New WWII Cryptanalysis

I’d sure like to know more about this:

Government code-breakers are working on deciphering a message that has remained a secret for 70 years.

It was found on the remains of a carrier pigeon that was discovered in a chimney, in Surrey, having been there for decades.

It is thought the contents of the note, once decoded, could provide fresh information from World War II.

It was a British pigeon, presumed to have died while heading back to Bletchley Park.

Some more articles. Additional video.

ETA (11/5): Another article, and Bletchley Park news release.

ETA (11/6): And another.

I look forward to seeing the decryption.

EDITED TO ADD (11/25): GCHQ can’t decrypt it. They think that it’s either a one-time pad or a unique codebook.

Posted on November 5, 2012 at 1:26 PM23 Comments


Stark November 5, 2012 1:54 PM

How do you know it’s cipher text? It may have remained secret all these years because it’s a fragment and has no context.

David November 5, 2012 2:10 PM

If the pigeon was British wouldn’t it be easy for them to read the message? Did they forget how the messages were encrypted?

Chris B. November 5, 2012 2:13 PM

Re: Stark: Because it contains 27 groupings of 5 “random” letters (classic cipher format), and some seed/decode info. There’s a good picture in the first (11/5) link.

What would surprise me is if Bletchley actually has to crack this, rather than just go to the archives and look up some code tables. Though the amateur solvers will probably have to do it the old fashioned way.

martin potter November 5, 2012 3:35 PM

I doubt the pigeon was on its way to Bletchley Park, but rather to one of the many SOE posts. As for deciphering the note, each Allied agent in occupied Europe used a unique code and cipher, sometimes based on one-time pads, as did the many French Resistance cells. Deciphering this note will not be a simple matter of just checking the MODUK’s or GCHQ’s archives.

signalsnatcher November 5, 2012 8:03 PM

The message uses a pro-forma and is signed by “Sjt” (Royal Air Force spelling of sargeant) Storey – probably Flight Sjt Storey, who would be the pilot officer of a bomber. Bomber crews were often issued with carrier pigeons to report their position if their aircraft was brought down as radio aids would have been too easily detected by the Germans.

The text would carry flight plan details and probably the sargeant’s paybook number to establish bona fides. The approximate position and state of health of the crew would also be given, if you are looking for an entry.

The code is probably a simple Playfair which was often used by the British military for simple messages. Playfairs with only a few groups are difficult for paper and pencil analysis. Unknown to the British, the Germans were using IBM tabulators to break both Playfairs and the double transpositions used by Resistance units. It was not until 1942 when MI6 got its own tabulators that they twigged to this and started using one-time pads. For those too young to have run across a tabulator, a spreadsheet can carry out the same function.

The solution of the code is left as an exercise.

David November 6, 2012 1:11 AM

Ive gotten the best info here. *Signalsnatcher, great rub on ibm, playfair vs tpad. Im following the thread. It seems like most of the people commenting on the sbjct think it was a J-44 bird. I saw one other post on an i4u thread that pegged the “j,” and that tpad. Some say if its tpad it cant be deciphered?? Thanks. StndngBye

kashmarek November 6, 2012 5:41 AM

In today’s day and age, when we are fighting alleged terrorist attacks and government attacks on individuals, why are we wasting our time talking about a message that had remained inconsequential for these many years since the pidgeon died? Let’s move on to something more important.

Fred F. November 6, 2012 6:48 AM

To kashmarek, probably because enjoying life IS something more important. And some people just enjoy this kind of things. It tickles their curiosity bone.

Dilbert November 6, 2012 7:27 AM

Based on the book “Between Cyanide and Silk” there’s a possibility this was a one-time pad (the silk). I came across mention of this book here on the blog, and I bought it immediately. It’s an amazing story, and I highly recommend it!

Dave November 6, 2012 9:03 AM


1) The message may contain information of historical importance. History is not a waste of time.
2) Many people who are trying to crack the code are exercising code breaking and/or research skills that may be handy for tackling future challenges. Or do you not think practicing such skills is important?
3) Ditto to what Fred F. said. Do you ever watch TV to relax? If yes, then you are helping the terrorists!
4) Complaining that people are wasting time trying to break the code is itself a waste of time.

boog November 6, 2012 10:30 AM


What if the message contained valuable information about important things like fighting alleged terrorist attacks and government attacks on individuals? Still a waste of time in your opinion?

Me November 6, 2012 12:28 PM

If you read a book called “Between Silk and Cyanide”, you can find out about the cipher used in these messages. The author was able to crack one in less than a day.

Z.Lozinski November 6, 2012 3:11 PM


How do you think cryptologists learn to read terrorist messages? They have to try and decipher them.

How do we inspire new people to learn the skills needed in this area? Publishing last week’s message from Terror-HQ is a bad idea for so many reasons. Publishing a 70 year old message, plus the back story that may enable a break, may just inspire the next generation of cryptologists.

And if you think 70 year old messages have no value, have a look at VENONA.

DW November 6, 2012 5:09 PM

I took some time to refresh myself on Venona, I knew I’d heard of it. As far as Kashmarek goes, let him go, Im sure he gets the gist. btw, I do agree with the awesome self-policing! More over, I absolutely believe this IS the perfect opportunity to bring the whole profession of Crypto Analysis into the spotlight and if we are lucky, create those nextgen CA folks, we certainly need them looking at Cyber Security and Cyber Threats facing our country and those of our allies. Keep your friends close, don’t worry, we’ll get the rest! Keep the intel on “birdy” coming, as I have no contacts at “Bletchly” or the UK SS.. very interested. Thanks@!

DW November 6, 2012 6:15 PM

I apologize for the double post.

Just some updated info…
Some pigeons were based at Bletchley Park, which is now a museum. But Colin Hill, curator of its permanent ‘Pigeons at War’ exhibition, said all of the pigeon messages in its archives are in long-hand, not code.
‘The message Mr Martin found must be highly top secret,’ Mr Hill said. ‘The aluminium ring found on the bird’s leg tells us it was born in 1940, and we know it’s an Allied Forces pigeon because of the red capsule it was carrying, but that’s all we know.’

Jon November 25, 2012 4:04 PM

@ signalsnatcher

The ‘Sjt’ spelling was (and still is) also used by The Rifles (previous The Light Infantry), a British Army regiment. In fact, “serjeant” was a common way of spelling the word oin WWII.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.