Dominic Martello was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, went to high school at Jesuit High School and upon graduation joined the New Orleans Fire Department. Martello never gave the Army much thought, as he says, “The average fella never thought he would be in a war until the draft came.” Drafted by the Army before Pearl Harbor, Dominic was assigned to the 39th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division. Shortly after joining the 9th, he was shipped overseas for the initial landings in North Africa as part of Operation Torch.
The green US troops that landed between Algiers and Oran in November of 1942 had no idea what they were about to get into. The training that they had been given in the United States was not sufficient as Dominic recalls, “We needed all the training we could get. We were fighting professional soldiers and we were mostly civilians. These guys had been fighting in the desert for years. We were going to catch hell.”
Dominic was the driver for a halftrack that had 75mm howitzers mounted inside the vehicle to act as mobile artillery. Not long after landing in North Africa, Martello’s halftrack took a direct hit from a German 88mm artillery round, rendering it useless. With the loss of his vehicle, Martello fell in with the rest of the “dogfaces” of the 39th Infantry Regiment. As the North African campaign wore on, Martello’s unit slowly whittled down to a group of men that scarcely resembled their original state upon landing in November. By February at the Kasserine Pass, the heaviest weapon that his unit possessed was his Browning Automatic Rifle (B.A.R.).
Put at the edge of the Kasserine Pass in an effort to disrupt any German infantry attempting to infiltrate American lines, Martello and the rest of his unit were pounded by German artillery. As he puts it, “Those 88s were pretty close; you could hear them go by.” After the cessation of the artillery barrage, the German infantry attacked with a force that Dominic felt he could deal with, but the tanks that supported the German infantry were something that Dominic’s unit could not stop by any means. Martello recounts, “When you have a .30 caliber rifle and a tank is coming at you…you will not survive. The rifleman has no chance against an armored vehicle. When I saw those tanks coming…it’s a hard pill to swallow. How are you going to fight against a tank with a B.A.R.? There’s no way.”
The tanks and most of the infantry cut off Martello’s group. Constant machine gun fire kept the GIs pinned down. “I was in a cactus bush when they were shooting at me. That was the only place I could go. I figured I had better jump in there because I could get those cactus needles out of my behind a lot easier than that lead that they were shooting at me.”
That night Dominic’s group pulled out of their positions and attempted to escape the encirclement that had cut them off from their own lines earlier that day. The small band of GIs marched down a desert road and followed a German unit towardwhat they assumed were the American lines. Martello remembers, “It was so dark the Germans couldn’t tell if we were Americans or some of their guys.” The next morning, out of ammunition and more importantly, water, the small band of men were betrayed by native Arabs and captured by a German tank unit. The German officer in charge of the tank unit gave instructions to his men to shoot Martello and his comrades. However, the Germans refused. Dominic says of the incident, “I thought I was going to die right then.”
Dominic was captured at the Kasserine Pass in 1943 and spent 27 months in a German Prisoner of War Camp. When he was captured he weighed 200 pounds, but when he was liberated by US troops later in the war, he weighed a mere 87 pounds. Martello remembers, “We were so malnourished we couldn’t even walk.”
The war ended in 1945 but even now, the war still rages for Dominic Martello. “I’m back there, that’s my problem. Post Traumatic Stress, I was just back there. I can be driving my car and BAM…I’m there. I can be eating supper and BAM…I’m there…24 hours a day, seven days a week…all my life. I’m controlled by memories…I don’t want to be but I am.”
Dominic Martello was interviewed by Museum Historian Thomas Lofton in Martello’s home in Metairie, LA on August 28, 2008.
Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, represented a series of firsts for the Allied crusade against Nazi Germany and her Allies. It was the first amphibious landing undertaken by the US Army in the European theater. It was the first combat operation commanded by Dwight Eisenhower. And it was the first, and quite possibly the only, operation of the war in which the Allied commanders expected their opponents holding the beach to offer no resistance at all.
The landing beaches in Morocco and Algeria were held by Vichy French forces. These troops were loyal to Germany mostly due to a tenuous agreement whereby the Nazis agreed to keep part of France free from German occupation provided the Vichy resisted an Allied invasion. The Allied leadership believed that when the Vichy French saw the Allied armadas approaching the landing beaches, they would immediately join forces with the invaders to liberate North Africa.
Allied commanders also had to contend with the native North African population. Their willingness to aid the Allied cause was questionable at best. The primary hope of the Allied command was that both the French and the native population would willingly and energetically aid the liberators. Barring that, they would have settled for simply allowing the American and British troops to move through Morocco and Algeria quickly so that they could smash Rommel’s Afrika Korps on the anvil of General Bernard Montgomery’s forces advancing westward from Egypt.
In an attempt to sway both the Vichy French and the North African natives to the Allied cause, thousands of leaflets were dropped over North Africa prior to the landings in November 1942. This leaflet was picked up in Oran, Algeria, by Oscar Rich, who landed there as a member of the 1st Quartermaster Battalion, 1st Infantry Division. The leaflet, printed in French on one side and Arabic on the other, reads in part:
Message from the President of the United States:
We come to you to liberate you from your conquerors, whose only desire is to deprive you of your sovereign right to worship freely and your right to live your way of life in peace.
We come to you solely to defeat your enemies – we wish you no harm. We come to you with the assurance that we will leave as soon as the menace of Germany and Italy is dissipated. Help us and the day of universal peace will arrive.
Unfortunately for the Allies, the Vichy French offered stiff resistance to the landings in some sectors, and the day of universal peace was delayed indefinitely.
French side of US propaganda leaflet dropped over Oran.
Arabic side of leaflet collected by Oscar Rich.
Oscar Rich served with the 1st Infantry Division throughout the war.
Jasper Maskelyne, a third generation British magician, was in the business of illusion. However, what he called the greatest “illusion” of his career is a major point of controversy for historians of World War II and those in the magic trade.
According to Maskelyne’s ghost-written memoir, Magic: Top Secret, and David Fisher’s The War Magician, Maskelyne was not only responsible for “moving” the Suez Canal and the entire city of Alexandria as part of the North Africa campaign, but was also the mastermind behind Operation Bertram.
Operation Bertram was a component of Operation Lightfoot, Lieut-Col Bernard Montgomery’s turning-point offensive in the North Africa Campaign. Bertram was just one of many deception plans of the war, the most famous being Operation Fortitude – the Allied ruse that led Germany to believe the D-Day offensive would come at Pas de Calais instead of the beaches or Normandy.
The operation was made up of a series of fake ammunition dumps in sight of the Axis forces that were replaced with real ammunition and gas rations under the cover of nightfall, an incomplete dummy pipeline which implied that preparations for attack were not as far along as they actually were, an army of jeeps disguised as tanks sent in one direction and tanks disguised as transport vehicles sent in another and lastly, a series of fake buildings, soldiers, tanks and trucks in the south.
The facts of Operation Bertram are undisputed. However, the role of Jasper Maskelyne is another story. According to Maskelyne and Fisher’s accounts, Montgomery met with the magician personally with the directive to hide the forces in the north while creating the deception of a military build-up in the south. However, military historian and magician, Richard J. Stokes argued in a series of articles published in Geniis Magic Journal that a number of chronological inaccuracies and unconfirmed events in both books, the absence of any mention of Maskelyne in official records and Montgomery’s own accounts, along with a statement from Maskelyne’s own son, cast a great deal of doubt on his involvement.
After the war, Maskelyne faded into obscurity. Unable to resurrect his career in magic and greatly frustrated by the lack of any recognition for his war efforts, he later moved to Africa where he operated a driving school. He died in 1973.
So was Maskelyne the unsung hero of the North African Campaign? Did he pull off some of the greatest illusions of World War II or even of all time? Or was he simply a washed-up magician, looking for credit and another taste of fame? After all of these years Jasper Maskelyne still has us guessing. And that may actually be the magician’s greatest feat.
Magic: Top Secret is currently out of print but David Fisher’s The War Magician has been recently reissued and is rumored to be on its way to the big screen. To read Robert J. Stokes articles in entirety, visit www.maskelynemagic.com.
Below: Photos of the sunshield prototype used to disguise a tank as a transport vehicle from declassified document “WO 201/2841 Sunshields – tank camouflage: introduction and development”. Jasper Maskelyne had several similar photos in his wartime scrapbook. Courtesy of The National Archives, Kew and special thanks to Richard Stokes.
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