Back in 1982, David Martin discovered the remains of a pigeon while renovating his chimney. Upon closer inspection he noticed that the dead bird had a red capsule attached to its leg, what has now been confirmed as a top secret message that was en route to an unknown location in Britain during World War II. Ignored for three decades, code experts are now trying to decrypt the secret message.
Though rarely discussed, pigeons were widely used during the war as an old-school way to transmit messages. Among the benefits, it allowed the military to send secret information without having to broadcast it live over the radio - what could often be subject to analysis by the enemy (both in terms of content and the measurement of heightened radio activity - an indication of potential military action). And in fact, an astounding number of pigeons were used in this capacity, with estimates reaching as high as 250,000.
But not all the birds made it to their destinations. Many were shot by snipers who were tasked with this very job. Some simply died of natural causes. And in the case of military carrier pigeon 40TW194, it died mysteriously while in the vicinity of Martin's chimney.
The secret message, which has now been sent to Britain's top-secret GCHQ listening post and decoding department, must have been important. Preliminary analysis of the code reveals that it was one of two pigeons carrying an identical message. But like 40TW194, the other pigeon, named 37DK76, also never made it to its destination.
As for message's point of origin and destination, historians have already begun to speculate.
Given the location of Martin's home in Bletchingley, it's quite possible that the bird was coming in from the site of the Allied landings at the Normandy beaches on June 6 1944; Winston Churchill had imposed a radio blackout during the landings. It's possible, therefore, that it was heading to Bletchley Park - home of Alan Turing and the Allied cryptographers. And interestingly, it was also the location of a MI6 pigeon loft.
Historians also theorize that 40TW194 was going to the headquarters established by the British field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery at Reigate right before the D-Day landings - a location that's only five miles from Martin's home.
Speaking through the Bletchley Park press release, curator Colin Hill noted that the pigeon may have been on a very important mission: ‘"We suspect it was flying back to Monty's HQ or Bletchley Park from Nazi occupied Normandy during the invasion. I can only presume it became exhausted and attempted to rest on an open chimney -– where it valiantly perished."
He added that pigeons 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.
It's quite possible, therefore, that the pigeon was on a life-saving mission.
In fact, military carrier pigeons were known for doing just that. In 1943, an American pigeon named G.I. Joe brought a message that arrived just in time to save the lives of at least 100 Allied soldiers from being bombed by their own planes. Another bird, called Mary of Exeter, was used to send top secret messages and received 22 stitches after being injured during the course of her duties. Consequently, many pigeons (and other animals) were honored for heroism - including the awarding of the Dickin Medal, the highest decoration for animal valor.
Sadly, 40TW194's message was never received - and it may have cost lives.
Needless to say, a lot of people will be interested to know the content of the coded message - and thankfully, it's not expected to be a big problem. Using World War II logbooks, Colin is working with the GCHQ team to crack the code.
Early work shows that the message was sent to X02 (what is believed to be Bomber Command) at 16:45 and contains 27 codes, each made up of five letters or numbers. The sender's signature at the bottom of the message reads Serjeant W Stot.
Images: NYT, Telegraph.