A NOTE FROM ALAN HLAD
I’ve always been fascinated by true, yet little-know historical events. The Long Flight Home was inspired by Britain’s darkest days of World War II, and one remarkable discovery—made many years after the war—which remains a mystery.
While conducting research for this book, I became captivated by a 2012 British news report about the skeletal remains of a war pigeon that was found in a Surrey chimney, decades after the war. Attached to the pigeon’s leg was an encrypted message, one that has yet to be decrypted by code breakers around the world, including Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). In fact, the GCHQ has stated, “Although it is disappointing that we cannot yet read the message brought back by a brave carrier pigeon, it is a tribute to the skills of the wartime code-makers that, despite working under severe pressure, they devised a code that was undecipherable both then and now.” I find it intriguing that British codebreakers, during World War II, cracked the Nazi Enigma machine and turned the tide of the war. But today, this encrypted message has stumped the world’s best cryptologists, and the pigeon’s message remains a secret.
Did you know that homing pigeons played an important role in World War II? I must admit, I knew little—prior to conducting research for this book—about pigeon fanciers or the heroism of their war pigeons. I’d assumed, due to technological advances in communication, that war pigeons did not serve in great numbers after the First World War. But During my fact-finding, I was surprised to learn that homing pigeons were used extensively in World War II. In fact, the National Pigeon Service, a volunteer civilian organization in Britain, delivered over 200,000 war pigeons to British services between 1939 and 1945.
The setting of this novel takes place during the early stages of the war, a despairing time for Britain. In June 1940, the British evacuated over 300,000 Allied troops from the beaches and harbor at Dunkirk, and Hitler’s army conquered France in 46 days. The outlook for Britain and the Allied forces appeared grim, especially with the United States refusing to join the war. Matters grew worse a few months later when Germany commenced a massive bombing campaign against Britain, which would result in immense destruction and the deaths of 43,000 civilians. I will forever be inspired by the resiliency of the British people who endured eight months of relentless bombing—from September, 1940 to May, 1941. In addition to the valiant efforts of war pigeons and their keepers, it is my hope that this story will honor the men, women, and children who perished in the Blitz.
During my research of the war, in particular the autumn of 1940, I learned that British services were convinced that the German invasion of Britain was imminent. War pigeons were dropped behind enemy lines in an attempt to gain insight into when and where Hitler’s military would invade. “Source Columba” (later in the war referred to as Operation 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. In the book, I imagined Susan to be a dedicated member of the National Pigeon Service who believed that her extraordinary pigeons would help Britain survive.
As you read this letter, perhaps you’re wondering, How were pigeons dropped behind enemy lines? They were placed in small cages with an attached parachute. To transport war pigeons, the Royal Air Force (RAF) flew risky missions deep into enemy territory. Inside each of the cages was paper, a pencil, and instructions written in French. It was the hope of British services that some of the pigeons would end up in the hands of French Resistance, who would write intelligence on the paper, and then place it inside a small cannister attached to the bird’s leg. Once released, the pigeon would fly home to its loft, hundreds of miles away.
There are several theories for the extraordinary 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. I simply like to believe that homing pigeon are devoted to family, and they will go to great lengths to find their way home.
While the story of Susan and Ollie is fictional, the novel is based on real historical events, which I strived to accurately weave into the timeline of this tale. Many books, newspaper articles, and historical publications were important to me in my research. The Eagle Squadrons, Yanks in the RAF 1940–1942, by Vern Haugland, was especially helpful in understanding the motivation and journey for US volunteer pilots who joined the RAF. WW2 People’s War, an archive of World War II memories—written by the public and gathered by the BBC—was a tremendous resource for gaining insight into the fears and struggles of Londoners during the Blitz.
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 Operation Sea Lion, code name for Hitler’s plan to invade Britain. Perhaps it is a last-ditch communication from a lone British soldier, trapped behind enemy lines. Or, like 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.
All the best,