Friday, December 7, 2012

The Chimney at Bletchingley

If mysterious messages, secret codes and resolute acts of heroism are up your alley the latest news out of Surrey, England is your cup of tea.

You earn a second cup of tea if your interest also happens to be WWII England.

Maybe you’ve read about or know someone who has impressed on you the brave demeanor of the British public during the war as Nazi air strikes rained down upon them.

Familiarity with wartime England has its advantages but isn’t necessary to appreciate the story. However, some background acquaintance adds to the understanding of the period from which this story develops.

Keep Calm and Carry On, the phrase coined for a British propaganda poster in 1939 at the onset of the war, is popular once again. 

As a catchphrase it was seemingly ubiquitous as signage seen about London as it hosted the 2012 Olympics this summer.

As a morale booster the slogan is both civil and spine-stiffening. The words are a mirror of the British character. The WWII phrase endures as a connector to England's war years.

The impact on the British nation from six years at war was a hard gained lesson as most things are that come at a price.

One can speculate if the slogging work which was life on the home front will continue to be remembered as the wartime generation passes on.

The number of WWII vets and civilians is declining precipitously. Youthful as they served at the war front, or as home support, in the pivotal years between 1939 and 1945, those who survive are now in old age.  

Each death closes out another story of the true story of World War II.

Therefore, the recent story coming out of southern England has the effect of bringing the tenor of the war years alive again. It puts happenings into time’s perspective.

The story told here has to do with a carrier pigeon. A carrier pigeon is a homing pigeon. Carrier pigeons do exactly that – carry messages home. 

Throughout history carrier pigeons have acted as important means of delivery in times of war and peace.

This pigeon was returning to England when it went missing. It’s believed it was dispatched from France during Allied operations during WWII.

The pigeon may have gotten disoriented by inclement weather or fallen victim to fatigue as it flew home with its important message.  

The skeletal remains of the bird were found in the chimney of a 17th century house in the village of Bletchingley during a spot of chimney repair.

The message was never delivered. The encrypted handwritten message was found still inside the red canister fastened to its leg.

The coded message, handwritten on a small sheet of paper, is stumping the experts.

It’s believed to be connected with the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. It is suggested the code may be unsolvable.

It’s left for us to wonder: Is the message about the Allied situation prior to the Normandy landings?

Does it convey concerns or provide locations to General Headquarters as Allied forces mass to storm the beaches? 

Perhaps the carrier pigeon was delivering news of the success of the operation, as costly in lives as it was. At this point no one knows.

I’m a historian and not a sleuth but often a historian goes down the same detective road.

A historian follows leads to uncover details. These details, in turn, point to other details which go on to fill out the picture, which in my field is the past. 

Deciphering the past is similar to decoding messages in this respect: You need to break through to get to the meaning. Without the breakthrough you don’t reach the heart of the matter.

For my kind of sleuthing one piece of information can make all the difference. It can be a person with acute memory, a diary or an old newspaper.

A starting point is created. It often goes on to link to the rest of the story which otherwise would be unremembered and untold.  

Codebreakers approach their work similarly. They look for that one thing that ultimately unlocks the rest. It makes the pigeon story fascinating from the concept of method.

The discovery of the pigeon in a household chimney is like pulling a curtain back on WWII Britain. It’s the backward glance which engages my friend’s interest.

Years ago she and I learned we’re mutual fans of the Mrs. Tim series. These books, written by D. E. Stevenson, follow British army wife Hester Christie.

The series cover the 1930s to Hester's post-war return to England in my personal favorite of the series, “Mrs. Tim Flies Home” (1952).

Hester Christie (Mrs. Tim) is sometimes the despair of her husband. Army officer that he is, Mr. Tim expects a certain structure to life for it to flow as he envisions it.

Mrs. Tim is a buoyant sort whose style complements, not copies, her husband’s.

The different approaches don’t always rub together easily she admits. She often sees their contrasting natures as unnecessary thorns amid life’s customarily sunny moods.

Despite self-doubting inner dialogues Mrs. Tim has her head screwed on tight. She’s more capable than some of her neighbors assume she is.

She rises resourcefully to the challenges that come her way, as they’re bound to do nonstop in wartime Britain.

Always coping, learning to make do, she grasps the fact that confidence has to shine through, if only from the surface when it can’t be made to go down deep.

She manages to play her part as if made for it. By doing so she provides stability and a sense of normalcy for her two children and her domestic help. 

They’re all dependent on her, the army wife, to keep her wits about her and always know what to do.

Mrs. Tim becomes like a friend we know. Sometimes it’s as though she speaks our thoughts. 

She’s brave. She’s frightened. She’s irresolute. She’s determined. Her will and buoyancy meet the test each time.

The pigeon story is a chance to place ourselves in a Hester Christie kind of village. 

Across the British countryside of WWII, in big cities and small market towns, many people were akin to Mrs. Tim in spirit, stout hearts and quiet valor.

Their sacrifices far exceed what we can comprehend. Their courage is priceless beyond medals or words.

D. E. Stevenson gives her Mrs. Tim readers an exceptional look at wartime England. 

The pigeon story puts me in mind of the author. She’d have penned a fitting story for this pigeon who played its role, as so many did, to help Britain win the war.

My friend says the pigeon story is one of the neatest stories she’s heard in a long while.

It’s totally unexpected, she points out, for the remains to be found by someone who could see they were important and knew what to do. Amazing is her summary of the story.

The message the pigeon carried may never be solved. The ill-fated flight may stay a mystery. Nonetheless, a puff of breath from the war past has blown into our times.

It reminds us there are so many stories in life. Some stories go on to uninterrupted conclusion. Other stories are disrupted but finish.

Some grow silent along the way and have no end. And some, as by animating touch, evolve as new stories to share with future generations and cause imaginations to take a fresh view.

This story, from so many angles, simply stirs something inside us.

Ro Giencke – December 7, 2012






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