A World War II carrier pigeon that went missing in action 70 years ago was discovered recently inside a British chimney, still bearing news from the front.
Bletchingley resident David Martin discovered the bird's remains while ripping out a fireplace during home renovations. The skeleton had a small red cylinder attached to its foot, with a tiny scrap of paper with a coded message inside.
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According to historians, the bird probably was winging its way home from Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, D-Day, the day that Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy. Because the message the pigeon was carrying was in code, experts think the bird was headed for the top-secret Bletchley Park, which was home to both a brace of codebreakers and a classified pigeon loft belonging to British spy agency MI6. Now the place is a museum and heritage site.
“We don't know what sort of code was used in the message,” Bletchley Park spokeswoman Katherine Lynch said in an email. “It looks like some codes used in World War II, but without more information it's very difficult to determine which cipher system it is.”
Bletchley Park curator Colin Hill is assisting modern codebreakers at the U.K.'s Government Communications Headquarters in attempting to decipher the message, which contains 27 codes, each made up of five numbers or letters.
“It’s a real mystery, and I cannot wait for the secret message to be decoded,” pigeon finder Martin said. “Who knows; maybe it’ll tell us something really shocking like, God forbid, Churchill was actually working undercover for the Nazis!”
Britain's National Pigeon Service had more than 250,000 birds enlisted during World War II. They, like all carrier pigeons, had an instinct for flying home. The birds were brought out to the front lines, sometimes dropped from bombers to rendezvous with resistance fighters, who would attach secret messages and send the birds off to fly back home.
Some pigeons can even be trained to bear loads on their backs – up to 2.5 ounces at most. In the 1970s, two English hospitals experimented with using pigeons to ferry vials back and forth between Plymouth General Hospital and Devonport Hospital. Using a taxi service would have meant a 22-minute journey at least, while a pigeon could make the trip in five minutes, a hospital spokesman told United Press International in 1977.
But pigeons have always soared in uniform (so to speak). They can make 700-mile journeys and fly at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. For that reason, they've been in use since at least the sixth century B.C., when the Persian king Cyrus used them to relay messages throughout his empire.
A valiant pigeon can sometimes save many lives in the heat of battle. One bird named Cher Ami is particularly famous for rescuing an entire U.S. Army batallion that became trapped on a hill during the Battle of Argonne in 1918.
The Americans were taking friendly fire, and Cher Ami was sent out with a message giving the group's location and asking the artillery to hold off. Two previous pigeons were shot down, and Cher Ami was severely wounded by German fire that pierced his breast, blinded him, and nearly severed one of his legs. He survived, and Army medics crafted a small wooden leg to replace the one he'd lost. Cher Ami was later awarded the French Croix de Guerre, and his body is on display in the Smithsonian.
British pigeon fanciers are now asking that the MIA pigeon found in Martin's chimney be awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valour an animal in the U.K. can earn. Sixty animals have been pinned with the Dickin, 32 of them pigeons.