Everyone did something for the war effort during World War 2 – every man, woman, child, carrier pigeon….
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our friends in the animal kingdom had a part to play and a remarkable story that hit the news today illustrates that very fact. That story is about a coded message discovered in a red cylinder attached to the remains of a World War 2 carrier pigeon.
The pigeon, found in a chimney in Bletchingley, Surrey, kept its last secret for over 70 years until Mr David Martin ripped out the fireplace in his house as part of a renovation project.
During World War 2 Bletchley Park was home to a large covert operation where code breakers frantically worked to decipher messages on enemy cipher machines, such as the Enigma. It was also home to a classified pigeon loft, part of the National Pigeon Service and is the place that experts believe the pigeon was returning to when it either lost its way or was too fatigued to continue.
A fascinating article in www.aboutmyarea.co.uk for the Milton Keynes area states:
The crack team of birds were a secret wing of the National Pigeon Service – which had a squadron of 250,000 birds during World War Two. This included some of the King George VI’s birds from the Royal Pigeon Loft on the Sandringham Estate. The military pigeons were dropped behind enemy lines from bombers, where upon resistance fighters picked them up, before releasing them homeward bound with top secret messages.
Colin Hill, a volunteer for the Royal Pigeon Racing Association and the curator of Bletchley Park’s ‘Pigeons at War’ exhibition, said: “We have more than 30 messages from WWII carrier pigeons in our exhibition, but not one is in code. The message Mr Martin found must be highly top secret. The aluminium ring found on the bird’s leg tells us it was born in 1940 and we know it’s an Allied Forces pigeon because of the red capsule it was carrying – but that’s all we know.
All that is known about the message is that it was sent by Serjeant W. Stot. The use of the J in his signature indicates that he was an RAF airman rather than Army, who used ‘G’. We won’t know the meaning of the message until codebreakers at GCHQ are able to crack the message, which is made up of 27 blocks each containing 5 letters or numbers.
The article also reports that more than 60 animals received the Dicken Medal between 1943 and 1949, ‘including 18 dogs, three horses and one cat.’
In December 2016 GCHQ released a follow-up to the story:
‘GCHQ’s experts are now satisfied that the pigeon-borne message assumed to have been sent during the Second World War cannot be decoded without access to the original cryptographic material.
The GCHQ code-breakers were set an intriguing challenge following the discovery of a carrier pigeon skeleton by David Martin in the chimney of his house in Bletchingley, Surrey. The message – hand-written on a small sheet of paper headed “Pigeon Service” – was found in a small red canister still attached to the pigeon’s leg bone.
Unfortunately, much of the vital information that would indicate the context of the message is missing. It is undated, and the meaning of the destination – given as “X02” – is unknown. Similarly, while the sender’s signature appears to say “Sjt W Stot”, nothing is known of this individual or their unit.
During the war, the methods used to encode messages naturally needed to be as secure as possible and various methods were used. The senders would often have specialist codebooks in which each code group of four or five letters had a meaning relevant to a specific operation, allowing much information to be sent in a short message. For added security, the code groups could then themselves be encrypted using, for example, a one-time pad.
The message found at Bletchingley had 27 five-letter code groups, and the GCHQ experts believe its contents are consistent with this method. This means that without access to the relevant codebooks and details of any additional encryption used, it will remain impossible to decrypt.’