The discovery of a dead World War II carrier pigeon – still with its coded message strapped to its leg – has made headlines around the world but the story also carries a strange echo from another age to current-day Hobart.
The pigeon was found in the chimney of an old house being renovated south of London and WWII historians say it might have been flying home from British units in France about the time of the Normandylandings in 1944.
The news story, appearing in newspapers as far afield as New York and Sydney, has mainly centred on the efforts by code-breakers in Britain’s intelligence services to decipher what was in the message.
After sustained pressure from pigeon fanciers, Britain’s GCHQ code-breaking and communications interception unit agreed to try to crack the code but early last month the secretive organisation acknowledged that it had been unable to do so.
“The sorts of codes that were constructed during operations were designed only to be able to be read by the senders and the recipients,” a historian at GCHQ told the BBC.
“Unless we get rather more of an idea than we have about who sent this message, and who it was sent to, we are not going to be able to find out what the underlying code was,” said the historian, who for security reasons could not give his full name.
The message, identifying the pigeon by the code name 40TW194, had been folded into a scarlet capsule.
The remarkable navigational abilities of racing pigeons have seen them used as a messenger in war over the ages. In the First and Second World Wars, where propaganda became an important weapon, the propagandists of the time homed in on the humble pigeon to sell a message of courage and bravery, and stoicism, under fire. One WWII pigeon was even given a bravery award.
At a time when the pigeon was being hailed as a hero, another bird – the peregrine falcon – was painted as an enemy. It attacked pigeons carrying messages although a programme to kill peregrines around the British coast in WWII backfired. It was discovered the peregrines were killing more German pigeons than allied ones.
After the war, in Hobart, the pigeon fanciers declared a propaganda war of their own, a war that continues to this day. They spread the word that the peregrines were actually released from Japanese submarines during WWII to disrupt communication, and the falcons subsequently established a breeding population.
The peregrine remains persecuted in Tasmania to this day and peregrine nests – usually about 12 in the Hobart area – are kept a closely-guarded secret.
Most pigeon racers – who can spent thousands of dollars on their pedigree birds – act responsibly when it comes to peregrines but there are still those out there who mount missions with the precision of a military campaign to prevent the peregrine from flying the skies ofTasmania. Peregrines are shot and poisoned.
The peregrine is the fastest creature known to nature, recorded swooping at a speed in excess of 300km/h in pursuit of its flying prey, which include of course the fastest pigeons.
Any effort to suggest peregrines joined Australian’s enemy in WWII flies in the face of the evidence. They were here before the arrival of Europeans and possibly the first Australians. Carbon dating of peregrine nest sites on cliffs in Tasmania has revealed they have been using the same ledges for at least 12,000 years.