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Broken Wings, Unbreakable Code?

Britain’s modern-day code breakers say a message found with bones from a World War II carrier pigeon remains secret, though a Canadian historian claims he cracked the code.

David Martin was cleaning a long-dormant chimney at his home in Surrey in 1982 when he found the bird. A cylinder attached to one leg held a Pigeon Service form bearing 27 five-letter groups addressed to “XO2” and likely bound for the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, 70 miles from Surrey. Historians think the bird took off from France on D-Day, during which Allied invasion forces maintained radio silence.

Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters first received the original copy in November, and historians at GCHQ say that without the original cipher the message will remain elusive. But Gordon Young, a historian in Ontario, says he was able to decrypt it with a codebook his great-uncle had used as an artillery observer during World War I.

Young told World War II he began with the premise that in code work simplicity is king, so he assumed the letter groups were acronyms. He reads the message as pinpointing German troops and artillery near Caen in summer 1944.

“GCHQ and the Bletchley Park Trust [a museum dedicated to the legendary code-cracking operation] have followed with interest media reporting on possible solutions,” the trust told World War II. “Hundreds of these proposed solutions have been carefully examined by the expert cryptanalysts at GCHQ. So far none have proved credible. It remains the case that without access to the original codebooks, details of any additional encryption, or any context around the message, it will be impossible to decode. Similarly, it means that any proposed solutions sent to GCHQ or the Bletchley Park Trust will, without such material, be impossible to prove correct.”

During the war, a quarter million pigeons were used to relay Allied messages, dodging German gunfire and hawks (see “For the Birds,” December 2008/January 2009). Among them, 32 were awarded the Dickin Medal—Britain’s highest decoration for valor by animals—between 1943 and 1949. In 1943, an American carrier pigeon named GI Joe saved 1,000 lives by warning British troops occupying a village in Italy that the town was about to come under attack by Allied bombers.

Halftracks Star at Militaria Auction

A rare German halftrack commanded top dollar among 80 World War II vehicles and other militaria auctioned on December 8, 2012, in Auburn, Indiana. The $2.9 million sale by the privately-owned National Military History Center took place to address legal and financial woes. Proceeds “exceeded expectations with numerous lively bidding contests,” said Amy Christie, of Auctions America. Top bids—$230,000 for the 12- ton halftrack and $184,000 for an armored personnel carrier produced by Hanomag—were made by Eric Kauffman, who operates a private museum in Strasbourg, France, the Indiana Economic Digest reported. Kauffman told the New York Times that German and French military vehicles are becoming scarce, even in Europe. Humbler but still evocative lots, such as uniform trousers, neckwear, and arrays of GI personal gear like helmets, mess kits, leggings, and web belts went for as little as $10.

Memorializing the Manhattan Project

Would a national park commemorating the Manhattan Project  celebrate the weapon that rained death on Hiroshima and Nagasaki— or help the public to understand and debate the legacy of the atomic bomb? Congress is taking up the question. Lawmakers are considering a bill, sponsored by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) and Representative Doc Hastings (R-Washington), which would preserve hundreds of buildings and artifacts at Manhattan Project sites in and around Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington.

Manhattan Project researchers tested the world’s first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. Three weeks later, on August 6, a B-29 dropped a uranium bomb on Hiroshima, followed on August 9 by a plutonium bomb at Nagasaki, ending World War II.

Park plans have been considered for more than a decade. The project would cost $21 million over five years, the Congressional Budget Office reported. Supporters say that’s far less than the $200 million it could cost to demolish and clear the atomic sites.

England Honors Indian Muslim Spy

She was the unlikeliest of spies. Born in Moscow, raised in London, educated in Paris, Noor Inayat Khan, daughter of a Muslim Sufi mystic and an American, went from writing children’s stories to dodging German agents in occupied France. Now the “spy princess” descended from Indian royalty has a memorial in the London park where she played as a child—the first such war monument to a Muslim woman in Britain.

After studying child psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris, in 1939 Inayat Khan published a book of stories about Buddha, Twenty Jataka Tales. A pacifist, she nonetheless believed in resisting Nazism and volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Her French language skills brought her to the attention of the Special Operations Executive, Winston Churchill’s secret commando force. Despite concerns that she was temperamentally unsuited for fieldwork, the 29-year-old Inayat Khan parachuted into France in 1943 to work as a radio operator with the Resistance.

The intelligence arm of the SS quickly infiltrated the network, rounding up its ranks and sending Inayat Khan on the run. But she never stopped transmitting radio dispatches—and refused to flee to Britain. Betrayed to authorities, she was arrested, interrogated for months, taken to Dachau, and executed with a shot to the head. Her final word, according to biographer Shrabani Basu, was “Liberté.’’

After her death, Britain awarded Inayat Khan the George Cross; France, the Croix de Guerre. To underwrite a memorial in England, Basu founded the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust, collecting $96,000 to fund the memorial bust in Gordon Square Gardens, a fixture in Noor’s childhood. Princess Anne dedicated the memorial on November 8, 2012.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.