Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Of doves and Dickin medals

QI tonight was D for, when I turned it on, doves and, naturally, pigeons, and they were talking about carrier pigeons earning medals for wartime bravery. Having seen the episode before - having seen every episode before, it seems - I allowed my mind to wander to where I had seen pigeon medals somewhere. It was with what is becoming a standard sense of unexpected triumph that I quite quickly remembered that it was at Bletchley Park, a couple of years ago.

It was after we went to North Marston (the story about which I've only just written) to see the site of my uncle's wartime plane crash, and before we joined our English friends in Warwick for a week on the Grand Union Canal in the Florence Edith. Located conveniently in between, near Milton Keynes, it really is park-like - big, neat grounds with grass, trees and a pond where swans swim round a fountain, there's a mansion with an elaborate roofline, a clocktower archway into the stables courtyard - and also ranks of plain (ugly) utilitarian buildings where all that mind-blowing work got done.

It takes ages to tour through it all. It's well-presented, there's heaps to read and try to digest, but for the non-mathematical, non-logical brain, it's often pretty daunting. Obviously their visitors have multiplied hugely since the release of The Imitation Game movie and they're doing their best to be accessible but there's no getting past that code-breaking is dense, complicated stuff. I read this storyboard twice and was no wiser - mind, the explanation was written by a code-breaker. At Bletchley, they don't try to hide the fact that some of these people were quite odd.
But it is something, certainly, to see an Enigma machine (again - they have one in Chicago displayed alongside U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry). And it was pleasing to learn that 75% of the staff were women, most of them from the forces. Unsurprisingly, conditions and equipment in the huts were pretty basic - simple desks, typewriters, blackboards, pencils - in total contrast to the machines, which are dazzlingly complicated, with rows of dials and spindles. How people like Alan Turing can dream up and then understand such things is truly a marvel to me.
So it was quite a relief to get to the pigeons - in a room filled with glass cases and simple stories about how these "heroic" birds carried vital messages from the front lines back to the men in charge. Thirty-two of them were awarded Dickin medals by the PDSA (plus 18 to dogs, 3 to horses and one to a ship's cat, Simon, wounded in action on the Yangtze) for their efforts - like Kenley Lass flying 300 miles in seven hours to deliver intelligence from an agent in occupied France. They were sometimes dropped by parachute in boxes down to the troops, to be fitted with a message and released to fly home from the battlefield. And they were carried on planes, too, so if they survived crashing into the sea, they could get word back to base and rescue parties could be sent out for the aircrew.

And you thought pigeons were just aerial rats.

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