The Illusionists of El Alamein


“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

- Sun Tzu, The Art of War (1: SS 18-19)

"Although in all other affairs it be hateful to use fraud, in the operations of war it is praiseworthy and glorious; so that he who gets the better of his enemy by fraud, is as much extolled as he who prevails by force."

- Niccolo Machiavelli, "Chapter XL-That Fraud is fair in War," Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius

Deceiving your enemy is a useful tool in the "theater of war." In WWII, Operation Bertram - an Allied victory over Rommel's Axis forces in the desert of Egypt - imported elements from the stage, theater and film to deceive, surprise, and defeat the enemy (a very special kind of audience). Operation Bertram took place at the rail depot El Alamein in northern Egypt and the operation's success reversed Axis momentum in one of the War's most difficult terrains. To win, the Allies relied on the research and materials produced by the Camouflage, Development and Training Centre (CDTC). The CDTC brought together stage techniques organized by filmmaker and director Geoffrey Barkas, illusions by stage magician Jasper Maskelyne, and the counter-intelligence of a Cairo-based spy, Renato Levi, a Jewish-Italian double-agent also known as “Cheese” (or Lambert, or Mr. Rose). The second battle of El Alamein is one of the lesser-known battles of WWII, despite its importance to the overall defeat of the Axis powers. Additionally, the singular contributions of Renato Levi have not received much attention, as his British files have been released only relatively recently.


As many of those familiar with WWII are aware, First Marshall Erwin Rommel – “The Desert Fox” – was one of the most formidable foes for the Allied armies in Northern Africa. A cunning strategic thinker, Rommel hounded British and Allied forces from Tripoli to Cairo. A number of Generals went toe to toe with him, and Rommel was nearly always the victor, the Second Battle of El Alamein being one exception. Rommel had left the arena following the first battle, but he was ordered back to the desert once the Allies began their second attack in late October.[1]

The first battle of El Alamein had ended in late July of 1942 when Rommel's Afrika Korps stalled against the strategic position of the British troops. Rommel's troops had sought to push East, and the Eighth Army's entrenchment at the railroad halt, El Alamein, stopped Rommel's advance and his efforts to take the Suez Canal. By the end of the first round, both sides were exhausted and Rommel was ill. Privately, Rommel communicated to his wife, "Militarily, these are the worst days I have lived through."[2] Rommel left the area to convalesce. He left his troops in the capable hands of his second in command, General Georg Stumme.

The terrain at El Alamein was key to the Eighth Army's successful defense and later victory in the second El Alamein. To the north was the Mediterranean, and to the south was the great Qattara Depression (see map below). The Depression is hundreds of feet below sea level and is characterized by soft, shifting sand and salt marshes. These geographic bookends ensured a relatively short line to defend, and very few avenues of circumvention. In between these features was the Libyan Desert - miles of sand and dunes pocked with explosive mines laid by Rommel’s troops.

THE CDTC - The War Illusionists

The second battle of El Alamein was one of the first real tests of the Camouflage, Development, and Training Centre team. After Hitler attacked France and the Low Countries in May of 1940, Brigadier Dudley Clarke was charged with selecting and recruiting the elite group. WWI marked the start of large scale camouflage and visual deception in war. These techniques included terrain-based camouflage patterns for Doughboy uniforms and "razzle dazzle" markings on Navy ships. Following the war, however, these kinds of techniques were no longer actively pursued and the

science fell away during the interwar peacetime. The CDTC training base was located at Farnham Castle in Surrey, and it was there that they resurrected the practice of illusion and cultivated new kinds of camouflage for the desert environment.

The crew moved in to new quarters in Cairo, and quickly set to work outfitting the Allied forces. Simply put, the primary attack of Operation Bertram was to take place at the north end of the line by the El Alamein stop; therefore, the CDTC was engaged to make it seem as those the Allies had planned exactly the opposite.

Geoffrey Barkas and his crew were broadly responsible for three key sleights:

1) Concealing the northern troop and the build up to attack;

2) Making the troop build-up seem slower than it was; and

3) Make it appears as though the main attack would be from the south.

They would succeed on all counts.[3]


Geoffrey Barkas (1896-1979) was a filmmaker uniquely qualified to direct a huge production in the middle of the Libyan Desert. He was a veteran of WWI and the director of fourteen films, including a documentary about the first flight over Mt. Everest (Wings over Everest, 1934) and the war movie, The Battle of Gallipoli (1931). Gallipoli won the U.S. National Board of Review top Foreign Film award. Barkas was charged with leading the group and organizing the deception efforts in Northern Africa.

Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973) was nothing less than Magic Royalty, as he would likely be sure to tell you. His grandfather was the incredible John Neville Maskelyne, who had performed for decades as his Egyptian Hall in London, and his father was Neville Maskelyne, who continued in the family business to great acclaim. Jasper was every inch the dashing gentleman magician, yet he had not done as well as he had liked during the early years of the war. He had been turned down for various posts in the army, until he was finally sent to Farnham for CDTC training. Maskelyne was instrumental in developing large-scale illusions for the CDTC, like the tank sunshields,

but he also developed shoe pen-knives and other small gadgets for use in spy circles. His legacy as part of the CDTC is complicated, as Maskelyne often exaggerated his accomplishments, as is in keeping with the self-mythologizing storytelling common to stage magicians.

Joining Barkas and Maskelyne were talented painters, sculptors, and architects. These included painters Edward Seago, Julian Treveylan, Blair Hughes-Stanton, and Fredrick Gore, as well as designers Steven Sykes and Ashley Havinden. After training at Farnham, they were all shipped off to General Head Quarters (GHQ) in Cairo, and were designated ‘A’ Force in charge of camouflage and deception in the desert theater.[4]

COUNTER-INTELLIGENCE - The Left Hand of El Alamein's Desert Deception

Cairo was also the setting for SIME, the British Security Intelligence of the Middle East. SIME was then under the umbrella of GHQ, and they dealt in counter-intelligence; this included the handling a double-agent, known as CHEESE. Cheese was Renato Levi, an Italian Jew who also held British citizenship. Levi had volunteered to work with British services early on in 1939. Fortuitously, he was then recruited by the Abwehr, the German’s secret intelligence unit, and known to them as “Roberto.” It was the German’s idea to send Levi to Cairo in order to establish a wireless transmitter (W/T) base and recruit local informants, a development that the British were keen to capitalize upon. “A” Force noted his usefulness early on. A section of Levi’s classified file read:

In October-November, 1941, the organization of deception was rapidly developing. “Advanced Headquarters, ‘A’ Force” saw in CHEESE a possible opportunity for a decisive stroke. The information despatched [sic] was gradually put on a far higher level, and close liaison was maintained between “A” Force, S.I.M.E. and the Operational authorities.[5]

Levi was seen as instrumental to the cause, and the counter-intelligence network he established in Cairo sent out a smoke cloud of misinformation with the British manning the W/T set with a fictitious informant, “Paul Nicossof.” The Germans began to receive information from “Nicossof,” and gradually grew to trust him. However, the plan was nearly confounded by Levi’s confidence in his own deceptive abilities: he was caught.

After Levi established the W/T base in Cairo, he headed back to Italy. While at his mother’s hotel in Genoa in August of 1941, he was arrested, interrogated, and eventually imprisoned for crimes against the Italian state. Levi was eventually released in late 1943, and he never broke, keeping the W/T feed under “Nicossof” safe. While the Germans had significant issues with “Nicossof” early on, he was seen as a trusted informant by June of 1942, just in time for “A” Force to start feeding the Germans just the right amount of misinformation to throw them off the Operation Bertram scent.

According to his official files, “Nicossof” invented whole platoons, misrepresented troop movements, and at one point claimed that Allied troops had informed him that no attack was imminent, at least at the end of August.[6] This last piece of misdirection was meant to deliberately make the Axis forces relax, while the CDTC went at work to make the ground situation look the part. For more on Levi, please visit his page