Pigeon Post

Hanging out at Toronto's Union Station
Hanging out at Toronto’s Union Station

Dating back to the Roman Army, Pigeons have long been used as messengers in the military.  Capable of flying up to 80 miles per hour with a range of 700 miles, pigeons quickly delivered messages without the need of sending couriers through hostile territory. Britain’s Royal Airforce trained 750,000 of them during WWII. The RAF parachuted pigeons over Europe to enable the resistance and invading British forces to send messages back to England.

Zoologists at Oxford University discovered that homing pigeons in England navigate by following the road network if they are familiar with the route. Otherwise they navigate using their internal compasses which measure the earth’s magnetism, sun and star readings.

During the renovation of his home in Surrey England, David Martin found behind the fireplace a red message capsule lashed to a skeleton of a long deceased messenger pigeon.

Investigation reveals that the message was sent during the DDay Invasion on June 6, 1944 by Sergeant William Stott – a Fusilier and Paratrooper of the British 6th Airborne Division.

The pigeon‘s identity was National Union of Racing Pigeons tag 40 TW 194.

(As an aside, my dad was at DDay in the Canadian Signals Corp in a forward observer unit like Sergeant Stott. He never mentioned anything about pigeons however. There is a small chance that my Uncle Jack flew Sergeant Stott or his supplies to France)

So, what did the message say?


Gibberish as expected.

Britain’s code breakers – GCHQ, stated that without the code book and the method for deciphering the message, the message could not be cracked. Help in cracking the message was asked for from the public and Lakefield Heritage Research in Peterborough Ontario.

There are two claims to the solution.

  1. Gord Young of Peterborough Ontario using his Great Uncle’s WW1 Code Book deciphered the message as:

Hit Jerry’s right or reserve battery here.

Troops, panzers, batteries, engineers, here.

Counter measures against panzers not working.

2. Didac Sánchez of Spain claims to have decoded the message but not released it into the public. Mr Sanchez used the

solution  to create an encryption product 4YEO (ForYourEyesOnly).

Both solutions are contested. The Word War I code book was known to the Germans and the encryption system compromised. Why would the British Army still be using it in WW II?  With no proof by published by Mr. Sánchez, his claim was dismissed.

The message was created using the Vernan Cipher (aka One Time Pad) which is the only known unbreakable encryption system.

The encryption system used by today’s computers relies on the fact that the encrypted message cannot be deciphered due to the computational power required to determine the value of the encryption key.

Gilbert Vernam while working for AT&T Bell Labs patented the One Time Pad system in 1919. The system was implemented in secure teleprinter applications. The cipher had already been invented in 1882. Vernam’s cipher contained a flaw in that the key was not random and could be hacked.

US Army Signals officer Joseph Mauborgne used Vernam’s cryptography schema to develop the one time pad. In Mauborgne’s implementation, the cipher key was a random number ensures the message could not be compromised. Mauborgne was as well a pioneer in the use of radio communication in aircraft.

A unique encryption key was used to translate the plain text into a message cipher.

The receiver however will need to know the key to decode the message. Both parties were provided booklets of codes including the random  key. Varying the method by which a page was selected from the code book would increase the difficulty of cracking the message. For example, we could use the formula Day of the Year minus four as the page number for day of year greater than four. All the receiver would need only to know the value of four to decipher the message.

Fans of author and former MI6 officer John le Carre will recognize the One Time Pad as the standard encryption method used in the book Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy. Encrypted messages were posted to dead letter boxes. The boxes eliminated the need to meet face to face.

Dead letter boxes have two properties – A signal that a message is in the DLB and a place of hiding the location of the message. The location of the DLB is a secret that both parties need to know in advance. Implementing DLB’s on the internet is an interesting challenge to explore in a future blog post.

On July 8, 1944, just four weeks after releasing 40 TW 194, Sergeant Stott was killed in action at age 35. He is laid to rest in Ranville Cemetery in Normandy France. His gravestone is inscribed “Willie dear. We are ever proud of you Mom, Dad, Edith and Harry”.

There is a large flock of pigeons which hang around Toronto’s Union station on Front Street next to the subway entrance.

Rats with wings? Hardly.

Additional Reading

Original Message https://www.google.ca/search?q=pigeon+message+stott&biw=1536&bih=734&tbm=isch&imgil=Ys4I5EKxDNQlTM%253A%253BtRrMmplmJ2LGhM%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fwww.bbc.com%25252Fnews%25252Fuk-20749632&source=iu&pf=m&fir=Ys4I5EKxDNQlTM%253A%252CtRrMmplmJ2LGhM%252C_&usg=__mtzNJ84-Om0xhZu4uBG_XTON5kQ%3D&ved=0ahUKEwjhgLSygsrRAhUozoMKHSqhA-kQyjcINQ&ei=iX5-WKGYHKicjwSqwo7IDg#imgrc=dae_sawh96qQnM%3A