Pigeon 40TW194 Reporting For Duty
The Chronicles of Narnia: AU, Everybody Lives, Nobody Dies
Britain's top code-breakers say they are stumped by a secret code found on the leg of a dead pigeon.
The remains of the bird were found in a chimney in Surrey with a message from World War II attached.
Experts at the intelligence agency GCHQ have been struggling to decipher the message since they were provided with it a few weeks ago.
They say it may be impossible to decode it without more information - some of which could come from the public.
"We didn't really hold out any hopes we would be able to read the message because the sort of codes that were constructed to be used during operations were designed only to be able to be read by the senders and the recipients," said GCHQ historian Tony, who asked that only his first name be used.
From BBC UK Online, November 23, 2012
The kitchen landline phone rang first. Julia was just going to pick it up when Mum's mobile started howling, which was not in itself remarkable as Mum's ringtone was a howling wolf.
There was a ding of email arriving on Mum's tablet which was charging on the kitchen table.
Mum always said simultaneous occurrences were usually ill news.
Had someone died? Had Uncle Edmund taken a turn? But Aunt Miriam had said he had shaken off his cold. Aunt Lucy had sent three texts just last night – she always forgot the time difference between Boston and the UK.
"I hope everyone's alright!" Julia said as Mum hobbled into the kitchen. Shep bodily held the door for her and her cane thumped on the hardwood floor.
"No one died," Mum said, very decisively, and reached for her howling mobile.
Mum insisted she would always know if her brothers or sister died.
Julia now saw that the caller ID on the landline said Peter Pevensie. Oh bother. Since he hadn't died, he was calling and Uncle Peter probably wasn't wearing his hearing aid. Julia decided to let the machine get it just as her mobile pinged with a text from Lucy and another on top of it from her cousin, John. Both had links to news articles. About homing pigeons? Lucy's was spelled piegon.
"Anonymous wireless caller," Mum said, reading her mobile. Leaning on her cane she pressed the speaker button. "Hello, Edmund."
"Su, it's me!" Uncle Peter was shouting into the phone, which in turn was shouting into the answering machine. "Have you seen the news about the dead carrier pigeon in the chimney? The GCHQ are flummoxed. I'm emailing you a link, not from the Sun, though."
Uncle Peter hated the Sun. They all did.
"Peter's not wearing his hearing aid," Uncle Edmund said through the phone. Julia could hear Miriam laughing in the background.
Julia held the kitchen chair so that Mum could carefully sit. Shep watched to be sure Julia did the job properly then settled in the corner with the cats, head on his paws, attentively listening to every word.
Whatever had everyone so excited about pigeons, Julia hoped it would distract Mum who had been spitting bullets at the House of Laity for the last week. The count had fallen short by six votes to approve women bishops and Mum was livid. Only that morning, she'd fired off another email to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury in waiting, to complain that "I don't give a bloody damn if you'll be consecrating a woman in the next five years when I jolly well might not be alive to see it!"
Mum had even included all her titles, honours, and ranks. Susan Pevensie Tebbitt Walker, Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, GM, etc. etc., was most displeased with the Church of England. With the exertion of the email, Julia had made Mum take a nap afterwards.
"What's this about, Edmund?" Mum asked, talking into the mobile and opening her tablet. "Goodness, I have six emails all forwarding articles about a carrier pigeon in Surrey? Give a moment, would you?"
"Absolutely!" Edmund replied sounding very chipper. Uncle Edmund loved a good mystery.
Julia googled pigeon Surrey – being a writer, she knew how to spell pigeon correctly – found twelve hits all from that day, skimmed through the links herself and sent the one from the BBC to the kitchen printer, using the largest type size.
"Thank you, dear," Mum said to her, taking the print-out. "So long as it's not the Sun."
"Really, Mother, of course not."
"Tigger!" Edmund cried from the mobile. "I know the laptop is warm, but it is not a cat bed!"
Julia heard the sounds of Edmund's ginger cat being shoved off and the mobile being knocked about. Shep let out a huffing sigh of canine superiority.
"It's as Peter bellowed," Edmund said. "A homeowner in Surrey found a dead carrier pigeon in his chimney. They think the bird has been there since about '44. It died with a coded message sent from occupied France still attached to its leg. Government Communications HQ can't decode it. They've published the message and put out a call hoping someone might be able to read it. There are complaints of conspiracy and that our finest codebreakers aren't trying hard enough."
Mum snorted. "That's why they were codes. Really. Only the bad ones could be broken."
"I know!" Edmund said with another laugh. "Too much Bletchley Circle and Skyfall in the popular imagination."
"Don't you dare criticise M!" Mum cried. Shep growled again.
"Wouldn't dream of it! Why don't you take a look at the code," Edmund said. "Then I'll Skype everyone in to talk about it."
"Very well," Mum replied and rang off.
As she knew who "everyone" was, Julia quickly emailed Aunt Lucy and Uncle Peter to stand by. Hopefully Peter would put his hearing aid in – she asked Lucy to badger her brother about it. Eustace and Jill compared Uncle Peter to Trumpkin, who Julia had eventually inferred had been a very old, very deaf Dwarf.
The BBC article told of a heroic World War 2 homing pigeon who had died nearly 70 years ago and only now was completing its mission to deliver a top secret message, via the Internet, to the entire world.
"Well, it's been a very long time since I've seen one of these,"' Mum said dryly. She put her reading glasses on and peered at the coded message copied in the article Julia had printed.
The message was four columns across, seven rows down, five letters each.
AOAKN HVPKD FNFJU YIDDO
RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX
And so on, 27 code groupings altogether.
"The SOE used red capsules, didn't they?" Julia asked, seeing the picture of the pigeon skeleton with the red message capsule still stuck to its leg.
"We did," Mum said.
There weren't many who were still alive who had run with the SOE in France during the War. Mum was one of the few women left – Nancy Wake had died last year. The only reason Mum was still around was because everyone had looked the other way when she entered training and chose to ignore or were ignorant of how young she really was. For not the first time, Julia wished she could understand that part of the story better. How had Mum, Peter, and Edmund, all teenagers at the time, managed to pass themselves off as older than they were? Julia understood the basics – they had each met the right persons at the right time. But why had those persons, professionals like Colonel George Walker-Smythe, sponsored them and abetted the lie?
She'd eventually concluded that as remarkable as their lives were during and after the War, her mother, aunt and uncles had been extraordinary before the War, too.
Mum's tablet rang. Julia propped it upright and answered the Skype connection for her. Edmund and Lucy were the most adept at it, though Lucy had such a long list of contacts, she frequently called the wrong ones by mistake. Aunt Lucy also had over 10,000 followers on Twitter, about 100,000 Facebook "likes," and an Internet meme about her poor spelling – Graduated from Harvard – Still Spell Like Lucy Pevensie; Got Pissed – Texted Like Lucy Pevensie.
Edmund's face appeared in the screen; Julia could see Miriam hovering in the background and Tigger trying to insinuate himself on to the laptop. Edmund gave the cat a push and Julia waved at them.
"I'll mute you while I get Peter and Lu on," Edmund said.
Mum turned her head to the side and murmured, "His colour is a little high, don't you think?"
Julia thought Mum always had this sneaking distrust of whether Edmund's partners properly cared for her baby brother.
"He's fine, Mum. He's just over 80 years old."
She poured Mum a glass of water, sat down at the table, and opened a new document on her laptop. As the Pevensie archivist and biographer, she took notes of everything Mum and her siblings said. During impromptu conversations like this, memories were jogged, they would forget she was there, and all sorts of things would come out.
Uncle Peter's lean, balding head popped up on the screen, and then Lucy's merry, lined face.
"Hello!" Lucy croaked. "It's wonderful to see you all! Jack! Jack! Say hello to everyone!" She sounded a little gravelly over the Skype connection. Her voice still had not recovered from the weeks she had manned the phone banks during the American presidential election.
Jack stuck his head in and waved.
Julia was worried they would express condolences to Mum about no consecration of women bishops, but they all seemed to know that doing so would invite a furious tirade. Instead, they got right to business.
"Everyone has seen the article about the pigeon?" Edmund asked.
"Poor Tim," Lucy said. "Imagine, flying so bravely all the way across the Channel with such an important message through bombs dropping and gun batteries and fighter planes and gliders only to die in a chimney."
"Tim?" Mum asked.
"Yes!" Lucy replied. "The New York Times said the pigeon's identity was 40TW194."
"So you named him, Tim!" Peter said.
Julia wondered if this might lead to a discussion of talking birds they had known named Tim. This time, it did not. Maybe there were no talking birds in the Narnia game named Tim. She made note of it and kept listening.
"Do we know where brave Tim was flying?" Lucy asked. "The message says it's to XO2."
Edmund and Susan both said "Bomber Command."
"How do you remember that?" Peter complained.
"You and Lu never did bother to learn Rat and Crow in Narnia," Edmund replied, sounding peevish. "Why would this be any different?"
Julia had never been sure, not really. They all spoke so freely and vividly of this elaborate game called Narnia. During the War, it hadn't been a game at all and her mother and uncle had secretly run a cipher out of the British Embassy for months. Julia's only slightly fictionalized account of Mum and Uncle Edmund's "silly children's story" had been the third book in her Commoner Royalty series and, until Aunt Lucy's biography, the most popular. Rat and Crow in Wartime Washington had been on bestseller lists around the world for almost a year and been translated into over a dozen languages. George Clooney's production company had optioned the rights, which Mum and Edmund promptly rolled over into a trust fund for the Pevensie grandchildren and great-grandchildren that included, but was by no means limited to, education. Pevensies never, ever relied upon school alone.
The kids had a betting pool as to who would be cast in the film. Mum said she would rather hang than see Justin Bieber or "RPatz" in the fictionalized account of her adolescent espionage exploits and had emailed Ewan McGregor expressing regret that he was too old to play Tebbitt but might he consider growing a mustache to be Colonel Walker-Smythe? Mum was not averse to seeing Anne Hathaway as herself.
"The RAF dropped thousands of pigeons into France on and after D-Day," Peter said. "Su, do you think Tim could be one of your birds?"
"It is an SOE message," Mum replied.
"It's hard to say, but I think the code looks like an OTP," Edmund said.
Her uncle knew a lot about the codes based on the one-time pad system from his time following the Venona project in America.
Mum stared at the printed page. "I never used OTPs in the field. I used the poems or the Narnia code in emergencies."
When Mum's memory had been sharper, over 20 years ago, Julia had transcribed the poems Tebbitt had written for her. Mum had used the poems to encrypt the spy reports she'd sent back to Tebbitt in England when she'd been with the Resistance in France in the run-up to D-Day. Julia had included the poems in her first book and two of them, Woman of Mystery and Though We Are Distant, had been very popular; it had been a nice posthumous recognition of Tebbitt's poetry.
"If it is an OTP, it probably can't be broken unless they find the key," Edmund said. "What about Sergeant Stott, the apparent sender? Any ideas there?"
"I don't understand that part," Peter said. "There should be a service record under the name Stott. Surely, they looked and didn't find one that matched to a man's service in France."
"Maybe Stott was a code name?" Aunt Lucy asked. "Or maybe he wasn't British?"
As Mum and Uncle Edmund had always said, just because Peter and Lucy didn't like Rat and Crow, didn't mean they were ignorant of it.
"Oh! Of course!" Mum cried.
"Su?" Edmund asked.
Julia had been typing as fast as they talked. Shep suddenly rose from the corner and shoved his nose into Mum's lap.
"You are all correct, of course," Mum said, patting Shep. "There was a Jedburgh team that dropped into Bénouville right after D-Day. I think Stott might have been the working name for their wireless man. He was French. They would sometimes use German names to taunt and confuse the Nazis."
The Jeds were three-man teams sent by the SOE to coordinate espionage, sabotage, and local resistance activity. They were usually American or British and included one local person.
Shep softly whinged and rested his head on the table at Mum's arm.
"Susan?" Lucy asked into the lengthening silence.
Mum ran her hand over Shep's long, gray, intelligent head. "The Jed team was supposed to connect with the Centurie network in Caen, but…"
Oh. Of course.
Julia leaned over and put her arm around Mum's shoulder as Shep whimpered. The Gestapo had executed 87 men and women of the French Resistance, including friends Mum and Madame Vion had known very well, at the Caen prison on 6 June 1944 in retaliation for the Normandy landings.
They waited while Mum dabbed her eyes from behind her glasses and delicately blew her nose.
"Should I come over, Su? I can ring up a taxi," Peter said. "We could…"
"I'm fine," Mum said. She shrugged off Julia's encircling arm and smiled weakly. "Thank you, dear. And you too, Shep. No hovering, both of you!"
The Wolfhound curled his lip up and slunk back to the dog bed with a look full of doubt. Julia followed Shep's example and returned to her seat, but without exposing a long canine tooth.
Mum took a deep breath and again faced her siblings through the camera. "The Jeds used OTPs, so, Edmund, you are right about that and the message probably can't be broken without the key. But I think these are instructions about bombing targets…"
"For the Battle of Caen," Edmund finished into the uncomfortable silence.
"Yes," Mum said quietly.
Caen was a very personal and passionate subject for the family. Mum and Peter had been there for the D-Day operations. Mum had endured the subsequent Allied bombing that destroyed most of the city. Peter and Lucy had returned there after the War to help in rebuilding efforts. Edmund had worked on reparations. For years, Lucy had protested as criminal the bombing of civilian targets, including those in Caen, Dresden, and other European cities. The whole family had gone to the Museum for Peace in Caen during the D-Day 50th anniversary commemoration and laid a wreath at the memorial to the members of the Resistance who had been executed.
"I suppose I should ring someone up," Mum finally said, sounding very weary at the prospect of it. "Knowing that Stott was a Jed will help them – maybe he's still alive or they'll know where to look for the pad he used."
"Oh that's a lot of bother getting bounced from one departmental voice mail box to another," Peter said, sounding very imperial. "Why don't we just go to the GCHQ and ask to speak to this Tony fellow who is quoted in the article."
It was so typically Peter, they all started laughing at him. Lucy added, "You can't just drive to a top secret facility and demand entrance."
"Honestly, Peter, you are neither an MP nor High King," Lucy said.
"Well, being High King won't help, I agree. But once a Member of the House of Commons, always a Member," Peter replied.
A long, black government car came the next morning for Mum and then, because they insisted, the driver and escort collected Edmund and Peter as well. Amongst the Commoner Royalty of the Pevensie family, there were many, many chivalric honours, decorations, medals, and military crosses, a short-list Nobel nomination, honourary degrees from universities and colleges in five countries, and several expunged records and pardons for civil disobedience. So for Sir Peter Pevensie, Dame Commander Susan Pevensie Tebbitt Walker, and the Right Honourable Edmund Pevensie, a car could be sent even if it was simply to see the final decoding of Tim the Pigeon's 70 year old secret message.
When the limousine came back that evening, Peter and Edmund were with Mum. The dogs and cats were underfoot and the London cousins heard there was a party, so Dan and Anne skived classes, picked up Will and John after the museum closed, and extricated Zoe from the lab. Helen arrived with four of the grandchildren and Aunt Miriam.
What began as a quiet day proofing her galleys from the editor and berating the BBC over their incorrect labeling of the photographs on their website – really, why did they always get Uncle Edmund's name wrong – ended, as the days so often did, with dinner for nearly twenty people. If Aunt Lucy had been there, it would have been even more people as she always picked up strays. Julia gave up on the lasagna and ordered Indian takeaway.
Dinner and wash up completed, Julia retreated to her upstairs bedroom with a cup of coffee, her tablet, and the cats. Shep decided to join them. She, Uncle Edmund, Giza and Ike were all classic Myers-Briggs introverts and needed occasional solitude after all the activity. With a contented sigh, Julia shut the door on the burgeoning discussions about drones, bombs, and civilian casualties. Maybe they would Skype Lucy in so she could participate. Someone else downstairs could manage networking all the tablets and laptops.
Giza and Ike settled at the window and stared out into the backyard, ears pricked, whiskers forward, tails moving slowly. Shep sat on the floor and rested his head on the sill next to the cats.
Julia joined them at the window. "Any cats or lions tonight?" she asked.
Giza mewed softly and Ike batted at the window shut against the November chill. Shep sighed.
The backyard was quiet, dark and, tonight at least, feline-free.
Mary was the one who had first told her about the lion who would appear periodically, usually when bad or momentous things occurred. "He first showed up at Experiment House, along with convicts and people in medieval dress. You'll see a lion, or a cat, sooner or later, if you spend any time with the Pevsnees." Mary had always made a point of mispronouncing the family name.
Julia had seen a big, orange cat the day they buried Dad. Mum had sat on the bench at the cemetery for a long time, with the cat in her lap. Julia supposed the cat's eyes were a little like those of a lion.
Grandmother Helen had once asked her if she ever dreamt of lions.
Julia never had.
"Try to speak with him if you do see him. It will help you understand," Grandmother had said. "He's from Narnia."
What was it? Sometimes it seemed so real. Sometimes it was a secret code. Sometimes it seemed nothing more than a great shared game among those whose minds now wandered down paths the rest of them could not follow.
"We're all mad here," Mary would say cheerfully, quoting Alice's Adventures.
Eustace would make a joke about it.
"Some kids who played games about Narnia
Got gradually balmier and balmier-"
It was a terrible limerick. Narnia and balmier didn't even rhyme.
As set forth in the story, in November 2012, the Government Communications Headquarters (the British intelligence agency responsible for signals intelligence, originally located at Bletchley Park during World War 2) released a code taken from the leg of the skeleton of a homing pigeon recovered from a chimney in Surrey. It is believed that the pigeon and its message originated in France, likely in the aftermath of the D-Day operations in June 1944. GCHQ asked for the public's help in deciphering the code.
You can find the article in numerous news sites with a simple search.
My thanks to reader Syrena who brought this to my attention and asked what Susan might have thought of it. Thanks to Starbrow for the moral support.
I'll have links in my Live Journal to information about the death of the 87 members of the French Resistance, the terrible Battle of Caen, the Museum for Peace and the Jedburgh teams.