Fisher’s account of Maskelyne’s ‘Magic Gang’ needs to be treated with radical scepticism. He invents dialogue, fabricates or exaggerates the group’s activities, and tampers with dates. The gang members are fictional constructs, though one or two may be drawn loosely from real people. For example, Fisher must have based his pacifist Punch cartoonist, Bill Robson, on the real Punch cartoonist, Brian Robb. Magic–Top Secret also states that Maskelyne chose “Rob (sic) of Punch, an artist whose name is known to thousands.”
After the war, Robb taught at the Royal College of Art. Fisher’s fictional character, Robson, also became “a teacher of fine arts at a London university.”
Brian Robb illustrated Barkas’ memoirs and also published his own set of witty cartoons about the desert campaign. Robb worked closely with Ayrton on the implementation of the Alamein deception plan in October 1942.
Later, Fisher loses control of his Robson creation when he introduces the real Brian Robb into the narrative. This absurd cloning blunder exposes Fisher’s sloppy technique.
Sadly, I doubt any independent version of the group’s activities will ever be found. Those who worked closely with Maskelyne, whoever they were, have almost certainly passed away. Searching for survivors, based on the names provided by Fisher, would be a fool’s errand. He claims Maskelyne (and Knox) recruited five men from 72 interviewed. These five names do not tally with the official records.
Magic–Top Secret gives scant details of the gang members. It says fourteen were recruited from over 400 interviewed. Curiously, apart from “Rob,” only two names are provided: Sergeant Black, the quartermaster and Sergeant Camp, the administrator. These names sound generic. They do not appear in Fisher’s account or in the Archives. Both names reappear in Maskelyne’s film notes.
Did the ‘Magic Gang’ really exist? No independent primary source mentions them. Even Maskelyne’s wartime scrapbook makes no reference to them.
The group may have been conjured up as a convenient literary device to add depth and humour to the narrative. Maskelyne’s Magic Gang might be no more real than Hogan’s Heroes or Dad’s Army.
The term ‘Gang’ also harks back to the Crazy Gang, a group of comedians who appeared at the London Palladium before the war. These perfomers had a reputation for practical jokes on and off stage. Maskelyne appeared in their 1932 revue show. Magic–Top Secret several times pays homage to these entertainers by replacing the words ‘Magic Gang’ with ‘Crazy Gang’.