In the news: The pigeon who tried to save England

Garry McCafferty’s whimsically titled They had no Choice—Racing Pigeons at War (Tempus Publishing: Charleston, SC, and Stroud,Gloucester, UK, 2002) rekindled interest in the homing pigeons of World War II.

Interested rekindled once again—veritably caught fire—when news sources throughout Britain (see The Guardian video, and also the Daly History blog) reported that a dead pigeon had been discovered down a chimney in Surrey. Its message, an unintelligible AOAKNHVPKD…, had remained undelivered for some seventy years, and remains undecoded to this day.

During WWII, some pigeons were carried by the RAF in bombers, to be released in case of mishap. (See picture above, and for ‘mishap’, read ‘crash-landing in enemy territory’ or ‘perilous descent into the North Sea’). But our trusty chimney pigeon, it is thought, was charged with bringing messages from France.

Picture the poor bird, flying through darkness, wind, and rain, across the choppy English Channel. At break of dawn, he spies the chimney-pots of Surrey. He touches down and gratefully flaps his feathers in the warm air rising from the hearth. Then a sudden gust of wind and… swoosh. He plunges helplessly into the sooty hell below.

Please. No more sad thoughts. Instead of mourning our long-dead friend, I’ll suggest a fitting tribute to this pigeon hero: We should decode his message. AOAKNHVPKD… It isn’t as simple as pigeon English, but I’ll have a go.

My first tries (guesses, really):

‘Do not land in Normandy. The Germans are waiting for you.’

‘From Carrier Pigeon 41.BA.1167: German hawk on my tail since Calais. Shall safeguard message, regardless of cost to self.’

‘Sources close to enemy high command believe German Fuehrer to wed in New Year. Honeymoon unlikely. No gifts, please.’

‘Urgent. Stranded in France with only Frenchy stuff to eat. Please send good English food, ASAP. Tins OK.—signed Bunty Carstairs, Flt. Lt.’

‘Greetings. My name is Percival. I bring a message of peace and goodwill from the pigeons of France.’

‘This is our last pigeon. Imperative you send more birds.—signed Brown Rabbit, Gaullist Resistance Leader, Banyuls-sur-Mer.’

‘Ignore request for pigeons from Brown Rabbit. Those Gaullist pigs are eating your birds.—signed Grey Rabbit, Communist Resistance Leader, Banyuls-sur-Mer.’

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