In 2012, British newspapers reported the story about a man who made an extraordinary discovery while renovating his house in Surrey, England. In its chimney, he found the remains of a homing pigeon. Attached to its leg was a small canister that contained a coded message that had been written during World War II—one that has yet to be deciphered by cryptologists around the world, including Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and curators at Bletchley Park. This historical mystery became the inspiration for my novel, The Long Flight Home, and sparked my research into the use of pigeons during this time.
Pigeon fanciers and their homing pigeons played an important role in World War II. The National Pigeon Service, a volunteer civilian organization in Britain, delivered more than 200,000 war pigeons to British services between 1939 and 1945. Source Columba was the actual code name for air-dropping 16,000 homing pigeons in German-occupied France and the Netherlands as a method for locals to provide intelligence to Britain. The pigeons were placed in cages with an attached parachute, and they were flown by the Royal Air Force (RAF) deep into enemy territory. Inside each cage was paper, a pencil, and instructions written in French. It was Britain’s hope that some of these pigeons would land in the hands of French Resistance, who would write intelligence on paper and place it into a capsule attached to the pigeon’s leg. Once released, the pigeon would fly home to its loft, hundreds of miles away.
There are several theories for the remarkable navigational abilities of homing pigeons, including one belief that they can detect the Earth’s magnetic field lines to find their way home. Pigeons live in groups, and both parents raise their nestlings. A less scientific theory is that homing pigeons are devoted to family, and they will go to great lengths to find their way home.
During World War II, RAF planes carried pigeons in special watertight baskets and, in cases of distress, the aircraft’s coordinates were sent back with the pigeon to its RAF base to prompt a search and rescue mission. Thousands of servicemen’s lives were saved as a result, and the heroism of these birds did not go unnoticed. The Dickin Medal, instituted in the United Kingdom to recognize the gallantry of animals in World War II, was awarded fifty-four times—thirty-two of the recipients were pigeons.
I often wonder what is written on the indecipherable message, carried by the war pigeon that was found in the Surrey chimney. Maybe it contains information about a plan for invasion. Perhaps it is a last-ditch communication from a lone British soldier, trapped behind enemy lines. Or, as I imagine in my historical fiction novel, The Long Flight Home, the encrypted note is far more than military intelligence. Until the code is broken, I like to believe that the message will someday reveal—despite the tragedy of war—that hope is never truly lost.
If you’d like to learn more about the role of pigeons in WWII and the history behind The Long Flight Home, please take a look at our free downloadable companion booklet. It is available online here: https://bit.ly/LongFlightHomeBooklet.
About The Long Flight Home
Set during the London Blitz, The Long Flight Home glimpses inside Operation Columba, when British Services enlisted the aid of more than 200,000 homing pigeons during WWII to carry coded messages across enemy lines and into occupied France. It’s the almost-love story of two orphans brought together and then driven apart by war: Susan, a young woman who trains homing pigeons in England and believes that her extraordinary birds can help save Britain; and Ollie, a crop duster from Maine, who disregards US neutrality and travels to Britain in a quest to join the Royal Air Force.
It is also a story inspired by a news report in 2012, when a man renovating an old house in Surrey, England, discovered the remains of a homing pigeon along with a tiny capsule containing a vital coded message—one that has yet to be deciphered by code breakers around the world even today. With beautiful detail and meticulous research, Alan Hlad illuminates mostly forgotten corners of WWII history, conjuring a deeply moving story of love, sacrifice, and the heroism of animals … from a time when hope truly was the thing with feathers.
About the Author
Alan Hlad is the internationally best-selling author of The Long Flight Home and the forthcoming novel Churchill’s Secret Messenger, to be released by Kensington Publishing in 2021. His shorter work has appeared in The Bleeding Lion, Larks Fiction Magazine, The National Underwriter, and Claims Magazine. In addition to writing meticulously researched historical fiction, Alan is president of an executive search firm, a frequent conference speaker, and a member of the Historical Novel Society, Literary Cleveland, and the Akron Writers’ Group. He lives in Ohio with his wife and children and can be found online at www.AlanHlad.com.