23 Dec 2012

World War II pigeon message decoded

8:14 am on 23 December 2012

A Canadian history buff seems to have cracked a coded World War II message that was found strapped to the leg of a dead carrier pigeon.

The bird's bones were found in a chimney when a fireplace was being renovated in a house in Surrey.

Inside a red capsule strapped to the leg of the bird was a message from Sergeant William Stott, who had been deployed behind German lines in France to observe the enemy's activities.

When the message was taken to Britain's top code-breakers, they declared the code uncrackable.

The Government Communications Headquarters said it would be impossible to decipher without the code books and encryption tables used to write the message.

But the ABC reports history buff Gordon Young says it took 17 minutes to decipher the message, using his great uncle's code book from World War I. He says the experts are over-thinking the task of cracking the code.

"There's been too much of this James Bond and those kind of movies that they're going to kind of look for something more complex," he said.

Mr Young said soldiers in or near enemy territory neither had the level of education nor the time to use a fancy code book.

"Acronyms work better. If that were on the telegraph, the guy would be half dead by the time one quarter of that code was typed out on the Morse code," he said.

Mr Young said the message identified German troop and Panzer tank positions, pointing out the location of headquarters and observation posts to target for attacks.

He said the message was sent during the battle for the city of Caen in the wake of the D-Day landings in 1944.

"The observer identifies himself first. Second, he tells them his recorded supplemental report, which is about 330, I think 325 or something on the actual form," he said.

"And then the next one is the most important, what has happened in the last 15, 20 minutes.

"And it's the Panzer assault. And then he explains that the western observer is taking note of how that's unfolding from his angle."

Around 250,000 pigeons were used on active service during World War II, flying messages in small canisters strapped to their legs across enemy lines. Some were also carried in bombers to be released in case of a crash.

Mr Young said the real hero in this story is the pigeon. They worked in pairs to improve the chances of messages arriving safely.

"So one of the two of them arrived by zillions and zillions of percentages to one, somehow landed on the chimney and fell down the chimney. It was exhausted, you see, so it picked a chimney to take a rest," he said.

The code-breakers at GCHQ say they will check Mr Young's work, but insist that without the original code books it will be impossible to verify whether he has really cracked the code.

Mr Young is hoping someone with an original World War II code book will come forward to check the accuracy of his work.

He said he is "about 80%" confident the deciphering of the code he has done is accurate.

"But it really is intended to show that the code could be broken rather than complete accuracy," he said.