If you have been following the coverage here of the recent WW2 cipher pigeon story with more than the bleariest of eyes, you’ll know that I’ve repeatedly speculated whether its “W Stot Sjt” signature might well have actually been written by Serjeant William Stout of the Royal Engineers. Though (as we’ve already seen) he died not long after D-Day, I wondered whether it might be possible to find out more about his story by tracking down surviving members of his family and asking them.
Just before Christmas, I finally managed to get in contact with Stout’s daughter, and asked if she could see if she had a copy of his signature or his handwriting. Delightfully, I received from her this last week a small package containing some wartime photographs of her father, a photograph of his grave taken in 1948, and – most surprisingly of all – a 1940 field service post card (“Army Form A. 2042 / R.A.F. Form No. 1929″). Such postcards contained a list of barely informative sentences (“I am quite well”, etc), out of which the sender crossed all those lines that did not apply: there’s an example online here.
Aha, I thought: will the signature pencilled on it turn out to match the signature on the pigeon cipher form? After some lightweight image processing, I placed the two side by side so as to compare them as reliably as I could…
You’ve worked out the answer already, I think: which is that the two names were clearly not written by the same person. Which is a shame: but despite not being a proof, it’s still very far from a disproof. In the busy fog of war, a message could easily have been written by one person (the sender), enciphered and/or copied by a second (the signaller), and then sent by pigeon by a third (the pigeon handler).
In fact, various historians have already commented to me that they thought it quite unlikely that a Serjeant in the R.E. would have had the responsibility (or even the practical means) for enciphering a message in the field. So the fact that our enciphered pigeon message was not written by Serjeant Stout might arguably make more sense than if it had been… but it’s hard to be sure either way.
All the same, it has to be said that the best cipher mysteries tend to yield their secrets slowly (at best): so perhaps we shall have to resign ourselves to waiting a little longer yet for a pigeony breakthrough… we shall see!