AirTalk for November 26, 2012

Long-dead WWII airborne agent carries secret message from the past

Pigeons perch on the window sills and wooden struts on a traditional building.

It’s the stuff of wartime spy thrillers like “Casablanca” and “The 39 Steps” — the body of a secret agent is found under mysterious circumstances, with a coded message that defies cracking by experts.  

This courier was no stool pigeon ... but it was a pigeon, one of some 250,000 enlisted during World War II by the U.K.’s National Pigeon Service to carry messages from behind enemy lines in Germany, France and elsewhere.  

Around 30 of the brave birds were awarded the Dickin Medal for Bravery in Battle, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The skeleton of this particular pigeon was found in 1982 in the chimney of a home in Surrey, England, on an estate that was used by decryption experts during the war.

Strapped to its leg was a tiny red canister containing a handwritten message: 27 five-letter codes lists:

The bird and its secret message recently came to the attention of code breakers at Britain’s super-secret communications intelligence agency, GCHQ.  But despite weeks of poring over the missive, these and other cryptology experts have been unable to crack the code.

Where was this avian agent headed?  What was his mission?  Was it ever accomplished?

Guest:

Colin Hill, volunteer at the Pigeon Museum at Bletchley Park in Surrey, England


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