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WWII carrier pigeon’s message holds mystery

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From page A6 | December 12, 2012 |

The issue: The code-breaking machines are long gone, but a few nonagenarian minds may yet be able to help unlock one more secret

In an era of supercomputers and multiple screens that seem to cater to our every information whim, there’s a certain satisfaction to be found in a musty mystery captivating Britain.

IT SEEMS THAT today’s top code and intelligence officials, with all their electronic tools, are stumped at figuring out the meaning of a 68-year-old coded message left behind by a D-Day carrier pigeon.

The message was first recovered 30 years ago, inside a small red capsule attached to the skeletal leg bone of the bird. The pigeon, one of 250,000 trained by the British during World War II, apparently fell into the chimney during a return trip from France — perhaps overcome by fumes as it took a rest. It was found during a 1982 mansion renovation.

The Allies relied on the birds to send messages back to headquarters in the first days of the invasion of Normandy so German forces could not intercept radio signals from the front.

The tiny script, containing blocks of letters and a few numbers, eventually landed at Government Communications Headquarters, a British intelligence agency, where experts admit they can’t crack the cipher. Most likely, the report was encrypted using a special one-day-only code keypad, held only by sender and receiver and long lost since the invasion.

Now, experts say the best chance of cracking the code may lie in the memories of veterans who worked at Bletchley Park, a wartime intelligence station where mathematicians, linguists and others toiled around the clock to break the Nazis’ Enigma code and other secrets, or from those who worked with military signals during the war.

SCIENTISTS AT Bletchley Park developed some of the world’s first computers to aid in the complex statistical analysis needed to break later German codes. One, called the Colossus, used 1,500 vacuum tubes and was able to read 5,000 characters per second from a paper tape.

The code-breaking machines are long gone, but a few nonagenarian minds may yet be able to help unlock one more secret.

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