back to article WWII HERO PIGEON crypto message STUMPS GCHQ boffins

Brit spook central GCHQ can't decipher a coded message found on a pigeon that died trying to deliver the missive during WWII, and may have to turn to the public for help. The remains of the bird, found by David Martin in his chimney in Surrey, had a secret message attached - 27 handwritten blocks of code. The pigeon is …


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  1. Joe Harrison

    It's encrypted so we can't read it, sorreee

    They would say that, wouldn't they.

    1. NumptyScrub

      Re: It's encrypted so we can't read it, sorreee

      get the local constabulary to demand GCHQ provide the encryption key, or face prosecution for failure to provide the encryption key when requested :D

      The subsequent irony-based implosion should be a sight to behold 8)

  2. Roger Greenwood

    Are you sure . . .

    It's not Sjt Stob ?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A stroke of insight from GCHQ:

    ''were designed only to be able to be read by the senders and the recipients''

    so glad you've worked that out

    1. Chemist

      "'were designed only to be able to be read by the senders and the recipients''"

      Yes, I heard that too, as well as the journo wailing something like "with all this technology and supercomputers you'd think ....."

      If it's a one-time pad AND no context it's all but impossible

      (Might be - remember wartime -rationing- "Put this bird in an oven gas mark 5")

      1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        "Captain Blackadder did not eat this delicious plump-breasted pigeon"

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    More information, including message


  5. Scott Broukell

    maybe ..... just maybe ......

    Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance ?

    1. Matt 21

      Re: maybe ..... just maybe ......

      Wasn't it three and sixpence...... I am getting old so maybe not!

      1. Skrynesaver

        Re: maybe ..... just maybe ......

        send reinforcements, we're going to advance...[chineese whispers]...send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance.

  6. Purlieu

    My characters

    I think that website got some of the characters wrong (which doesn't help)

    here's my take on it








    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: My characters

      Isn't that a SLP key for Windows 8?

    2. Ralph B

      Re: My characters

      Well, it doesn't appear to be ROT13.

      Erm. In case you were wondering.

    3. veti Silver badge

      Re: My characters

      Just don't try reading it aloud...


  7. DrXym Silver badge

    I wonder why the bird was a hero

    As far as it was concerned it had been stuck in small box, transported away from its coop, manhandled and died tried to find its way home. I doubt it volunteered for the job or even knew it was even doing a job.

  8. Jonathan Walsh


    I think it decodes as:




  9. Martyn Collis

    why dont they just find the other copy of the message in the archives?

    or am I the only one who spotted that there is a second copy of the message sent from the pictures of the message?

  10. boltar Silver badge

    Practically unbreakable?

    "would also make the encryption practically unbreakable."

    If its a one time pad with a cipher code longer than the message then its absolutely unbreakable.

  11. Longrod_von_Hugendong


    A WW2 message is totally secure - yet lost memory sticks and laptops are not.... makes you think doesnt it.

    Wont some one think of the morality of the the situation....

    (Since thats the new buzz from MP's )

    1. boltar Silver badge

      Re: So...

      "A WW2 message is totally secure - yet lost memory sticks and laptops are not.... makes you think doesnt it."

      Not really. No one is stopping you using a one time pad system on your files. Unfortunately they're not very practical for long data unless you want to risk repeating the key and if you lose the key you're screwed and potential wide open.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I hope ..

    .. someone has dated the pigeon so it's not just some elaborate hoax :)

    1. BossHog

      Re: I hope ..

      Was he any good? Mmm, chimney pigeon jerky....

    2. veti Silver badge

      Re: I hope ..

      That was my first thought too. What a perfect wind-up...

      "Here, look what I found up my chimney!"

  13. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    Perhaps it is just


    coat, gone.

  14. N2 Silver badge

    If it says

    "Send three & four pence were going to a dance"

    It really means:

    "Send re-inforcements were going to advance"

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Anyone seen if there's a Mr Richard Dasterly still alive as he (and his dog Muttley) seemed to have experience with pigeons from what I can remember

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Dastardly, Dick dastardly.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        drat, drat and triple drat!

  16. Winkypop Silver badge

    It tells of the secret whereabouts of:

    The Fallen Madonna with the big boobies!

    1. dotdavid

      Re: It tells of the secret whereabouts of:


  17. cheveron

    one time pad

    So does anyone know if the British Army were using one-time pads for pigeon couriered messages at this time? Could save a lot of people a lot of time trying to break the code if it could be said for certain that it's unbreakable.

    1. veti Silver badge

      Re: one time pad

      The British army, backward as they were, had discovered radio by World War Two. It's unlikely to be from them.

      More likely, a message from a spy who didn't have access to, or didn't dare to use, radio. Although whether the pigeon was sent by a British spy in occupied Europe, or by a German spy in Britain, is of course open to speculation.

  18. psychonaut

    speckled jim

    We definately did not eat this delicious plump breasted pigeon

    1. N2 Silver badge

      Re: speckled jim


      The Flanders pigeon murderer - baah! & how does the the deceased, I mean the defendant plead?

  19. Blacklight


    ...has the carcass been interred for the mandatory 5 years for not handing over the decryption keys?

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    possible waste of time. I know for a fact that in WW2 there were several bomb runs done by the US that dropped pigeons all over the place with fake encrypted messages in order to make the enemy waste resources trying to decode the message. This very well could have been one of them. I surely hope they've taken that into account.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yes - it wouldn't be the first time the Yanks provided something useless..

  21. Velv

    Could it be Hungarian?

    My hovercraft is full of eels

    1. perlcat

      Re: Could it be Hungarian?

      My nipples exploded with delight to read that!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Could it be Hungarian?

      I would like to return this beaver, eet ees scratched.....

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Was the house owned by a retired army officer by the name of Blackadder (also known as the "Flanders pigeon murderer") .... we may be dealing with a serial killer

    1. Dennis

      serial killer

      "we may be dealing with a serial killer"

      Ahem. Cereal killer.

  23. Cliff

    Here's something I wrote about this for 2600

    Perfect Encryption – old style!

    We can all fire up a copy of Truecrypt to keep our files safe, and we think nothing of using SSL to protect a data exchange with a webserver, but that all needs computers to be useful. If you need to securely send information to a friend without the help of computers, you can get all old-school. Modern computers were invented to break codes, but you can send 100% uncrackable messages relatively quickly and easily by hand – and it is so satisfying to your geeky side, too.

    ‘But why would we bother? Isn’t this all just history now?’ The exact scheme I present is still believed to be very much in use by spies the world over, via ‘number stations’ (search youtube for some great, spooky examples) which at fixed times of the day will read a list of digits in disembodied voices over the airwaves to whoever is listening. And somewhere, somebody is listening, copying them down, and decoding these messages by hand. Emails leave trails, and indeed we know GMail ‘reads’ every word of your emails, but even though the world can hear the secure conversation, without knowing the encoding system, it is meaningless.

    So, to encrypt and decrypt a message securely, we need to share a secret method with whoever we are messaging. Firstly we convert our alphanumeric message into numbers, then we use a separate list of numbers known only to whoever is sending and receiving the message to encode and decode it. To be mathematically unbreakable, each number list must only be used once, we call it a ‘one time pad’, literally a pad of digits in random order with only 2 identical copies, used one time only – burn after use!

    Turning letters into numbers is the first stage. Of course you can use A=01, B=02, Z=26 etc., but it is not optimal. There is a clever system the ‘straddling checkerboard’ which can be much more efficient, by using the single digits for the most common 8 letters of a language (and of course each language is different!). In English, the common letters ‘AEINORST’ are assigned to single digits, but ‘AEINORST’ is not very memorable… ‘ESTONIA-R’ or my preferred ‘AT ONE SIR’ are much more memorable. I will use ‘AT ONE SIR’ below, and you will see how economical the ‘straddling checkerboard’ can be!

    0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

    A T - O N E - S I R

    2 B C D F G H J K L M

    6 P Q U V W X Y Z . #

    As you can see, AT ONE SIR makes up the top line, but we use the spaces (for 2 and 6) as shift characters for the less common letters (we then just fill in the leftovers alphabetically). The word ‘hacker’ becomes 25 0 21 27 5 9, ‘computer’ is 21 3 29 60 62 1 5 9. You don’t need the spaces except for readability of course, so ‘computer hacker’ encodes to ‘21329 60621 59250 21275 9’. This isn’t secure yet, but is already probably enough to get you past the casual observer. It is a fancy cipher, but a straight substitution cipher nonetheless. To decrypt it, you just make a checkerboard using ‘AT ONE SIR’ as the topline (so nice and easy to remember and recreate wherever you are) and wherever you see a 2 or 6, you know to shift the next digit to the appropriate line to decipher.

    There is a ‘.’ Character (68) which you can use as a general purpose essential punctuation character, or use as a further shift character to a line of punctuation if you so desire. Frankly, if you’re doing this by hand on security grounds, you are not going to care about punctuation too much – the message is what is important! There is also a ‘#’ escape character for numbers. To make sure they are unambiguous, numeric digits are repeated three times over, so ‘2600’ enciphers as ‘69222 66600 00006 9’. As mentioned before, this is a cipher, not encrypted yet – that’s the bit where it gets uncrackable!

    Now you need a one-time-pad to encrypt with (make sure your friend has the same pad!). All this is is a key – a list of random digits (for convenience usually grouped into five at a time). Do not trust your computer to give you truly random digits, computers use pseudorandom lists (which are entirely predictable if you know the ‘seed’) – if you want random, get a set of five 10-sided die from a games shop in different colours, throw them, and always write them down in the same colour order to prevent human bias! It will look something like…





    …and be very boring to make! Make lots of these sheets into a pad with removable/disposable sheets so you never use the same one twice. This is important, as re-use dramatically reduces the security of the message – using a new sheet each time is mathematically 100% secure and unbreakable. You need a copy to encrypt with, and one to decrypt with, so only give copies of your pad to those who need it.

    Now for the encryption stage – and we use (nice and simple) arithmetic to encrypt one digit at a time from our message. But it is important to know that we do not ‘carry’, so 7+7 becomes 4 (ie 7+7 = 14 – we just want the ‘4’), and 2-8 becomes 4 (as you can’t subtract 8 from 2, we use ‘12’ instead, so 12-8 = 4), or 3-7 becomes 5 (13-7). Practice this bit, it is important to get right!

    Let’s encode ‘computer hacker’ using the key 51187-69890-33159-87236-25955 (first page of the pad above)

    From above, ‘computer hacker’ is ‘21329 60621 59250 21275 90000’ (padded with zeroes), so we encrypt

    Plain Text 21329 60621 59250 21275 90000

    Key 51187-69890-33159-87236-25955 minus


    Encrypted 70242 01831 26101 44049 75155

    So this is the message we send to our friend – we can send it any which way, email, telephone, pigeon, or very publicly as with the number stations.

    Your friend then adds the correct key back to the encrypted text, the exact opposite procedure

    Encrypted 70242 01831 26101 44049 75155

    Key 51187-69890-33159-87236-25955 plus


    Plain Text 21329 60621 59250 21275 90000

    And using ‘AT ONE SIR’ –


    C /O/M /P /U /T/E/R/H /A/C /K /E/R

    The encrypted text can be shouted from the treetops (or played on shortwave radio all around the world, of course!) – without the *right* key, it is not just meaningless, but instead contains *every* message. If an interceptor thinks the key is 90715-81423-97109-85037-30025, for instance -

    Encrypted 70242 01831 26101 44049 75155

    Key 90715-81423-97109-85037-30025 plus


    Plain Text 60957 82254 13200 29076 05170

    And using ‘AT ONE SIR’ –


    P /R/E/S/I/D /E/N/T/O/B /A/M /A/S/P /E/T/S

    Without a copy of your one time pad, it is absolutely unbreakable. Not just ‘difficult to break’ but actually unbreakable. Of course for ad-hoc secure communication you have to share the initial keys, and this is what SSL/HTTPS does – uses asymmetric encryption (difficult to break) to swap a one time key. This is why SSL is not actually secure, just very hard to break, and so as computers get more powerful, it becomes less secure. For absolute security, create and distribute pads manually and securely, and this is exactly how messages are securely sent to field operatives the world over!

    Just for completeness, a number station will also read out the ID of the target operative so they will know to get ready to copy down a message meant for them, and may also read the first 5 digits of the page in the code pad to be used, so above they would start the message as ‘51187’, then use ‘69890’ onwards to encrypt the message. If you’re using this system a lot, you may choose to do likewise. Number stations will read out each group of 5 digits twice as shortwave radio drops out a lot – try searching youtube for ‘JK7e02o7xy4’ and you will hear an example where mid-stream someone tries to jam the signal. Or ‘ymhqL1MQwfE’ is a Chinese number station (again with allied jamming to try to spoil the message!). This may be ‘old school’, but is still very much alive and relevant to our world today!

    If you can’t be bothered to get the dice and hand-make a pair of pads, can make them for you – not as secure as making your own, but waaaaaaaaay better than reusing a key twice, and about as good as a computer can make it!

    So imagine I had got this below key to you securely somehow…





    Here’s a chance to try your brand new old-school decryption skills…

    23455 08372 67345 24327 81135 97170 96728 57346 08995 60992 53970 41580 76525 24673


    1. Cliff

      Re: Here's something I wrote about this for 2600

      Wow, downvotes. I thought it was better written and more useful than most comments on the Reg, so Cam only posit that you disagree with the content enough to down vote but not enough to explain what you disagree with? Maybe it is length envy?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Here's something I wrote about this for 2600

        I'm a little surprised too. You invested time into making a post that was not only interesting to read but informative. Bravo! (Maybe some just took exception to the 2600 reference. Is alt.2600 still around, or is it all in the browser these days?)

        "I thought it was better written and more useful than most comments on the Reg"

        I would not disagree.

        1. Cliff

          Re: Here's something I wrote about this for 2600

          Bless you. 2600 is still about in print edition if you don't mind paddling across to the USA

  24. James Minney

    Surely some mishtake - Ed

    " . . . we can put it in the pot"?? Surely a bit gamey by now?

  25. George Brown

    Why would you insist on only using your first name when a simple google search gives the name of the gchq resident historian? Maybe it's another of those MI5 cryptology interview tests..

    1. Chemist

      "gives the name of the gchq resident historian?"

      gives A name of the gchq resident historian

      I'll just say "John Le Carre" and "workname"

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Not sure why you got the downvote, thanks for sharing

    Unfortunately it's 17.05 on a Friday, the only reason I'm here past 5 is because I was reading your comment

    Now I need to get of the pub as I'm now playing catch up!

  27. Dennis

    And the other bits ...

    No mention has been made of other parts of the message.

    Why does it include a "Time of origin 1522" yet the Originator's Date is left blank? Could they be certain the pigeon would arrive home the same day ... unlikely. Could the date be taken from other messages ... unlikely, why would those message be certain to arrive. Could the date be in the encrypted text ... possibly, but why not encrypt the time. Why was the time important, but not the date?

    What does the "1525/6" mean? Is it just coincidence that 1522 (time of origin) is close to 1525. Is it a time and date ... 15:25 on the 6th. Is it a reference number of the encryption scheme ... pad number and page.

    What is the bit that looks like "lile 1625"?

    Why is it written with two different colours?

    Why is it written by two different people? The "time of origin 1522" and "1525/6" are different from the "lile 1625".

    The message is on a pre-printed form. Presumably the message follows a standard format. These other parts of the message should have a standard meaning ... what are they?

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  32. Simon Lyon

    The THREE sets of writing at 1522, 1525/6, 1625 and BTW lib1625 means "liberated at 1625"

    Two people *plus* one of them using two pens at different times = confusion:

    There are indeed two people involved but that's not indicated by the light/bold writing.

    A little bit of this speculation but I reckon it'll hold up pretty well to examination:

    The "To=X02", "Number of copies sent=2" boxes and the signature were written by the Sgt at the same time he would have filled in an accompanying form containing the *cleartext*.

    The florid version of the number "2" appears nowhere else but the impression on the paper of the signature appears to match them - and the slant on the "T" crossbar is certainly different from the cyphertext.

    All the rest was written by the same person (the coder/pigeon-fancier) since the form of the letters and numbers is identical *but* with two different pens (light/bold), at different times. Why?

    It helps to understand that NURP = Non-Unit Related Personnel - one term used for the birds themselves!

    Designations included (see below for full list of Dicken Medals awarded to pigeons), eg NURP.36.JH.190" - exactly matching the format on the form.

    It's therefore obvious, IMHO, that after being handed the cleartext he filled out the "Time of origin" and coded the message - appending the time he carried out the coding at the end indicating that it had been dealt with immediately. Why 25/26? Maybe a stickler for being precise - it was 15:25 plus 20 seconds?

    He then wandered over to his pigeon coop an hour later, not bothering to carry his pen with him, selected a couple of birds (two copies) and added both their IDs with a different pen.

    Plus the time he LIBERATED them - "lib. 1625".

    The times are Origin -> Coding -> Sending. Simple. The only other two numbers on the form - 27 - may be a one time code reference.

    Another couple of points:

    1) It seems a bit peculiar that there's no originator/date - possibly indicating that such info (if the bird fell into the wrong hands) would itself be of tactical interest and so also encoded. Or maybe the ID numbers of the birds were enough to keep the identity of the originator secret?

    2) Two birds were sent, a sensible precaution. If the other one got through and these messages were filed and kept then a search for other messages sent by the same Sgt with a similar timestamp may turn up the decoded version.


    A complete list of pigeons awarded "THE DICKEN MEDAL"

    NEHU.40.NS.1 - Blue Cheq. Hen "Winkie"

    MEPS.43.1263 - Red Cheq. Cock "George"

    SURP.41.L.3089 - White Hen "White Vision"

    NPS.41.NS.4230 - "Beachbomber"

    NPS.42.31066 - Grizzle Cock "Gustav"

    NPS.43.94451 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Paddy"

    NURP.36.JH.190 - Dark Cheq. Hen "Kenley Lass"

    NURP.38.EGU.242 - Red Cheq. Cock "Commando"

    NPS.42.NS.44802 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Flying Dutchman"

    NURP.40.GVIS.453- Blue Cock "Royal Blue"

    NURP.41.A.2164 - "Dutch Coast"

    NPS.41.NS.2862 - Blue Cock "Navy Blue"

    NPS.42.NS.15125 - Mealy Cock "William of Orange"

    NPS.43.29018 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Ruhr Express"

    NPS.42.21610 - B.C. Hen "Scotch Lass"

    NU.41.HQ.4373 - Blue Cock "Billy"

    NURP.39.NRS.144 - Red Cock "Cologne"

    NPS.42.36392 - "Maquis"

    NPS.42.NS.7542 -

    41.BA.2793 - "Broad Arrow"

    NURP.39.SDS.39 - "All Alone"

    NURP.37.CEN.335 - "Mercury"

    NURP.38.BPC.6 -

    DD.43.T.139 -

    DDD.43.Q.879 -

    NURP.41.SBC.219 - Cock "Duke of Normandy"

    NURP.43.CC.2418 - B.C. Hen

    NURP.40.WLE.249 - "Mary"

    NURP.41.DHZ.56 - "Tommy"

    42.WD.593 - "Princess"

    USA.43.SC.6390 - "G.I. Joe"

  33. Andus McCoatover


    (From previous El. Reg article:)

    "When I showed him the bird and code the blood drained from his face and he advised us to back off. He said nothing would ever be published," Martin claimed.

    So Secret Agent Commander Wilfred "Biffy" Dunderdale could read it. Unless it's somehow he'd memorised the sequence...but so many years later???

    Noticed also the first and last 5-letter sequence are the same, and surely each group must constitute a word. Plus, in a short message, no-one wastes time on definite and indefinite articles. (a, the)

    But, yeah, if compiled from a one-time pad, not a chance....

    1. Dave Bell

      Re: Intriguing:

      Since Wilfred Dunderdale died in 1990, you wonder when Mr. Martin really did find the message.

      Maybe he knew the name of the sender.

      Five-letter groups is almost the standard for ciphering. You hide word lengths, which are otherwise a big giveaway.

  34. ad4xe


    This originated on the German side and there is a description of The 43RD Wessex Division and of a number of weapons captured by the Division. That's all I am willing to reveal,it is sad that I decoded most of this in my head and the brainiacs at MI6 can't crack it. Clue: It's originator was German. And notice the multiple appearence of "R", these are names .

    BYe !!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: MI5 IDIOTS!

      So why haven't you sold your solution to the news papers? It's made it onto news stories over here in the US..



      or are you just bullshitting?

  35. Dave Bell

    A wild guess

    First, there has to be enough information for the cipher clerk to identify the cipher used. Which means that the pigeon loft only supplied pigeons for one unit, so everything goes to the right place when it arrives. And they can be expected to recognise Sjt W Stot.

    Second. this unit doesn't want to rely on radio.

    Third, they can send a useful short message, but it's something more complicated than, for instance, the seizure of Pegasus Bridge (and the time is wrong for that instance too).

    It might be from one of the Jedburgh teams, uniformed soldiers dropped to help the French Resistance, but did they use pigeons? They did routinely use one-time pads. Another possibility is the GHQ Liason Regiment, which reported the positions of Allied forces. That could be a short message, but again did they use pigeons?

    It's been suggested they didn't have time to set up the radio transmitter, but they obviously did have the time to do the ciphering. I'm inclined towards a Jedburgh team, because they would have had to be careful about making transmissions. They're in occupied territory, and they could be tracked down.

    The same signal might have been sent by radio, and received, maybe a day or two later. That gets deciphered, and the one-time pad is marked as used, and destroyed. It would be a bad move to send differently ciphered versions of the same message. Maybe a pigeon did get through. Why both pigeon numbers on this message? One less thing to go wrong when you're preparing the pigeons.

    And maybe all I am doing is constructing a plausible fiction. We might not even have a real name, it could be a 1944 version of a "handle", the "Rubber Duck" of the time.

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  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I hate to be a spoil sport, but what if the code doesn't simply substitute 5 character blocks for plain text characters or words? What if some of the blocks substitute letters, others numbers, all at the same time? Or locations and units? If I was designing a one use code, thats the sort of thing I'd use, fairly simple, not too clunky for the persons using the book, but an absolute b**** if you have no context and want to translate. In which case you'd have a limited pool of items and about 11.8 million combinations available to assign each piece of information to. Even with an infinite amount of processing power, but without knowing content, there would be an infinite number of viable solutions, all but one would be wrong.

    Basically what I'm saying is that you need the codebook to break it. Although a copy of the second in plaintext would do just as nicely.

  38. Dgross99


    Just a guess but the "27 1526/6" at the end may be a checksum of sorts, since there is are 27- 5 letter groups. That would ensure that the decoder had the entire message, and that the message had not been compromised.

  39. Hughie

    Hiding from SS, molested by Saville and Smith is going to eat me

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