DEATH BY CHOCOLATE
The War Magician and Magic–Top Secret include an implausible ‘poisoned gift’ episode. En route to Egypt, Maskelyne supposedly receives either a box of chocolates or a tin of sweets after the ship docks at Sierra Leone. He suffers from stomach cramps, develops a dangerous fever, and almost dies. Later, he suspects that German agents might have poisoned him.
This is surely paranoid or grandiose speculation. A more obvious theory is that he was struck down by acute dysentery or food poisoning. Conditions on board the troopship were crowded and unhygienic. Earlier in the voyage, Sykes had become seriously ill with a painfully infected sinus.
Alistair Maskelyne wrote: “Your appraisal of the “poison gift” account is quite right: my father was ill on that voyage, but I believe it derived from eating fruit bought in the local market at Freetown, so was more mundane, and much less dramatic. An attack of dysentery is unpleasant, but not good story value.”
Another improbable anecdote is that of Captain Page writing a song for the onboard variety show. Maskelyne is so impressed he urges the fledgling composer to contact a music publisher. The song, White Cliffs of Dover, quickly becomes famous.
Fisher is surely mistaken. This classic was written by two Americans, Burton and Kent.
Sykes’ memoirs merely state that during the sea voyage someone wrote a “catchy song, an alternative White Cliffs of Dover” for the ship’s pantomime.
Maskelyne’s film notes from the 1960s include the following retraction: “I have doubts, looking back, whether the song which was written for the show was the actual one which became a wartime favourite sung by Vera Lynn. I was desperately ill at the time and never saw the panto or heard the song.”