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Survival Tails: World War II
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World War II is raging across Europe and the German army has their sights set on England. Messenger pigeon Francis carries important notes back and forth between England and her allies, and wants nothing more than to do his part for the war effort. But when Francis is injured on an assignment to deliver the most important message of the war–one which warns of a coming attack on Britain itself–he finds himself stranded in the middle of the London Zoo with no way to complete his mission.
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September 5, 1940
Francis stalked back and forth inside his coop, trying not to jump whenever a flash of light illuminated the night sky, or the rat-tat-tat of gunfire pierced the rare moments of silence. He supposed that he should be used to it, the sound of war, but now that he was the only pigeon in his division, he couldn’t distract himself by chatting with the others.
It was worse for the humans. The latest Nazi attack had been going on for weeks with no end in sight, and the men had little time for rest or food before another round of fighting began. The enemy was moving closer. Gaining ground. Soon the British troops and their allies would have to retreat or… Francis couldn’t bring himself to think of the alternative.
The coop door swung open, startling Francis, as George, the pigeon handler, threw a handful of seed inside. George gently stroked Francis’s head. It had an immediate calming effect, as it always did. Francis turned his attention to his meal, frantically scooping seed into his beak until he remembered that he didn’t have to race anymore. There were no other pigeons to tussle with.
“Slow down,” George chided. “You’ll be no good to us if you choke on a sunflower seed.”
Francis glanced guiltily up at George and opened his beak, releasing his stash of seeds to the floor.
“It’s going to be a long night,” George said, pulling the collar of his heavy green jacket up around his ears.
Francis cooed in agreement. Even though summer had barely passed, the war seemed to have brought with it a creeping chill that wove its way through camp and sent a shiver through Francis’s feathers. His ears were constantly ringing with the echoes of gunfire. He ignored his food and hopped closer to George.
“At least I’ve still got you to take my mind off things,” George said, gently lifting Francis out of the coop and warming him close to his chest.
They stood in silence as the assaults continued in the distance. Francis felt George’s heart beating rapidly within his chest, matching his own quick breaths.
“I wonder how long we have left,” George whispered.
Francis felt his stomach drop. Every soldier—man and pigeon—knew what they had signed up for when they joined the war. Knew that there was always the chance that each day might be their last. It didn’t make it any less scary, though.
George gave a small huff of a laugh, then put Francis back inside the coop. “Well, you’ll be getting out of this hole soon enough at least. And I’ll…” He trailed off, and Francis rubbed his head against George’s hand, comforting his friend in the only way he could.
“Any day now, I expect,” George said. “You’ll be off on your first official mission.”
Francis puffed up his chest at this. He’d been preparing his whole life to be sent on a mission. Now that he was the last pigeon left, he was sure to be chosen soon. The thought sent a flutter of both excitement and dread through his feathers. But then he saw the pained expression on George’s face and for the first time understood what that would really mean, having to leave his friend behind.
George mustered up a cheery smile. “Well, let’s spend what little time we have left together. Good night, Francis.”
“Good night, George,” Francis cooed back.
George closed the coop, then settled down beside it, resting his dark green metal helmet over his face. Within minutes, he was snoring. Francis wondered how George could sleep so easily with so much going on around them. But he was glad of his company, even though George was a human. Francis had to admit that he could rest easier when George was close by.
He finished the last of the seed, then pecked at his blue-gray feathers, grooming himself to make sure his wings were in the best possible condition. It had been a while since he’d been allowed out of his coop to fly any kind of distance, and his wings felt stiff. He hoped he wouldn’t let George down when the time came to leave.
He put the thought out of his mind, instead busying himself with collecting straw and plucked feathers into a pile, making a cozy nest in the corner of the coop. He buried himself inside, hoping to block out some of the noise, or at least the cold.
He had just closed his eyes when a loud voice startled him.
“What news?” the voice demanded from behind the coop. Francis recognized it as the lieutenant general’s.
Francis poked his head out of his cocoon and peered through the wire mesh. At first he thought the lieutenant general had been talking to George, but his keeper slept on, oblivious. Francis didn’t recognize the man who stood with him, disheveled and out of breath, but he knew the lieutenant general himself well enough. Francis had been stationed with him and his troops since they had arrived in Normandy a few months ago.
“We’ve had word from one of our intelligence officers on the German border that Hitler has a new plan to attack Britain,” the other man wheezed. Blood trickled down his face from beneath his helmet, dripping into his eye, and his uniform was ripped and muddied. “I came as fast as I could to get the message to you, sir. Didn’t even stop when the Nazis started shooting at me.”
The camp was surrounded by twisting, razor-sharp wire and defense walls built out of everything from broken carts to pews from the local church. Francis wondered how the soldier had made it past the enemy.
“When?” the lieutenant general whispered, glancing around to make sure that no one else was listening.
That was one of the advantages of being a pigeon. Humans could say anything around Francis and not give it a second thought. Never mind messenger pigeons, he thought, they should have spy pigeons. Although there was the tiny issue of how the pigeon could then relay their intelligence—information that they had discovered about the enemy—back to the humans, but still. Francis knew he would make an excellent spy.
“Soon, sir,” the soldier replied in equally hushed tones. “The Nazis are calling it Operation Sea Lion. They plan to attack from the air. They have already targeted our defenses along the south coast of England, and the Royal Air Force bases. Once those are disabled, they will attack London.”
“A blitzkrieg,” the lieutenant general said, his face as white as the moon above.
A sudden shudder ran through Francis. He had heard that word spoken in whispers at night, when both sides were tending to their wounded. Except the men didn’t use the full German word. They simply called it a blitz—a lightning war. An attack that destroyed everything and anything in its path and could bring Britain to its knees.
“Private Morgan!” the lieutenant general yelled, walking around the coop to kick George’s boot to wake him.
George was up in an instant. “Yes, sir! Just checking on the pigeon, sir!”
He grabbed a handful of straw and opened the coop to shove it right into Francis’s face. George had been trying to keep as busy as possible, or at least make it look that way. Because as soon as George was no longer required as a pigeon handler, he would be sent away to fight. That was something that neither Francis nor George wanted, so Francis began scratching at the wooden floor of the coop, making as much fuss as a pigeon could make in the middle of a war zone.
“Private,” the lieutenant general started, then paused as he peered into the coop. “What the devil is wrong with the pigeon?”
“Nothing, sir,” George replied quickly, giving Francis a nervous glance. “It’s just the noise of the…” He waved his hand in the air, gesturing at nothing in particular.
The lieutenant general frowned. “I need to send an urgent message to Bletchley,” he said. “But if the pigeon is not able to handle a few loud noises…” He trailed off, eyeing Francis warily.
Francis stood to attention. He didn’t want George to be sent to the front line, but neither did he want the lieutenant general to think he wasn’t up for the job. His father and grandfather before him had been carrier pigeons. His great-great-great-grandfather had served in the First World War. Using pigeons to carry important messages was the quickest and most efficient way for the humans to communicate during the war. It was an honor for Francis to do the same. He wouldn’t bring shame upon his family by letting the humans believe he wasn’t up to the task.
George gave Francis a small nod, then turned to the lieutenant general. “He’s more than capable, sir,” George replied. “He’s the best pigeon I’ve ever looked after. That’s why I saved him till last.”
Francis watched George, wondering if that was true. George had always been kind to him, but he treated all of the pigeons well. Francis hadn’t realized that was the reason he had been left behind to watch his friends fly off into danger.
The lieutenant general peered at Francis again, who stood stock-still, terrified and excited all at once, afraid to even blink.
“Very well,” he said finally. “I suppose he is our only option anyway. We are all but surrounded by the enemy and this message needs to get to Britain immediately.”
He pulled out a small pad of paper and a pencil from the breast pocket of his jacket and scribbled a note. He held it out of George’s sight so that he couldn’t read it, but Francis could. There was a series of numbers and letters. He recognized it as an encrypted code that the British army used for all the messages they sent. Should the worst happen and the messenger was caught, the enemy would be unable to decipher the message.
The lieutenant general rolled the paper into a cylinder, and George handed him a small scarlet-colored capsule no bigger than his little finger. The note was carefully eased into the capsule, then sealed with a lid. George opened the coop and Francis stepped forward, allowing him to attach the capsule to his leg.
George paused for a moment, his eyes shining as he stroked Francis’s head. Francis cooed quietly in response, wishing that he could say a real goodbye—to thank George for all that he had done these last few months, caring for him and making him feel safe in a place where safe was an almost impossible word. To say that he hoped to see George again someday. But all he could do was coo and hope that George understood.
“Take this home,” George told him. “As quickly as you can.” He gave Francis a small smile. “I’ll miss you. Stay safe, my friend.”
Francis bobbed his head, then spread his wings, praying that they were ready for the long, dangerous journey ahead. He glanced back at George one last time, then took off, soaring up and over the enemy, hoping that the darkness would keep him hidden from view as he headed toward the code-breaking facility at Bletchley.
September 7, 1940
London Zoo, England
Ming chewed slowly on a thick bamboo shoot, watching from the shadows of her enclosure as the humans peered through the thick metal bars for a glimpse of the famous giant panda. She couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. When she’d arrived at the zoo as a cub, the zookeepers had built a raised wooden platform in the middle of the enclosure, with two planks on either side for her to climb up and down onto it. But Ming didn’t understand what they expected her to do. She couldn’t perform tricks like the monkeys, and she wasn’t fierce or loud like the lions. She certainly couldn’t take children for rides around the grounds like the elephants.
She was just an ordinary giant panda. No different than the other giant pandas roaming the bamboo forests of China. Except Ming wasn’t in China anymore, and she certainly wasn’t in a forest.
“They won’t come back if you ignore them,” Tang grumbled beside her, nodding to the final visitors for the day. “They want to see the zoo’s star attraction.”
Ming ignored Tang and the pointing humans who called her name, and continued chomping on her bamboo. She wanted to ask Tang why he didn’t go out there instead, but she stayed quiet. He was a giant panda, too. Why was it always her the humans wanted to see? She sighed and picked up another bamboo shoot. She knew the answer, of course. It was because she was the first—the first giant panda ever to have been seen in London. Well, the first giant panda ever to have been seen alive.
The thought of it made her queasy.
Behind her, the metal bolt on the door to the enclosure slid open, and a slightly sweaty and red-faced Jean appeared, holding up a bucket of bamboo. She was smaller than the average adult human, with short brown hair that she swept behind her ears. As usual, she wore oversized dark blue overalls with the sleeves and legs rolled up several times so that it fit her properly. They were covered in dark brown splotches of what Ming hoped was just mud.
“Phew!” the zookeeper puffed. “I just cleaned out the camels’ enclosure. Trust me, that is not fun!”
She smiled as she saw Ming and Tang, then emptied out the bucket of bamboo onto the ground. “There’s not a lot today, I’m afraid,” Jean said. “We’re running low on everything.”
Ming crinkled her nose and sniffed at the bamboo. Since the humans’ war had started, Jean and the other keepers had had no choice but to find food for the animals closer to home. They had closed their sister zoo, Whipsnade, and used half of its land to grow produce for the animals and humans. Just as the humans’ food was rationed, so was the animals’. Now, instead of their usual bamboo imported from China, Ming and Tang were fed shoots that had been grown in Cornwall.
They tasted different. Bitter.
The old bamboo tasted like home. And now that her memories of home and family were fading faster every day, bamboo was the last connection she had to them.
“Looks like you’ve got a crowd,” Jean said to Ming, stroking her head. “Why don’t you go and say hello to your fans?”
Tang snorted. “Ming won’t even talk to me, let alone her fans.”
Ming turned to scowl at Tang. “That’s because you have nothing interesting to say.”
Tang raised his eyebrows. “And the humans do, I suppose?”
Ming didn’t have an answer to that. Aside from Jean, Ming didn’t really care much for the humans either way. Urged on by Jean, she lumbered toward the front of her enclosure. Despite what Jean had said, the crowd was smaller than usual, and Ming noticed that there were only a few children. Jean had told them that many of London’s children had already been evacuated to the countryside, in the hopes of keeping them safer from the Nazi attacks.
“You too, Tang,” Jean encouraged, giving him a gentle push on his behind. “Don’t let Ming steal the limelight.”
Tang huffed and followed after Ming to excited gasps from the crowd.
“Would you look at that,” a man said, pushing a little redheaded girl forward to stand right at the front. He wore a shabby gray cap, and Ming noticed that the right sleeve of his jacket hung empty, his arm most likely lost due to a war injury.
The little girl waved at Ming, then held up a small stuffed toy panda.
“Look, Ming,” she said, bobbing the stuffed panda up and down. “It’s you!” The girl held the toy up to the bars and laughed. “Ming, meet Ming!”
Ming eyed the stuffed toy panda suspiciously. It looked nothing like her—more like a deformed badger than a panda—but the toys made Tang jealous, so Ming always made a point of showing off to the crowd whenever she spotted one. Or at least she did the best she could do at showing off, which was mainly sitting and eating her bamboo closer to the humans.
Beside her, Tang huffed again and Ming smiled a little, despite there being so many eyes watching her.
“Don’t just sit there and stare at them,” Tang said. “They are here for a show. That’s why they brought us back from Whipsnade Zoo after being evacuated—to bring back the crowds. Watch this…” Tang lay on the floor, then rolled over onto his back. The little girl clapped her hands, and Tang gave Ming a triumphant look.
Rolling is not much of a skill, Ming thought. She turned her back on the crowd and headed back to Jean. Ming wished she were still at Whipsnade. She had liked it there. It was quiet and peaceful, with no crowds, and she hadn’t felt as though she were on display all day long.
Ming watched Jean sweep the floor as Tang did another roll, almost knocking her over.
“It looks like Tang is having fun,” Jean teased, leaning on her broom. “Why don’t you join him?”
Ming sniffed, then picked up a bamboo shoot and slowly chewed at the end to show Jean what she thought about her suggestion.
“You might enjoy it if you give it a go,” Jean said. She shook her head and continued sweeping, a small smile on her face.
The smile quickly dropped as a screaming sound filled the air.
Ming’s heart beat out of her chest as the humans scattered in all directions. In the panic, the little girl dropped her stuffed Ming toy.
“Daddy!” she screamed at her father. “My Ming!”
He ignored her pleas and pulled a heavy black gas mask with big goggled eyes down over her face, then carried her away to the closest air-raid shelter, her cries muffled beneath the mask.
“Inside!” Jean shouted at Ming and Tang, herding them beneath the covered part of the enclosure. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She raced out of the enclosure, slamming the door shut.
Ming glanced at Tang. His eyes matched her own—wide and afraid as the sirens wailed on, warning that something bad was approaching.
“It will be all right,” Tang whispered over and over again. “We’ll be all right. Everything will be all right.”
Tang’s fear hung in the air between them like a smothering cloud. Ming’s fur was on edge, hackles raised. Her heart raced, and all the while chaos filled the zoo. Worse, even, than the sounds of the sirens were the sounds that filled her head. The screaming monkeys and braying zebras. The birds in the aviaries, squawking and flying at the wire mesh again and again, trying to break free.
Ming squeezed her eyes shut, and a memory flashed before her. Her mother calling out for her as the humans came with nets and cages. While other animals ran away and the men gave chase, Ming could do nothing but sit, frozen, even though her mother urged her to run and hide. She couldn’t. She couldn’t leave her only family. So she sat and watched until the men took her, too.
- Praise for Survival Tails: The Titanic:
- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2019
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers