In some rare intersections of history, the “fog of war” is quite literally the puff of smoke that concludes a magician’s disappearing act. In others, the “fog” is a supernatural explanation conjured by a German soldier’s tortured mind. If you're scratching your head right now trying to remember magic used during WWII in Saving Private Ryan or whether there was a section in your 20th century history textbook entitled "did magicians help the Allies in World War II?", you're not alone. The popular consciousness has all but forgotten WWII witches and all the fabulous and bizarre WWII magic technology; now feels as good a time as any to rectify that.
World War II was as much a war of mind games as it was of bullet holes. To counter the swift expansion of the highly mechanized Third Reich, the Allies got creative with secret weapons, and missions of the magical variety. In the Soviet Union, a night bomber regiment of female fighter pilots was so deadly Germans nicknamed them the Night Witches, and they became the stuff of Nazi nightmares (so there's your answer to "were witches involved in World War II?").
On the German Front, a group of illusionists and masters of imagery and deception (some of whom came from advertising backgrounds; big surprise there) known as the Ghost Army tormented Nazi soldiers with the movement of invisible infantries. Down in Africa, a British magician named Jasper Maskelyne played out magic tricks so grand they have been classified by the Official Secrets Act. The true nature of Maskelyne's World War Two magic will not be made public until 2046 (so put an alarm on your phone, kids).
Full disclosure before you read any more about Maskelyne: most of the stories about his involvement in World War 2 come from him and a book written on him without much corroboration. Though he was most definitely in the war, and contributed illusions to the Allied cause, there's a lot of controversy about what he actually did. Some doubt The Magic Gang even existed.
With that out of the way...
Stage magician Jasper Maskelyne was displeased World War Two had taken his London public away from him. Without an audience for his magic, he had only himself to fool, and he promptly fooled himself into believing he was absolutely indispensable to the British Army. Desperate times called for desperate war magicians, and after several rejections (more times than he admits in his autobiography, Magic Top Secret) Maskelyne was deployed to the Cairo camouflage division in November 1941.
In Cairo, Maskelyne was allowed to assemble a renegade special forces unit to train in the magical arts. The group included a cartoonist, a potter, an analytical chemist, a stained glass expert, and a theatrical set designer. They were considered quite the joke, and nicknamed The Magic Gang.
The Magic Gang proved its worth when the German bombers set sights on Egypt’s Alexandria Harbor in June 1941. Alexandria was the predominant Allied naval base in North Africa, and its most critical supply point. The Magic Gang was conscripted for some classic misdirection. A decoy harbor with a similar aerial profile but smaller in size was constructed in the nearby Maryut Bay.
Relying on the cloak of darkness, the Magic Gang built dummy warships and buildings from mud and cardboard. Remote-controlled explosives were set to mimic bomb detonations, so when Germans flew overhead, they saw explosions and believed their flight commander had begun the air raid. They followed suit and unknowingly bombed a decoy harbor, whilst the real one was hidden safely nearby in blackout mode.
Recreational flying was big in pre-war Soviet Union. When civilians began volunteering for combat, hundreds of able-flier women stepped forward, but, like Maskelyne, they were initially turned away. However, desperate times put sexism on the back burner, and three all-female bomber regiments were created. The 588th night bomber regiment was formed in June 1942, comprised of women aged 17 and 26, and given flimsy Po-2 bombers made of wood and canvas. The planes weren't meant for combat, but the women flew 30,000 missions in them, while wearing men’s boots with scrunched up newspaper to fill the extra space their legs and feet couldn't.
The war waged by the 588th was as psychological as it was physical. Their nighttime harassment bombing assured Nazi soldiers were sleep deprived and increasingly paranoid. Pilots turned off their engines as they approached German camps, so soldiers couldn’t hear the sounds of the plane; instead, they heard a spooky witch’s broomstick-like “whooshing” as the bombers glided in. By the time they heard this, it was too late.
The Nazis nicknamed the 588th Nachthexen, or“night witches," and the unit wore the label with pride. Enemy fear began to do their job for them. The psychological terror instilled by the Nachthexen prompted Nazis to create mythology to help explain how they could be so tortured and defeated night after night. They began to believe the Night Witches were the result of military experiments, women given special pills and injections to give them feline dexterity and vision at night.
In 2001, MI5 released documents linking the initial success of Eddie Chapman’s time as an undercover Nazi with everyone's favorite war magician, Jasper Maskelyne. Yet bad boy double agent Chapman’s relationship with the military did not begin well.
In 1931, teenage Chapman abandoned his job as a Tower of London guard to follow a girl he had just met. He was sentenced to 84 days in prison for abandoning his post and, once released, spun into a life of petty crime, committing numerous frauds and thefts and even working as a safecracker for London’s West End gangs. In 1942, he found himself once again in prison, and willingly traded his prison sentence for the chance to serve as a spy. Nicknamed Agent ZIGZAG (after his erratic path in life), he became one of the most significant double agents of WWII.
To test Chapman's allegiance, the Nazis commanded him to sabotage the De Havilland aircraft factory in Hatfield, England. Enter Maskelyne, who created the illusion of sabotage at the factory so Chapman could get cozy with the Jerrys.
Damaged aircraft were fashioned of papier-mâché. Large pieces of canvas were painted and torn to create the illusion of a destroyed building. Debris was scattered around the factory. Fake headlines were run in local papers. It worked like magic. A German reconnaissance team took aerial photographs of the site and declared Chapman’s sabotage a success. He went on to become beloved by both the Germans and the British; he so thoroughly convinced the Germans of his devotion to them he is the only British citizen to have ever been awarded the German Iron Cross.
The use of magicians in WWII was not limited to the Magic Gang in Egypt. On the German front, a gang of illusionists comprised of artists, designers, engineers, art school students and employees, advertisers, and other creative thinkers, was assembled in an elite force of tactical deception known as the Ghost Army. The gag order on the Ghost Army’s activities only lasted four decades, so there's hard evidence of their illusions.
Take, for instance, Operation Brest, designed to confuse Nazi perception of the American forces in Germany. For this mission, the Ghost Army created dummy trucks and mock uniforms for the most armored and deadly Allied divisions and drove themselves in and out of towns to make a show of their arrival. They made sure they always had soldiers sitting on the backs of trucks to make it look as though each vehicle was bursting with weapons and fighters. In doing so, they led Germans to believe there were far more Allied divisions in northern France than actually existed.
The Ghost Army's mission was to draw German forces away from Brest, so the Allies could take the city easily and with minimal losses, which is precisely what happened. The Germans, deceived by the illusions and misdirection of the Ghost Army, arrived in an empty forest armed, ready to face a foe that had never been there. Meanwhile, the Allies took Brest, and important foothold in the lead up the Normandy invasion.