Carrier pigeon code mystery – solved?

When I was growing up it was perfectly common to see homing pigeons circling in the sky – especially near dusk, when small flocks were let out for exercise. These were racing pigeons, bred for speed and smarts. Slow pokes, most likely, ended up on some dinner plate.

Even if the hows and whys of it all were not part of my youthful education, the birds were a fixture of the landscape. They had a certain distinction as specialized pets with a purpose. Some people detest pigeons as “rats with wings”. But I find them pretty creatures, and like their calming “coo”.

It was interesting to watch each flock take flight to twist and loop overhead – big circles at first. Then tighter and tighter. Until they swooped down for a return to home base.

Flocks seem less common these days – due, I suppose, to losing the generations who favored that hobby, or perhaps because of complaints from neighbors? But keeping pigeons is not totally gone. A web search shows that’s still happening in Hawaii, even on Maui.

By the way, while writing this post I asked my California-raised husband if he remembered watching homing pigeons as a boy. With a snort, he said “No! Of course not! Are we talking about the 1920′s, or something?” (Which says a lot about life on Maui in the 1960′s. It wasn’t exactly cutting edge.)

For centuries, pigeons have been used to carry messages. Theories about how they are able to navigate so well range from an internal compas, to memory, something called infrasound, or even smell. (Bonus: an infrasound theory to explain the pigeon race disaster of ’97)

Bletchley Park houses the National Codes Centre and the National Museum of Computing in Buckinghamshire, England, and was home to code makers and breakers during WWII. Photo: Draco2008, CC some rights reserved

In any case, a long-dead pigeon made headlines around the world this November, when its corpse was discovered in an English chimney bearing an undelivered (and indecipherable?) message from WW II.

Well, that’s just an invitation to try crack the code, isn’t it?

The British agency deemed most expert at that, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) said the message “cannot be decoded without access to the original cryptographic material”.

From the website: “GCHQ is one of the three UK Intelligence Agencies and forms a crucial part of the UK’s National Intelligence and Security machinery”.

Not many weeks later, Gord Young of Peterborough, Ontario reported that by taking a simple approach he’s deciphered the message. (Young says it wasn’t that hard either. He used a WW I code book that belonged to his great-uncle.)

If Young’s detective work is correct, the sender could have been Sgt. William Stott, a reconnaissance paratrooper reporting details about enemy positions to British intelligence back in England following the Normandy invasion of June 1944. (Sgt. Stott was killed the following month and is buried in France.)

Is this solved? Or not?

The UK’s Royal Pigeon Racing Association asked the GCHQ and got this reply:

“Thank you for your email and the information contained with it regarding a proposed solution for the coded message found on the pigeon skeleton.

Our experts are 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.

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.

Of course it is also impossible to verify any proposed solutions, but those put forward without reference to the original cryptographic material are unlikely to be correct.”

Pigeon fanciers, historians and code breakers are intrigued.

I’m certainly unable to judge if this mystery has been solved – or not. But I wonder if UK intelligence’s community might have painted itself into a corner, by so firmly stating the message cannot be unscrambled. After all, if  Young’s rapid solution is correct, it could be quite embarrassing for GCHQ to admit that much fallibility.

Venerable institutions seem slow to get the lesson, but it can be a mistake to underestimate the collective intelligence which exists among ‘civilians’ and in today’s blogosphere. (After sorting wheat from lots of chaff, that is.)

A more strategic statement from the GCHQ might have gone along the lines of: “We think this message cannot be authoritatively deciphered without the source code reference. In a time of limited resources, this particular puzzle is not a high priority. Others are welcome to try their hand at solving it. GCHQ appreciates public interest in the heroic accomplishments of past generations…” etc., etc.

Spy buffs, what say you?

Solved? Or hopeless case?

Also, who still keeps pigeons out there, and why?

Curious minds want to know.

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2 Comments on “Carrier pigeon code mystery – solved?”

  1. Two Cents says:

    I have a friend who decoded it and he thinks pretty sure he knows it says:
    “just flew back from the front line this morning and boy are my wings tired”

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  2. Robin McClellan says:

    What a great story! I will never think ill of pigeons again (and I will look for them in Mau’i!).

    I think the question about the decryption is not whether it can be done, but whether we would know if it was. One time pads are, well, one time, but modern decryption algorithms probably could suggest some possibilities. If there is only one decryption that makes any sense, then that might be it. But as the GCHQ noted, if the message was encrypted using another method first, then coded with a one time pad, it would be difficult to make out. Still, the message isn’t going to win or lose a current war, so posting the possibilities and letting us internet experts (NOT) comment will, well, keep us occupied and from screwing something important up!

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