A Bird Skeleton, a Code and, Maybe, a Top Secret


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.
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 news release.
 
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