Why so many open pigeony questions?

As far as just about any cipher I blog about goes, I have days when a solution seems so comically close I could almost accidentally breathe it in. But I also have days when one seems so tragically far away that it may as well be in a sealed box. On the moon. Guarded by killer robot ninjas. All voiced by James Earl Jones.

What’s at issue isn’t anything like pessimism on my part: rather, it’s the question of why anybody would think these might be solvable without doing a whole load of basic, grindy, grafty research first. Really, I think you almost always have to break the external history of these things before you stand much of a chance of extracting their internal contents.

So, if I list some of the open questions that are bugging me about the dead cipher pigeon story right here right now, perhaps you’ll see why that might be the case:-

* Who owned either of the two pigeons listed on the message?
* Were there any pigeon lofts in Bletchingley itself during WW2?
* Did any British pigeon handlers ever use “lib.” as an abbreviation?
* Why hasn’t a single record from a pigeon loft around Tunbridge Wells or Dorking turned up yet?
* Why can’t I find a single other message written on the same printed pigeon service pad?
* Was the pigeon message we have a hectograph or a carbon copy?
* From its skeleton, how old was the dead pigeon? [What a basic question to have to ask!]
* True or false: “many WW2 pigeon messages were sent encrypted”?
* When were Slidex Series B code cards introduced?
* When did Slidex change from having one letter per horizontal key slot to two letters per slot?
* How many syllabic / bigram ciphers were in use in WW2?
* Where is a copy of the Army syllabic cipher book BX 724 or BX 724/RE?
* Did Bletchley Park / GCHQ ever catalogue the tons of files brought back by the TICOM teams?

Personally, when I look at this fairly long list, I don’t feel hugely confident that we genuinely know even close to enough to enable us to solve this mystery, however engaging and intriguing it may be.

But then again, a single answer to any one of these questions from an unexpected corner might well be enough on its own to turn this miserable tide around. So perhaps we should just try to remain optimistic, for a tiny bit of clarity for any one of these might be enough to get us started. Fingers crossed that we shall see (and very soon!)… :-)


  1. avatar Diane January 8, 2013 3:08 am

    Are the pigeon-biography questions essential to solving the cipher? Or are you subtly suggesting that this was a fifth-column pigeom? (fifth from the right, of course).


  2. avatar Mike M January 8, 2013 3:14 am

    Did any British pigeon handlers ever use “lib.” as an abbreviation?


    As one example have a look at the scanned message here (http://media.knoxnews.com/media/img/photos/2012/10/25/media_10beea2bf92a4fe1a01a3c3a04062674_t607.jpg)

    It is the famous message carried by Gustav from a Reuters reporter confirming “the first report of the Normandy landings to the British mainland during the Second World War”.

    It clearly states “Liberated 0830”

  3. avatar Mike M January 8, 2013 3:20 am

    Were there any pigeon lofts in Bletchingley itself during WW2?

    This is a definite yes as well.

    Check out this: http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/resources/file.rhtm/591884/s.pdf

    Look for Charles Skevington and you’ll see he was at Bletchley Park in 1943-44 looking after SIS pigeon lofts there.

  4. avatar Mike M January 8, 2013 4:07 am

    Why can’t I find a single other message written on the same printed pigeon service pad?

    Was the pigeon message we have a hectograph or a carbon copy?

    Not sure why it is so difficult to find similar message nor where I found it previously, but I recall the message pad is a British “Army Book 418-B”

    It seems to general issue type stuff so probably rules out anything too interesting like SIS and points towards fairly typical Army communications.

    It is a carbon copy pad with 1 original retained in the book and 2 carbon copies made – which lines up with what you’d expect from the message ie 2 copies sent and the blue text of the cipher looks a lot like a carbon copy + black amendments by a second hand presumably prior to sending.

    The only other message I’ve seen on this pad is from 1942 and Dieppe raid by the canadian with British support. Have a look at the following page (http://www.commelec.forces.gc.ca/org/his/bh-hb/chapter-chapitre-05-eng.asp) and while it’s awful quality you will instantly recognise the message pad stationary.

  5. avatar Mike M January 8, 2013 5:55 am

    When did Slidex change from having one letter per horizontal key slot to two letters per slot?

    I assume like everyone else you’d read the Jan 1944 instructions and March amendments which suggest a single letter per slot.

    The only latter WW2 documentation I know of is Dec 1944 reproductions (http://www.robvanmeel.nl/?q=content/slidex-instructions-1244-8-p) which might be enlightening is that has switched to 2 letters per slot.

    I recall Slidex was introduced late ’43 and was already ‘cracked’ during D-Day training exercises, so I would not be at all surprised if it was stepped up for D-Day and the rest of the war.

  6. avatar Chris January 8, 2013 8:36 am

    ‘Did Bletchley Park / GCHQ ever catalogue the tons of files brought back by the TICOM teams?’

    There are many TICOM file categories: I,IF, DF, M, D. Captured German documents had to be catalogued and then translated. This must have taken years. The question is whether there is a full list of those files. There is a DF list but I don’t know about any document covering the other files.


  7. avatar nickpelling January 8, 2013 9:01 am

    Mike: that’s a great help, thanks! As I recall, at least one of the German cryptologists interviewed by TICOM said that Slidex suddenly became hard to crack in September 1944. Right now, my suspicion is that this may well have been when it went from one letter per slot to two letters per slot (which would seem to rule out the “Slidex on D-Day” pigeon message hypothesis). But perhaps we’re starting to get close to an answer!


  8. avatar nickpelling January 8, 2013 9:05 am

    Mike: excellent catch! When I was looking at the Dieppe raid, I never found a copy of the pigeon message, excellent catch! :-) Yes, it’s definitely the same message pad!


  9. avatar nickpelling January 8, 2013 9:07 am

    Mike: ah, Bletchingley vs Bletchley has caught many people out along the way. The joke is that perhaps the pigeon misread his map. :-)


  10. avatar nickpelling January 8, 2013 9:09 am

    Mike: another excellent catch! You’ve done really well to find this as well, I think you must be on a bit of a roll. :-)


  11. avatar nickpelling January 8, 2013 9:12 am

    Chris: have you considered putting in an appropriate FOIA request for these? Or at least for the list of these?


  12. avatar Chris January 8, 2013 11:10 am

    I have the DF list and you can recreate the I list from the ‘European Axis signals intelligence’ volumes, however for the rest one would have to ask for a FOIA. I’m not going to ask for more files since i’ve already asked for several ticoms and i think it will take years for the process to go through.
    Keep in mind that even if you get a list it’s very hard to understand what the file is about only from the title.


  13. avatar Mike M January 8, 2013 11:17 am

    A lot of the TICOM stuff is available online – http://www.scribd.com/collections/3535291/TICOM

    I think TICOM I-109 provides some interesting insight into potential contents and structure of the message.

    It just reinforces some previous assumptions:
    – was for Bomber Command as previously suggested
    – comprises a number of short pieces of data separated by the full-stops that have been previously discussed
    – encoded using SLIDEX

    All seems to fit with Allied bombing instructions following a stalled attack on Caen late in the afternoon on D-Day

    Does lead to more questions for me:

    1. given a 4-5 hour flight for the pigeon, when would the instructions have been implemented? Evening bombing? The following day? Might give some insight about the content/context

    2. Why pigeon and not normal wireless if it was just pretty standard bombing instructions? Maybe due to being sent from the front lines – wireless equipment not available or too dangerous to use?

    3. If there are discrete phrases there, why do the full-stops appear at the end of the 5-letter blocks? Pure speculation but is it possible that each phrase is padded out before a new phrase is commenced?

    Immediately after the landing, the expected wireless traffic started. It dealt predominantly with request for air support by the British Tentacles and American air support parties in the following form.

    1. Tentacles
    A) Guns in V 2012 (Description of Target)
    B) Bombers (Suggested type of aircraft)
    C) 1120 (Desired Time of Operation)
    D) Not S of river (Special instruction in order to avoid attacks on own troops)
    E) Light A/A (Defence to be expected)

    2. Air Support Parties
    A) PLW/4 (Call sign and demand number of the ASP)
    B) Enemy tanks at V 8013 (Description of target)
    C), D), E) and EF) Similar to 1) Tentacles

    Messages of this type were later often encoded on the SLIDEX code. Decoding, however, went so well on many days that almost no delay occurred as a result of the encoding.

  14. avatar Chris January 9, 2013 11:55 am

    Apart from my files you can also check Ticom archive- https://sites.google.com/site/ticomarchive/home


  15. avatar Mike M January 9, 2013 2:11 pm

    * How many syllabic / bigram ciphers were in use in WW2?

    This is probably the most comprehensive list of D-Day codes and ciphers that I have seen … refer to Page 8

    Although technically it relates to US Air Transport units during D-day, it really shows all standard methods


    So to answer the question, I read this as many codes but only Slidex and Double Transposition ciphers.

  16. avatar Mike M January 13, 2013 7:27 am

    Just for completeness and further reference for others, I thought its noting the following file.

    It is the D-Day Operation Orders (ie the invasion plan) for the British 3rd Army – the force that invaded Sword Beach and of which Sjt William Stout was a member.

    Lots of info there but the most important if a list of code words to be used for D-Day for key location and activities – I’d be almost certain one or more of these appear in the pigeon plaintext.

    Unfortunately, it DOES NOT have cipher details and instead reference the Royal Signals Operations Order No 1… you can bet THAT would be a useful document for this problem!


  17. avatar nickpelling January 13, 2013 12:31 pm

    Mike: thanks! I’d seen partial lists of D-Day codewords elsewhere, but that’s surely got the lot! (And I love the pass phrases too). I’ll have a look for the Royal Signals Operations Order No 1, at least we now know what to look for… :-)


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