According to Fisher, in May 1941 Barkas gave the Magic Gang their first big job - to conjure up camouflage paint. The team soon discovered a huge warehouse of abandoned material outside Cairo. Flour, cement and plaster formed the bulk of the paint recipe. Rancid Worcester sauce would provide the base. Stewed camel dung would supply the appropriate pigment. Maskelyne set up the ‘dung patrol’ which began scavenging for fresh droppings around Cairo. His men manufactured two thousand gallons a week of this strange brew.
This is an amusing anecdote of ingenuity in the face of shortages, but is it an example of poop fiction?
Initially, I found it plausible, but Hartcup tells a similar story about Peter Proud at Tobruk: “Ten tons of useless Italian flour made an effective adhesive with which to apply sand to vehicles and tents to make them inconspicuous. Two thousand gallons of Worcester sauce unfit for human consumption were used to thin paint.”
Have the two anecdotes been confused?
Camouflage paint was in demand. In May 1941, a valuable consignment of tanks arrived in Alexandria. The convoy had been sent on the dangerous direct route across the Mediterranean. The new tanks needed painting, camouflaging and refitting. It took a month to get them ready for the desert conditions, in time for Battleaxe.
Fisher ties in the dung patrol tale (anecdotal) with the tank convoy story (authentic), but I suspect he is inventing this link. There is no evidence that Maskelyne’s men were given the task of painting these new tanks. The archive report does not credit the Camouflage Experimental Section with the manufacture of makeshift camouflage paint. The army recipes in the appendix seem to be inspired by the Proud method: sand, grit, glue, condemned flour, linseed oil or kerosene. There is no reference to camel dung.
Besieged enclaves like Tobruk relied on improvised paint recipes, but depots around Alexandria and Cairo held sufficient stocks of camouflage paint. New tanks would not have been adorned with foul smelling camel faeces.
Magic–Top Secret places the tale of the ‘dung column’ later in the campaign and makes no reference to tanks.
The dung camouflage is a wonderful story. If only it were true…Perhaps someone somewhere experimented with camel dung pigment and the legend grew. Blame it on a tainted sauce.