Andrew James John Mackenzie
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Bird-brained; Carrier Pigeon Coding Baffles Experts


During the Second World War, security was of the utmost importance. Ensuring secure communications to and from high command was of particularly high importance and various methods were employed in so doing. Specialist codes, ciphers, encryption techniques and imaginative deployments were utilised to safeguard these sensitive messages. Code books were printed in which groups of four or five letters, representing a particular code, were arranged and referred to specific operational details. Where there was a need for added, tougher security, a one-time pad could be used in which the actual codebook was also encrypted. In 1982, the remains of a carrier pigeon were discovered only to reveal a coded message which has proved, thus far, to be unbreakable. The wartime efforts made in counterespionage and military security are still effective it seems, even after 70 years of continually advancing technology and coding expertise.


The message found with the pigeon remains has 27 five letter code groupings which is consistent with the one-time pad method. If this is the case and there is no relevant code book found, the code will remain enciphered:



Coding experts from the code-breaking unit at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British government’s communications monitoring hub, have been unable, therefore, to uncover the hidden message. Indeed, an official statement has been released in the hope that efforts from the general public can help in deciphering it:
 
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…
 
Each pigeon in service was given an identity number. Two such numbers, NURP.40.TW.194 and NURP.37.OK.76, have been identified on the Bletchingley message. Either of these could be the identity of the pigeon in the chimney. The Curator of the Pigeon Museum at Bletchley Park is trying to trace these numbers, and if they are identified and their wartime service established, it could help to decode the message, as could identifying “Sjt W Stot” and “X02”.
 
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.”

Problems concerning the missing codebooks required to solve the code might be resolved if the origins of the messenger and the destination were discovered. Nothing is known of “Sgt W Stot” or of the pigeon he used to deliver the message. Although the numbers relating to the pigeon in question are legible it might be a while before an identity can be given, if indeed it is actually possible to do so. Also, trying to locate the reference for “X02” is proving equally problematic.

In short, the message discovered is nothing short of a tantalising insight into the extreme efforts made by intelligence staff during World War Two to win a victory for the Allied forces and is testament to the effectiveness of counterespionage techniques that have proven insurmountable even with today’s advancements.

For various coding experts and the BBC, the only hope now for the message to be deciphered is for a member of the public to come forward with the key:

  

"There are still quite a lot of people alive who worked in communications centres during the war and who might have some knowledge about this and it would be very interesting if anyone did have information if they could put it in the pot and we could see if we could get any further with it."


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Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), “Pigeon takes secret message to the grave,” http://www.gchq.gov.uk/Press/Pages/Pigeon-takes-secret-message-to-the-grave.aspx. Copyright © 2012 Crown Copyright.
 
Gordon Corera, “WWII pigeon message stumps GCHQ decoders,” 23 November 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20456782. Copyright © 2012 British Broadcasting Company (BBC).
 
All copyrighted material used in this article or cited by this website is the property of their respective owners and ajjmackenzie.co.uk in no way accepts any responsibility for an infringement on one of the above.
 
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