Memo From Europe
A Bird Skeleton, a Code and, Maybe, a Top Secret
By ALAN COWELL
Published: November 1, 2012
It kept its secret for decades. It perished in the process. It died, experts say, a valiant death, most likely on a hush-hush mission over wartime France, and was then, like so many others, forgotten.
Times Topic: Cryptography
But now, decades after the final flight of military carrier pigeon 40TW194, the bird’s secret message has become a matter of state and the grist of headlines. After a concerted campaign by pigeon fanciers, the encrypted message, which had been folded into a scarlet capsule on the pigeon’s leg, has now been sent to Britain’s top-secret GCHQ listening post and decoding department outside Gloucester to the west of London.
There, 40TW194’s World War II secret might finally be revealed. Or maybe not. “We cannot comment until the code is broken,” said a spokesman for GCHQ, which stands for Government Communications Headquarters. “And then we can determine whether it’s secret or not.”
The tale of 40TW194 speaks to many themes — among them, animal heroism. The Dickin Medal, Britain’s highest decoration for animal valor, has been awarded to 64 feathered, furry or four-legged creatures, including 32 pigeons, since 1943, making birds the bravest of the brave. They include an American pigeon called G.I. Joe, or Pigeon USA43SC6390, which, according to its citation, “brought a message which arrived just in time to save the lives of at least 100 Allied soldiers from being bombed by their own planes.”
A memorial to animals at war was unveiled on London’s Park Lane in 2004 and it, too, commemorates pigeons.
But the story of 40TW194, and its companion, 37DK76, also seems to be a story of just how forgotten a war’s forgotten heroes can be.
The bird’s skeleton was discovered in 1982 at the 17th-century Surrey home of David Martin as he sought to renovate a chimney. Amid a cascade of pigeon bones, “down came the leg with the red capsule on,” he said in one of many interviews he has given in recent days.
Inside the capsule, he discovered a coded message with crucial clues as to the provenance of the bird. The message, for instance, was marked as a duplicate to a message carried by 37DK76. (The first two numerals indicated the pigeon’s year of birth.) It was addressed to “xo2,” now thought to be code for bomber command.
The fact that two birds had been dispatched with the same message, and that the message was in code, seemed to suggest that it might have been carrying word of some major development.
The location of Mr. Martin’s home in Bletchingley might also be a key to the long-secret message. It is between the site of the Allied landing at the Normandy beaches in 1944 and a famous code-breaking center north of London at Bletchley Park. It is also, Mr. Martin said, near the site of a headquarters established by the British field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery at Reigate before the D-Day landings.
“The bird may well have been flying back to Monty’s HQ or Bletchley Park from Nazi-occupied Normandy during the invasion” of 1944, said Colin Hill, the curator of a pigeon exhibit at Bletchley Park, referring to Montgomery by his nickname. The pigeons, he said, routinely accompanied both ground forces and Royal Air Force bomber crews who were told to use the birds to report back their positions if they crash-landed in hostile terrain.
But at first, said Mr. Martin, now 74, and a retired probation officer, no one seemed interested in what might well be a gripping yarn of feathered valor. At the time, the Falklands War was under way. The code-breakers were too busy to worry about pigeon bones. “It wasn’t a story then,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Only the community of people who love pigeons — including some who race the birds and are schooled in their wartime history — took an interest and began a campaign over many years to get officials to pay attention.
Two years ago, Mr. Martin and his wife, Ann, finally found a taker for a copy of the message: Bletchley Park, which is now a museum.
Over time, curators there became convinced of the message’s uniqueness — other pigeon files used little or no code. And so the original, a tiny message scribbled on a standard military form, was sent on to GCHQ to take a look.
By Thursday, the bird’s destiny was the subject of a bona fide news media happening. As Mr. Martin spoke on the telephone to one reporter, a photographer from another news media outlet was transmitting images from his yard. At Bletchley Park, Mr. Hill could not come to the phone immediately because he was giving a television interview.
Once known for its wartime secrecy, Bletchley Park on Thursday went public with a
“World War II experts suspect the bird discovered by Mr. Martin was destined for the top-secret Bletchley Park — which is just 80 miles from Mr. Martin’s home,” the statement said. “During the war, Codebreakers worked there round the clock in top secret.” The statement added, “It was also home to a classified MI6 pigeon loft, manned by trainer Charles Skevington.”
Times Topic: Cryptography
Although the code is likely to be broken, the circumstances of how the bird that carried it died will probably remain a mystery.
One theory, Mr. Hill said, was that it became exhausted or overcome by fumes as it perched on the chimney and simply fell in. Another is that it was wounded by one of the German snipers stationed on the English Channel coast with orders: shoot the pigeons.
The companion bird does not appear to have made it home either. Adding to the mystery, Mr. Hill said, is that neither birds’ code numbers are included in any historical archive. “They’re not in the books anywhere,” he said. They were, he said, “special pigeons,” in much the same way as James Bond was a special agent.
For the moment, the tale has captivated the attention of many who had long since forgotten about the birds (though not this reporter, who once used carrier pigeons in Zimbabwe at the time of independence in 1980 to send dispatches from a remote encampment with no other means of communication).
The latest saga has revived talk of pigeons in history. Among the little-discussed facts: some 100,000 pigeons flew their missions in World War I, and 250,000 in World War II.
And then there is this: In 1945, the head of a Pigeon Policy Committee in the Air Ministry Pigeon Section, Wing Cmdr. Lea Rayner, proposed using the birds to fly with a minicargo of explosives — an idea that was never adopted.
“A thousand pigeons, each with a two-ounce explosive capsule, landed at intervals on a specific target,” Wing Commander Rayner wrote, “might be a seriously inconvenient surprise.” Not least, of course, to the pigeons.
World War II pigeon-carried message finally decoded
Only the words "Pigeon Service" at the top of the strip of paper were comprehensible.
The rest of the message that read "AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW" baffled codebreakers for years.
The message was from a British soldier who had been parachuted down into occupied Normandy to tip off RAF bomber command about the locations of German forces prior to the D-Day landings, the Daily Express reported.
The pigeon made it back to Britain but got stuck in the chimney of a house in Surrey.
The bird was not discovered until 1982 when a fireplace was ripped out and the message was found in a red capsule strapped to the bird's leg.
Canadian researchers have now used a First World War artillery code book to reveal that the message was sent by Sergeant William Stott, a 27- year-old paratrooper from the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1944.
His message to HQ bomber command at RAF High Wycombe said he was updating as required and also requesting information after being parachuted behind enemy lines early that morning.
Sadly, he was killed in action a few weeks after the message was sent.
artime hero pigeon Paddy honoured with fly-past
One of Northern Ireland's smallest World War II heroes has been honoured.
Paddy, a messenger pigeon who served with the RAF during the Normandy operations in June 1944, was remembered in his home town of Larne on Friday.
PDSA, Britain's biggest veterinary charity, awarded Paddy the Dickin Medal, dubbed the animals' "Victoria Cross", 65 years ago this month.
He received it for being the first pigeon to reach England with a coded message from the battle-front beaches of D-Day.
The brave bird brought back vital information about the Allies' progress, flying 230 miles in four hours 50 minutes - the fastest time of any of the messenger pigeons involved in the mission with an average speed of 56mph.
PDSA spokesman James Puxty said: "Paddy's contribution to the D-Day operations was a credit to the thousands of messenger pigeons donated by the racing pigeon fraternity for service during World War II.
"He was one of 32 brave, feathered heroes that received the PDSA Dickin Medal for their life-saving flights during the war, and the only recipient from Northern Ireland."
Paddy was born and raised in Carnlough and joined thousands of other racing birds who were trained and drafted to RAF Hurn in Hampshire for military service.
Impressing military brass with his flying in the Air-Sea rescue units he was seconded to the United States First Army for undercover missions during the Normandy Landings.
In the face of poor weather conditions and the threat of German falcons, deployed to intercept Paddy and his comrades, he delivered his message to his home loft at RAF Hurn.
After the war Paddy returned to Carnlough and lived out his days with his owner Captain Andrew Hughes, until his death in 1954.
A memorial to the winged hero was erected in Carnlough harbour.
A feathered fly-past of pigeons formed part of the Paddy Memorial Day event held at Larne Museum and Arts Centre.
Larne Borough Council and the town's historical society were joined by guests from PDSA and the owner of Paddy's PDSA Dickin Medal, former Irish Army officer Kevin Spring.
Younger guests were entertained by Gail Seekamp, the children's author, who read from her book "Paddy the Pigeon".
The Dickin Medal was introduced in 1943 by Maria Dickin, PDSA's founder. She wanted to recognise the gallantry and devotion to duty of animals serving with the Armed Forces and Civil Defence units during WWII. Wartime winged messenger to be remembered - Belfast Metro, NIR Local News - Fwix
| Wartime winged messenger to be remembered |
Published Date: 23 September 2010
By Staff reporter
THE exploits of Carnlough's most famous pigeon - Paddy, a WWII messenger pigeon decorated with the PDSA Dickin Medal - are to be remembered with a feathered fly-past this week to commemorate the bird's heroism on D-Day.
PDSA, Britain's leading veterinary charity, awarded the medal - the animal's equivalent to the Victoria Cross - to Paddy on September 1, 1945 in recognition of his outstanding devotion to duty whilst serving with the RAF during the Normandy Operations in June 1944.
Paddy was the first bird to reach England with a coded message from the beaches. He not only delivered invaluable news of the Allied position, but he did so in record time, covering 230 miles in 50 minutes – the fastest time of any of the winged messengers deployed during the mission.
"Paddy's contribution to the D-Day operations was a credit to the thousands of messenger pigeons donated by the racing pigeon fraternity for service during World War Two," said PDSA spokesman, James Puxty.
DON'T MISS THE FULL STORY IN THIS WEEK'S LARNE TIMES
Pigeons released to mark Paddy's wartime bravery|
The Dickin medal awarded to Paddy, Carnlough's most famous pigeon, was proudly on show at the re-launch of a children's book which aims to keep the remarkable story of the feathered hero alive.
Now in the ownership of Dubliner Kevin Spring, the medal was handed round those gathered in Larne Museum and Arts Centre for the re-launch of Paddy the Pigeon, written by Gail Seekamp.
Known as the animal's Victoria Cross, the medal was awaded to Paddy in commemoration of his heroism on D-Day.