According to Fisher, in June 1941 Barkas had yet another ‘mission impossible’ for the Magic Gang. The vital port of Alexandria had to be protected from punishing night raids. Could Maskelyne find a way of hiding this target? Could he give a new twist to conceptualising war as ‘la grande illusion’?
Maskelyne quickly realised that concealing battleships, merchant ships and port facilities under huge canvas sheets would be an enormous undertaking. This solution might be feasible for small coves around Tobruk, but Alexandria Harbour was far too large.
“We can’t cover it up. We can’t disguise it. And we can’t hide it. There’s only one solution left to us, isn’t there? ... We’ve got to move it.” So Maskelyne and his crew began to build a replica harbour in nearby Maryut Bay to mimic how Alexandria might appear in night-time from the air.
Fisher’s description continues:
“Using night reconnaissance photographs as their blueprint, the Engineers replicated the ground-light pattern of Alexandria harbour by staking hundreds of electric lanterns into the sand and mud ... .”
To add authenticity, Maskelyne brought in real anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. To simulate direct hits, he rigged up remote control explosives and installed wooden pyres. To mimic the modern Pharos lighthouse, he erected an elevated on-off light, nicknamed Robson’s Pole. To save time and material, he built the decoy site on a shrunken proportional scale.
Meanwhile, the actual port of Alexandria was subject to black-out. Maskelyne arranged for fake bomb damage and artificial craters to be planted around the real city to fool enemy reconnaissance planes. At Maryut Bay, his men were ready to make necessary repairs to the decoy which, in daytime, was hidden under camouflage netting.
On the first night “hundreds of bombs peppered Maskelyne’s sandy stage.” Eight nights in succession German planes came and bombed the wrong harbour. Then all was quiet. The Luftwaffe had turned its attention to the invasion of Russia.
Fisher claims that the Maryut Bay deception proved to be an influential model for future camouflage projects.
But how effective was this decoy? Where exactly was it? How long was it maintained? Why are there no surviving photographs or diagrams in the Archives or even in Maskelyne’s wartime album? Why is it not mentioned in the official report on Maskelyne’s Camouflage Experimental Section? Maskelyne’s work in Alexandria is trumpeted as one of the greatest illusions in human history. Is this replica harbour a myth?
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