced his camouflage lectures with photographs of nude females covered in netting. Roland Penrose would occasionally throw in a daring nude shot of his girlfriend, Lee Miller, spread-eagled in matt green camouflage paint. But few could compete with Jasper for that combination of education and entertainment.
Lee Miller, Roland Penrose’s girlfriend, loosely disguised by camouflage (Source: Pinterest)
An example of an MI9 escape and evasion lecture, given in North Africa in late 1942, is available in the National Archives (UK). It shows the type of content in the presentations Jasper gave. The lecture starts by explaining the importance of evading and escaping capture, tips on handling interrogation, escape routes for various countries, advice on gaining the support of local populations, and how to use a variety of ‘aids and devices.’ We know Jasper’s lectures lasted around 90 minutes, allowing him to pepper his lectures with real-life examples of people who had gone missing in action but reappeared a few weeks or months later, applying the adage that, “an ounce of practice was worth a pound of principle.” He likely also majored on the wide variety of escape aids that were increasingly available, inserting a magic trick or two to hold any flagging attention.
Jasper Maskelyne in military uniform (Source: Imperial War Museum, public domain)
MI9’s intelligence school, IS9, gave generic lectures on escape and evasion to troops back in the UK, which those attending disseminated to others in their unit. Jasper’s ‘in-country’ lectures were specific to the area of operations the audience were operating in and contained the very latest information and advice. Some of this Jasper picked up from his MI9 colleagues, while he received other updates by a system of regulatory MI9 bulletins compiled and sent out from London.
Accounts of Jasper’s lectures appear in several post-war memoirs. British actor Christopher Lee, well known for playing Count Dracula and other villains in films, for over seven decades, served as an RAF intelligence officer in the North African campaign and in the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. “Jasper was out there for the specific reason to tell us how to get out of handcuffs if we were ever taken prisoner,” he said. “I’m happy to tell you I never had the opportunity of trying to prove it or disprove it, but he showed us extraordinary things.”
Christopher Lee talking about Jasper Maskelyne with David Berglas (Source: ‘In the Mind of David Berglas’ (series 1) (1986) (Channel 4).
Besides training RAF crews and staff, Jasper lectured to army units and specialist organisations like Special Operations Executive (SOE) personnel at their headquarters in Cairo. To prepare for their covert missions in Italy and the Balkans, the operatives received several weeks of training. Courses included working with explosives, ciphering, deciphering, and basic Albanian language skills. Colonel David Smiley, awarded a Military Cross for his work with partisans in Albania, also remembered, “we did a final course in escaping which was taught by Captain Jasper Maskelyne, a peace-time conjuror.”
Another SOE operative who deployed to Albania was Anthony Quayle. Post-war, Quayle starred in classic war films like Ice Cold Alex (1958), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Lawrence of Arabia(1962), and The Eagle Has Landed (1976). He attended one of Jasper’s lectures, but was not as enthusiastic about it as most. “We even had a few lessons from Jasper Maskelyne—one of the magicians from my music-hall days; he instructed us in various idiotic skills, like writing in invisible ink.” Mostly, though, the evidence suggests Maskelyne’s lectures were well received.
Actor and former SOE officer, Anthony Quayle (Source: Unattributed)
Jasper lectured throughout the Middle East, and later southern Europe, travelling to wherever the military needed him to go. Magic Circle member and children’s entertainer, Major Jack Gittings, recalled one of Jasper’s excursions at Kermanshah in Persia:
“Our officers were bidden to a lecture on ‘Escape Procedure.’… It was [given] by Captain Maskelyne and dealt with action to be taken by those who found themselves prisoners of war or cut off behind the enemy lines. Various ‘gadgets,’ or as we now call them, ‘gimmicks,’ which would assist in escape, were shown.”
As the North African campaign drew to a close in late spring 1943 and the Allies invaded Sicily and later mainland Italy in summer the same year, military chiefs increasingly needed Jasper to lecture troops over there. As MI9, as part of an organisation called ‘A Force,’ established a presence in the liberated part of Italy, Jasper moved with it, leaving Cairo behind.
Another promotional shot of Jasper Maskelyne in military uniform (Source: Unattributed)
During one briefing, Jasper was annoyed to find his audience watching the antics of a Spitfire coming into land nearby. “I obstinately refused to be diverted myself, and would not look at the aeroplane, whose pilot seemed to be skylarking about… He came down very low - so that my voice was obliterated - but still I stood there, angrily awaiting the return of my listeners’ attention.” Finally, the Spitfire landed in the next field and Maskelyne tried to regain his audience.
“Well, sir, you’ve got a nerve! That Spit was shot all to rags, and only one wheel of the undercart came down, and it looked as if he couldn’t miss pancaking in the middle of us, and when he skidded over and spun right round on the touch-down, goodness knows what prevented a big bang, because one of the bombs is still under the wing — and all you did is tell us we’ll see plenty more [aircraft] later!”
MI9 did not limit the lectures to British and Empire soldiers, airmen and, occasionally, sailors. He was also kept busy briefing US personnel as they poured into the North Africa, Middle East and Southern European theatres. One notable briefing task, and probably his last, was readying crews of the USAAF 15th Air Force for a strategic bombing campaign on the oil refineries and factories producing synthetic fuels around Ploiești, Romania. After a failed US attempt to destroy the Ploiești facilities in August 1943, General Eisenhower ordered a new offensive to begin on 5 April 1944. If successful, it would cut the Axis’ fuel supply by a third and speed up the end of the war.
A miniature compass issued for escape and evasion (Source: Australian War Memorial)
Preparation time was short after the Force received the orders for the mission, so Jasper hurried to the airfields where the 15th Air Force were stationed. His role was two-fold: to help design escape lanes from the target back to Italy and to brief these to the B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress crews, along with generic escape and evasion training.
“I know that for about three days and nights I never slept, and Lieutenant Sabin [presumably an American staff officer] of the USAAF and myself never had our clothes off for two weeks before the raid took place. There was a great deal of most secret work to be done, and we looked upon this as a supreme test of our ‘Get You Home’ service for shot-down pilots. Special camouflage had to be prepared; there was ground co-operation through the Balkans to be organised; every preparation for escape over hundreds of miles of mountainous and little-known country had to be made, and personnel taking part in the raid had to be letter-perfect in what they had to do if shot down, and just what routes to follow, and which people to co-operate with.” 7
The raids started on time, with 235 bombers attacking Ploiești on 5 April. More attacks followed over the next few weeks and months. From April to August 1944, nearly 5,500 American (and some British) aircraft terrorised the heavily defended skies above Ploiești in a score of daylight raids. Gradually, they reduced the refinery capacity to around twenty percent of its original capacity. This achievement was not without loss, as Axis anti-aircraft guns and German fighters brought down 223 of the bombers. Some 1,100 captured bomber and fighter crews became prisoners of war in Romania, Bulgaria or in the Balkan states. Jasper trained many of these crews on how to evade capture and how to escape if captured.
'Fifteenth Air Force Raids Ploiesti Oil Fields Air Siege' narrated by Ronald Reagan (Source: PeriscopeFilm)
In recognition of his work briefing crews ahead of the raids, the 15th Air Force Commander General Twining sent Jasper a letter of commendation several months after the operation. It read:
“For the most excellent work which Major MASKELYNE has done with combat crews of this command during the past four days. Working under a heavy schedule, Major MASKELYNE delivered four lectures daily, each lasting approximately one and a half hours, and thus managed to reach almost every flying officer and enlisted man in this bombardment wing with his message concerning escape and evasion.”
Some of 15th Air Force who were shot down avoided capture, like three survivors of an aircraft which crashed in Yugoslavia. After initially finding themselves in the hands of not so friendly Chetniks, they slipped away and ran into some Partisans who arranged for their evacuation. Fortunately for those Americans who ended up as POWs, their term in captivity was short-lived. Harassed by the bombing and with the advancing Soviet forces on its borders, King Michael of Romania engineered a coup d’état against his own government and Romania switched sides on 23 August 1944. The Germans withdrew and the Romanian guards at the POW camps abandoned their posts. A message got back to the 15th Air Force headquarters: the POWs were free. Operation Reunion was conceived and by 3 September, 1,161 Allied prisoners of war had been flown out of Romania by the USAAF. In the end, many of the Ploiești crews did not need Jasper’s advice on how to escape from POW camps.
Escape and evasion lectures were one of Jasper Maskelyne’s primary contributions to the war effort. He seemed to be A Force’s foremost lecturer on the subject and was kept extremely busy in this role. According to Foot and Langley, authors of a history of MI9, “Maskelyne was a highly skilled as well as an entertaining lecturer, and during the next two and a half years [actually one and a half years] he instructed over 200,000 men - most of them aircrew, British and American - in the arts of escape and evasion. He travelled 135,000 miles, through a dozen Mediterranean countries, to do so…[He] excited the interest, even the enthusiasm, of the audiences he addressed.”
Official records show that, in the Mediterranean theatres, over 4,000 servicemen evaded capture and nearly 14,000 POWs escaped. How many of these witnessed one of Jasper’s lectures and put his training into practice is impossible to calculate. Almost certainly, some did. More importantly, perhaps, is the confidence that Jasper gave to servicemen headed to the frontline, into the skies above the enemy, or those infiltrated behind the enemy’s lines. The knowledge and equipment it provided them helped some evade and escape capture and was tremendously encouraging, and boosted fighting spirit.
The lectures on the secrets of escaping served another purpose. They were the public face of A Force in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Yet, behind this cover, provided by Jasper with his celebrity status, the organisation got on with more secretive work to help win the war.