Herald on Sunday
Unsung hero vital to war victory Vandals hit baby’s grave
Pamela Pigeon unmasked as highest-ranking female spy
In an unassuming town in the English countryside in 1943, a New Zealander quietly made history by becoming the first female commander of a British spy base.
Until now, she has remained unknown to history, flying under the radar for 76 years.
But yesterday, British spy agency GCHQ released details of her work as part of commemorations of its 100-year anniversary.
Wellington-raised Pamela Pigeon was the UK’s highest-ranking female spy officer and commanded a unit of radio operators who formed a network which played a pivotal role in sinking the infamous German battleship Bismarck.
As a 6-year-old in 1924, she won a prize at a costume ball for her outfit as an “old English lady dressed in pink and white”; 19 years later she was the commander of a critical spy base tracking the movement of Nazi troops.
Few details are known about Pigeon’s early life in New Zealand, nor about her life after the war.
Her father was a surgeon who immigrated to New Zealand in 1902. Pigeon, who was born in the UK, attended school at Wellington’s Queen Margaret College where she won several awards for language and speech writing.
Those skills later came into use when she returned to England to assist in the war effort.
At only 25, she took command of a top-secret team of linguists who listened to German naval and air force radio signals.
As a target for German air force bombers, the operation was run out of a series of unremarkable wooden huts scattered across the remote countryside at Marston Montgomery, Derbyshire.
Radio operators would learn the unique “fingerprint” of enemy radios then, once identified, intelligence officers could distinguish between a bomber squadron or a fighter aircraft approaching without having to decode any messages.
“Staff would be listening to at least 25 different operators each, identifying individual radio signals — for example by the speed that people would type Morse code. Once enemy operators were identified, this information could be used to piece together troop movements,” the GCHQ said.
It was this network of radio operators who located and enabled the sinking of the largest German battleship ever built.
The Bismarck had been damaged in a naval battle and was trying to get to a port in occupied France, but it made a radio transmission that was intercepted, enabling the Royal Navy to locate the vulnerable battleship
and ensure it was sunk. Some of the Commonwealth’s finest minds were recruited to help the British war machine break Nazi codes generated by the German’s Enigma machines.
The most-famous codecracking operation was at Bletchley Park country estate, the top-secret operation led by Alan Turing immortalised in The Imitation Game, a 2014 blockbuster movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, where Britain’s finest minds strove to crack codes generated by the German.
The codebreaking work by the “unsung heroes” like Pigeon was “absolutely vital” in winning the war, Kiwi military historian Ian McGibbon said, especially in the crucial battle for the Atlantic.
“If the Germans had managed to sever that route from America Britain’s chances of survival would’ve been very poor,” he said. “Managing to defeat the German submarine threat, and affect operations in the western [Africa] desert, mainly through codebreaking and radio fingerprinting, was absolutely critical.”
Pigeon was doing work similar in the UK to what some New Zealand women were doing at the top of the South Island with radio fingerprinting Japanese submarines.
They were all sworn to secrecy and many carried that oath to their graves.
War historian Christopher Pugsley agrees, saying that Pigeon is the latest unsung Kiwi hero to emerge from World War II. The skilled-linguist follows in the same vein as the New Zealander who orchestrated the mass airlift after the Soviets blockaded Berlin, Pugsley said, along with the two New Zealand railway companies that continued the train line through Egypt and into Libya to enable Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army advance after the Battle of El Alamein.
GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said in the past century GCHQ had saved countless lives, but the nature of the work meant key figures of history often went unnoticed.
This is how history’s first female spy commander flew under the radar for 76 years.
Even Pigeon herself may have been unaware of the importance of her role, as radio operators were unlikely to have been told about their achievements.
The last public mention of her is as one of many New Zealanders who attended a meeting between Dunedin’s former mayor and King George VI at a garden party at Buckingham Palace in 1947. *T&C’S APPLY, ESTABLISHMENT FEES ARE ADDITIONAL. INTEREST FREE OPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE ON PURCHASES OF $499 OVER. EXCLUDES DISCOUNTED ITEMS.
When Samantha Saia visited her 21-week-old daughter’s grave, she found her precious toys stolen and grave marker gone.
The mother visited the gravesite at the Manukau Memorial Gardens with her three daughters and was dismayed to discover the vandalism.
“For a mother that’s lost a child and going to their grave, it’s not what you want to see.”
Baby Angel-Elyon Saia-Mitiana’s grave marker had been stolen, as had a Barney dinosaur toy and a heart with flowers.
“I was really angry. Why us? Have respect for a kid’s grave.”
When Saia was pregnant with Baby Angel-Elyon, she was rushed to hospital with an infection that unfortunately passed to her daughter, who died shortly after being born.
“She only got 15 breaths to take before she passed,” Saia said.
When the family went to visit, Saia’s daughters asked her “why her, why us?” when they saw what had been done to the site.
“What did we do for people actually do this?”
Saia took photos of the gravesite and went to the cemetery’s office, only to find it closed for the day.
“Any parent wouldn’t want to see what I saw and be in the same shoes.”
When she got in contact with the cemetery staff, they told her to contact the police about the vandalism. to