WWII code experts called in to help solve mystery of the pigeon’s foot

GCHQ turn to Bletchley Park veterans for help with D-Day cipher

Britain’s top code-breakers have appealed for public help to crack a secret Second World War code found attached to the leg of a dead pigeon.

The message was discovered by David Martin after he ripped out a fireplace and found the bird’s skeleton while renovating his house in Bletchingley, Surrey.

Historians believe the pigeon was almost certainly dispatched from Nazi-occupied France during the D-Day invasions of 6 June 1944. Attached to its leg was a red canister and a piece of paper headed “Pigeon Service”, with 27 handwritten blocks of code in the canister.

The mysterious message was passed to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, in the hope that its codebreakers could decipher the words.

But GCHQ’s experts say they are unable to unravel the puzzle without knowing more about the cryptographic context in which it was sent. They have now appealed to retired codebreakers who worked at GCHQ’s predecessor, Bletchley Park, and others who may have worked in military signals during the war to offer their expertise.

Those who are still alive are likely to be in their nineties but their memories may be sharp enough to recognise the type of code used, and explain how it could be deciphered.

Experts believe it could be a one-off encryption for which only the sender and the recipient would have had a key, rendering it almost certainly unbreakable, or that it was based on a specific codebook for a particular operation. If the codebook has since been destroyed, that would also make the cipher virtually unbreakable.

More than 250,000 carrier pigeons were used as secret messengers in the Second World War and each had an identity number. There are two pigeon identification numbers in the message – NURP.40.TW.194 and NURP.37.OK.76 –but it is unclear which one relates to the bird in the chimney.

A GCHQ historian told the BBC: “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.”

The only part of the message that has been deciphered is that of its intended destination – that of Bomber Command, referred to as XO2, while the sender’s signature at the bottom of the message read Serjeant W Stot.

The spelling of “Serjeant” is thought to be significant, as the RAF used “j” while the Army used “g”. It is thought the bird’s destination was Bletchley Park, 80 miles from Mr Martin’s home. The Royal Pigeon Racing Association believes the bird probably either got lost, disorientated in bad weather, or was exhausted after a long journey.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine