That dead cipher pigeon – the facts…

Looking back at the cipher pigeon media brouhaha of the last week, I think it’s time we all (myself included) stopped jumping in the air at every flickering shadow, and pause long enough to get some kind of solid perspective on what we actually know.

(1) It has been claimed that enciphered pigeon messages were as rare as, errrm, hen’s teeth. However, as (a very young) John Harding recalled it, WW2 “Pigeongram” messages were “nearly allways” in code. Moreover:-

“It was decided that use should be made of the existing pigeon fanciers who had lofts nearest to the south coast, that they should be approached and checks made as to their background, nationality and allegiance to their country, so it was that the Pigeongram Service was established and was much refined for it’s better use in the second World War.”

(2) “S[er]j[ean]t” as written on the pigeon form is most definitely an Army spelling, not an RAF spelling. Of all the military records for “A Smith” (a simple sampling methodology) I looked at, every single “Serjeant” was in an Army regiment. [Hence everything said so far about SoE and RAF bombers is probably interesting but irrelevant].

(3) The only “Serjeant” I’ve found in forces databases with a name close to the one as written on the pigeon form would seem to be “3650400 Serjeant William Stout” in 253 Field Company of the Royal Engineers. [Hence everything written about other military personnel called "Stott" is probably insteresting but irrelevant].

(4) The pigeon form was written by two hands, one English (Stout’s) and one apparently French because it uses the abbreviation “lib.” (presumably short for “lib[éré". [Speculation: because the "7" digit in the French hand is not crossed, might it be that the second writer was French/English bilingual?]

(5) I think it is reasonably safe to infer that the pigeon found dead in a Bletchingley chimney was probably returning from France to its loft in South-East England: “DK” / “TW” could well stand for ten-mile-radius geographic areas around Dorking and Tunbridge Wells (or possibly Twickenham). [Even so, I think it's a bit odd that nobody with access to National Union of Racing Pigeon archives has yet worked out any kind of reasonably definitive answer to this - you'd think they'd be overjoyed for pigeons to be in the news in such a big way].

(6) Even though racing pigeons do often live to ten or more, their active racing life is typically only 6-7 years. However, I’m pretty sure that Freddy Dyke said the military had a preference for young birds (so many jokes present themselves that I simply can’t bring myself to choose). Put together, these suggest the two pigeons were sent after mid-1940 (when the younger of the two pigeons was born) but before (say) 1944, because by 1945 the “[19]37″ pigeon would have been 7 or 8 years old.

(7) According to Freddy Dyke, the figure of “over 200,000 pigeons” often quoted could only be reached by combining the numbers for the “National Pigeon Service, Army Pigeon Service, RAF Pigeon Service, Middle East Pigeon Service, Australian Army Signal Corps, and the Signal Corps United States Army”.

(8) If we are looking an Army pigeon, then we would probably need to look for information relating to the Army Pigeon Service / Army Carrier Pigeon Service. Luckily, there are quite a lot of documents relating to this at the National Archives in Kew. If only I had time…

If you want to read more, the best pigeon-related war book seems to be Freddy Dyke’s (2005) “Memoirs of a Wartime Teenager”. I’ve ordered myself a copy from tiny publisher Dreamstake Books (it doesn’t currently seem to be available anywhere else) – PayPal them your £8.99 + £1.99 p&p from this page.

7 Comments

  1. avatar Anne-Lise Pasch November 30, 2012 11:41 am

    If the originator was an army sergeant, does X02 inferring bomber command still hold? What was the original inference of X02 meaning bomber command?

  2. avatar nickpelling November 30, 2012 12:11 pm

    Anne-Lise: it all seems to have come from http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/340486/Coo-blimey-Riddle-of-Percy-the-pigeon-and-a-wartime-mission back in August 2012…

    “Wartime expert Neville Walbridge, 74, who has been trying to crack the code, believes this is no ordinary message.
    He said: “I have come to the conclusion that it’s top secret because the destination was X02 – the commanding officer of Bomber Command. Personally, I think this was asking for a raid somewhere.”

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  3. avatar Narissa Andrews November 30, 2012 1:11 pm

    Hi Nick, Its good to see a summary of fact from fiction. After all this is what intelligence service do all day, seperate the fact from fiction to get to the important information.
    By the way Ive linked this website on my blog page as its a great website.

    http://ciphers.blog.co.uk/

  4. avatar Stuart Rutter December 5, 2012 7:12 pm

    Hi Nick, I think that your theory about Sjt being used for the Army is true – I haven’t bettered your W Stout find however there are a few names which could fit St?t.

    We do not know how many characters are missing so it could be anything from one character to surnames such as “Stewart”.

    Here is a Sjt W. T. Stewart of the Royal Engineers for example: http://i.imgur.com/lpajf.png

    So I think we must assume to look at anything that fits within the St?t pattern.

    I think that it is more likely to only be one or two characters missing, surnames such as Stout, or Stent, but it is worth keeping a lookout for other combinations.

    http://stuartrutter.com

  5. avatar nickpelling December 5, 2012 7:31 pm

    Stuart: I also tried quite a few variations on the basic St*t theme but, as you say, couldn’t obviously do any better than Serjeant Stout. Hence I’ve been reading Anthony Rhodes’ “Sword of Bone” which follows William Stout’s regiment from September 1939 to June 1940 (i.e the Dunkirk evacuation) (though I’m only 80 pages in so far).

    Unless Stout’s regiment was stationed somewhere plausible between Dunkirk in June 1940 and the Normandy landings in 1944, the message might perhaps only have been been able to have been sent before or after these two dates. So, it may be that if we can work out what Army ciphers were in use in 1940 and 1944, then we may be able to broadly date the message based on what kind of cipher it contains.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  6. avatar enon December 26, 2012 4:56 pm

    I have read twice that this message was first found 30 years ago when a chimney was being dismantled.
    Where has it been since?
    Why did it take so long to surface?
    Is the report (of 1982) not actually true?

  7. avatar nickpelling December 26, 2012 5:05 pm

    Donald/enon: yes, that’s right, it really was discovered thirty years ago. News stories can take a long time to get picked up! It spent the time since at its discoverer’s house.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

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