2012 Advent Calendar, Day #2: A Nice Saturday Morning In Kew…

national pigeon service badge 2012 Advent Calendar, Day #2: A Nice Saturday Morning In Kew...

Next Saturday (8th December 2012) morning at 9.30am or so, I’ll be at the National Archives in Kew for a WW2 dead cipher pigeon research session. If any Cipher Mysteries reader or lurker would like to come along and join in, please email me or leave a comment below, I always enjoy meeting up with other people who like all this stuff.

My basic reason for going to the National Archives is this: everyone keeps asking me questions about the dead WW2 cipher pigeon story, which would be great if I had anything like a halfway-decent answer for any of them… but in all honesty, right now I don’t. As it is, I – just like everyone else, it would seem – keep trying to latch onto half-details revealed by close examination of the pigeon’s teeny-weeny payload as if any one of them alone might be sufficient to magically elicit a definitive answer (hint: History rarely yields up her secrets so easily).

Of course, as with pretty much every historical challenge, the most reliable research approach is to build up such a strong sense of context that any individual fragment you happen to be looking at still makes sense within that much larger framework. So the immediate need here is to build up a picture of what was happening with pigeons in WW2.

However, from what I’ve learnt so far, it seems fairly clear that everyone below the stratospherically strategic level of Churchill and Viscount Alanbrooke in the British WW2 effort was working in a silo, and each silo used pigeons in a quite different way.

Hence it is easy to get sidetracked (and very possibly misled) by accounts of how individual silos (Army, RAF, RAF in the Middle East, RAF in India, National Union of Racing Pigeons, National Pigeon Service, Eastern Command Pigeon Service, etc) used and managed pigeons – moreover, it now seems unlikely to me that there will be any über-account of “Pigeons At War” out there. (Though I’m eagerly waiting for Freddy Dyke’s book to arrive, because that may prove to be as close as we can currently get).

The first question, then, is which silos we should be looking at. For me, the presence of “Sjt” in the signature is a strong – and, I suspect, necessary – indication that we are look at a pigeon used by an Army regiment. So it would seem that the right place to look for historical context would be in documents relating to the Army Pigeon Service rather than anywhere else.

Luckily the National Archives have quite a few (which I’ve listed below, having stripped out quite a few relating to the Middle East or India). I’ve marked the six I’ve preordered for next Saturday, & hope some of you will be able to join me for a peek into pigeony history. If you haven’t already got a National Archives reader’s ticket, getting one is really very straightforward (errrm, as long as you’ve got the ID with you they need) and quick (I got mine in 20 or so minutes), so come along and get yourself a ticket, should be a bit of fun!

[*] AIR 2/4969 – (1943-1945) – ARMY (Code B, 88): Special section (Army) National Pigeon Service
[*] WO 208/1338 – (1941 Mar.-1944 Dec) – Signals; carrier pigeons
[*] WO 205/224 – (1944 Jan.-1945 Mar) – Instructions on carrier pigeons: reports
[*] WO 32/9959 – (01 January 1941 – 31 December 1942 ) – EMPLOYMENT OF MILITARY FORCES: General (Code 53(A)): Pigeon service holding unit: Royal Signals.

[*] AIR 15/716 – (1939 Oct.- Dec) – National Pigeon Service

War Office / General
[*] WO 32/10681 – (1942 – 1947) – COMMUNICATIONS: General (Code 76(A)): Pigeon Service [file opened in 1972]
T 161/1442 – (20 July 1935 – 29 May 1947) – LIVESTOCK. Birds: Establishment of Pigeon Service for communication in time of war.

AIR 14/1581 – (01 May 1940 – 31 July 1941) – Air Ministry: Bomber Command: Registered Files. Pigeon service.
AIR 14/1582 – (01 July 1941 – 30 September 1943 ) – Air Ministry: Bomber Command: Registered Files. Pigeon service.
AIR 14/1583 – (01 January 1942 – 31 July 1944) – Air Ministry: Bomber Command: Registered Files. Pigeon service.
AIR 2/4129 – (01 January 1939 – 31 December 1946) – COMMUNICATIONS (Code B, 25): Pigeons: special services. [File opened in 1972]

HS 6/92 – (01 January 1942 – 31 December 1944) – GIBBON mission: Jean Ceysens; organisation of carrier pigeon information service for Political Warfare Executive (PWE).

COLUMBA (i.e. MI 14(d))
WO 208/3560 – (01 April 1941 – 31 December 1941) – COLUMBA: messages No 1 to 91.


  1. avatar Diane O’Donovan December 2, 2012 11:13 am

    I hope I’m not breaking any military protocols here, but I am so enamoured of the crowned paraclete-ish pigeon that I’m going to make it my logo in my blog.

    If it is illegal to impersonate a pigeon of the military kind, do let me know, won’t you?

    (Information on extradition in this context also appeciated)


  2. avatar Jimbo December 2, 2012 3:34 pm


    I’ve been doing my best to examine your sjt stout hypothesis but there seems to be little info on 253 field company royal engineers, other than:
    They were part of the divisional engineers for the British 3rd division, both with the BEF at Dunkirk and later on Sword beach on D day in 1944. There’s little to go on about their role, although they weren’t equipped with specialist tanks or landing vehicles. The RE generally were involved in mine and obstacle clearance, egress from the beach etc including reducing two strongpoints ‘Morris’ & ‘Hillman’ (from memory) the latter of which took some doing and – perhaps – may have prompted Stoat to get on the pigeon-phone for backup (since radio comms were being kept to a minimum for reasons of secrecy and volume if traffic). Their mortality rate was quite horrific. However I can’t find an account of Sgt Stoat or his death, which is a shame because he was clearly a brave chap. All we know is his date of death – on D day – by the end of which the Brits had made it off the beach, but not by much, and in fact his burial place may well be the furthest he made it into France on that trip. Still, perhaps his story will live through his pigeon.

  3. avatar bdid1dr December 2, 2012 6:10 pm

    Even the communications teams had to come ashore? Oh, that is heartbreakingly sad! It now makes me wonder about the conditions in which our Navajo code-speakers had to operate. I’ve had the privilege of spending an afternoon with one of the returnees at the Hopi Museum (some 30 years ago). That is another long story which I won’t impose on this site.

    Bless all of our current-day troops wherever they are!


  4. avatar Stuart Rutter December 4, 2012 1:41 pm

    Hi, I was at Kew last week looking at some of the above files – I also looked at the SOE records relating to France and Belgium. I’d like to join you if possible, I’ll be there at around the same time. The files I looked at were: HS 16/1 and HS 13/2. Which were records relating to the field agents and their associated Playfair cipher keys.


  5. avatar nickpelling December 4, 2012 2:41 pm

    Stuart: excellent, it’ll be very good to meet you. Also, I was glad to hear (from your nice blog) that you enjoyed “Between Silk And Cyanide”, a thoroughly splendid book. :-) As to our plucky pigeon, we’ll just have to see what The National Archives have to say…

    Incidentally, if there’s time to examine the Army cipher angle as well, the NA also has:-
    * WO 202/362 (Cipher messages to and from London)
    * WO 199/3304 (Southern Command’s operational cipher messages)
    * WO 193/211 (Wireless, cable and signal (including cipher) communications: policy and codes: action from report of Godwin-Austen…)
    * WO 204/3917 (Transmission of classified information: cipher security: identification symbols.)
    * WO 202/365 (`Homage’: cipher messages in from the field)
    * WO 202/366 (Army ‘Chenile’ ciphers? [I don't know what that is, but it sounds interesting!])
    * etc

    Don’t forget that “cypher” was more commonly used in WW2, most notably by the Cypher Policy Board, the Cypher Adviser to the Security Board, and the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS):-
    * HW 3 (contains “Personal Papers, Unofficial Histories, Foreign Office X Files [ :-) ] and Miscellaneous Records”)
    * HW 14/111 (EWT to C Sept 1 reporting cypher change by GP from double Playfair to Raster stencil system…)


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