Gustav, WWII signal hero pigeon

In this age of modern communication, we are used to transmitting all types of information digitally, from emails to transfer platforms, including chatbots. However, transmission has sometimes taken very embodied forms. The story of Gustav the pigeon, plunges us into a beautiful page in the history of our professions with a capital H, and shows us the crucial role that this extreme bird could have played during D-Day as as communication channel. Did you think that only Harry Potter's owl was capable of heroism? We rewind for a columbid epic to say the least! ????

The birth of Agent Gustav

The story begins in the United Kingdom during the First World War. The Royal Air Force and the intelligence services are convinced of the usefulness of pigeons for sending strategic messages. Indeed, these information carriers have a predisposition of size. An option to return to their place of departure, without risk of interception. The idea is crowned with success while radio silence is in full swing. The British forces thus opened a special section of the army, the “National Pigeon Service” (NPS), under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel AH Osman, in 1914.  

During World War II, pigeons were trained on Thorney Island, by Sergeant Halsey. Their objective: to carry out “Top Secret” classified missions.. At the time, 200 birds were said to have been donated by farmers and 000 of them were recruited and trained in “classified” military operations. The story of our Gustav begins here. The bird is around 16 weeks old when donated by its civilian trainer, Frederick Jackson, to the NPS. Cut off from the rest of the world, he then follows a high-level training. Special Agent NPS 500 was then renamed Gustav by Canadian Corporal Gus Randell.

D-Day: Gustav's "Top Secret" operation

As Allied forces prepare to land, the Royal Air Force delivers half a dozen pigeons to Reuters correspondent Montague Taylor. On June 6, 1944, the bird embarks on a Landing Ship Tank, a specialized vessel for amphibious operations, where it waits to be launched in flight by the war correspondent. Then comes the long-awaited moment for Gustav! He is responsible for announcing the imminent Landing to the British forces. During its 240 km journey, nothing goes any more: between the headwinds, enemy fire, hostile weather conditions, its course is perilous. After five hours and sixteen minutes, he finally reached the RAF military base at Thorney Island to deliver the following message:

We are about 25 kilometers offshore. The first wave of assault landed at 07:50 a.m. Communications from the beaches indicate that enemy fire does not interfere with operations… All units firmly support opposing pressure. Lightnings, Typhoons and Flying Fortresses have been flying over us since 05:45 am. No enemy aircraft detected.      

The posterity of Gustav, feathered hero

Gustav thus completed his mission, marking the history of transmissions and that of the Normandy landings. The feathered agent has since become a national hero. He was presented with the Dickin Medal on November 27, 1944 by the wife of the First Lord of the British Admiralty, with the inscription: " For transmitting the first message from the beaches of Normandy from a ship off the beachhead while serving in the Royal Air Force on June 6, 1944 ».

But after state honors, like many intelligence agents, the hapless Gustav passed away. The story goes that he was accidentally stepped on while cleaning his cage. Since then, Gustav's mission resonates in memories, marking the history of messengers of war and the role of animals in armed conflict.

Gustav receiving his Dickin medal © PDSA

The evolution of transmissions

Communication has changed dramatically since Gustav's flight on D-Day. However, coded messages have always been part of the evolutionary process of war communication. Examples of cryptography were already present at the time of the Roman Empire, such as the "Caesar cipher".

Today, transmission technologies are appropriating new forms of communication, both for civil, industrial and military purposes. Data writing is passed from plain text (plain text) to ciphertext (cryptogram), up to encryption, which allows the conversion of plain text into cipher text. Many other languages, such as Key, Key pair or --, are constantly evolving. The means of transmission are multiplying and Man is redoubling creativity to meet his need to communicate. In his own way, Gustav will have been the support of an encrypted message for peace and freedom, in the service of humanity. #RIP.

Marco pizzorno

Journalist, writer and teacher

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