x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Keep the Second World War pigeon's last secret classified

A coded message strapped to the leg of a long-dead pigeon from the Second World War should forever remain classified.

takeaway illusration for review Sarah Lazarovic for The National
takeaway illusration for review Sarah Lazarovic for The National

In the opening frames of Valiant (2005) - Ricky Gervais's moderately successful animated movie - the viewer is greeted by a crackly black-and-white information reel purporting to have been the work of the fictional British Department of Pigeon Propaganda in the early months of 1944.

"Across the nation and globe," the faux documentary announces, aping the so-called real "cultural propaganda" films the British Council were in the habit of releasing throughout the Second World War, "pigeons are taking wing in the fight for freedom delivering top secret messages from behind enemy lines. These fine feathered aviators are the pride of the Allies."

Valiant was many things - its warm, occasionally amusing story of a wood pigeon and his scrappy mate battling the odds failed to ignite the cinema-going public's imagination in large numbers - but most of the young viewers it was aimed at would have missed quite how historically accurate this portrayal of the war effort really was.

Or at least they might have done until the discovery of a long-dead pigeon in England's leafy Home Counties. David Martin had barely begun to refurbish the chimney at his Surrey home when he discovered a few pigeon remains amid the soot and debris that came down his once neglected flue.

A spot more prodding and pushing would yield further decayed pieces of the dead bird, including one of its tiny legs. Strapped to that was a small red cartridge and inside that was a piece of coded information that has so far evaded decryption, even after being sent to GCHQ, the UK's central signals intelligence bureau, for deciphering.

It is estimated more than 250,000 carrier pigeons were deployed by Allied forces during the Second World War, when these featherweights were used to send short messages back to base. They were also regularly taken on bombing missions ready to return home with news of the mission's outcome if a warplane was forced to ditch.

Pigeons have long been admired for their homing qualities and for their ability to cover large distances relatively quickly. At a cruising speed of more than 80kph, their pace would easily outstrip a human courier returning from the front line - and would stand a better chance of surviving the trip - even if they are no match for the lightning speeds of modern communications.

These humble birds are, of course, also widely revered in this region. Indeed, as Marius Kociejowski's largely overlooked book The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (2011) noted in one of the author's many conversations with Syria's pigeon-keepers that populate his pages: "If you want to understand the Middle East just look at my birds." History has, of course, since overrun any such mystical assessment of the nightmare that continues to be Syria's present, but why have Britain's decoders been unable to unravel a string of Second World War code?

The answer to that question may be as straightforward as ciphers are meant to be difficult to crack. Experts also believe that without more supporting details emerging, it will be nigh on impossible to unravel its secrets.

Those supporting details might broadly be described as the pigeon's flight log: who sent it, where they dispatched it from, where was its intended destination, when was it sent and what was the valiant hero's name? If all of that information were forthcoming, the missing pieces of the historical jigsaw could more readily be put together.

Without it, nothing but smoke will be blowing out of Martin's Surrey chimney any time soon. And for that we should probably remain thankful.

Who really wants to know the details - delivered in the emotionless and efficient manner of an official military message - of a long-ago mission in the midst of battle. Surely the secrets it refuses to give up are better than the humdrum truths this string of code might one day reveal.