Looking back at the cipher pigeon media brouhaha of the last week, I think it’s time we all (myself included) stopped jumping in the air at every flickering shadow, and pause long enough to get some kind of solid perspective on what we actually know.
(1) It has been claimed that enciphered pigeon messages were as rare as, errrm, hen’s teeth. However, as (a very young) John Harding recalled it, WW2 “Pigeongram” messages were “nearly allways” in code. Moreover:-
“It was decided that use should be made of the existing pigeon fanciers who had lofts nearest to the south coast, that they should be approached and checks made as to their background, nationality and allegiance to their country, so it was that the Pigeongram Service was established and was much refined for it’s better use in the second World War.”
(2) “S[er]j[ean]t” as written on the pigeon form is most definitely an Army spelling, not an RAF spelling. Of all the military records for “A Smith” (a simple sampling methodology) I looked at, every single “Serjeant” was in an Army regiment. [Hence everything said so far about SoE and RAF bombers is probably interesting but irrelevant].
(3) The only “Serjeant” I’ve found in forces databases with a name close to the one as written on the pigeon form would seem to be “3650400 Serjeant William Stout” in 253 Field Company of the Royal Engineers. [Hence everything written about other military personnel called “Stott” is probably insteresting but irrelevant].
(4) The pigeon form was written by two hands, one English (Stout’s) and one apparently French because it uses the abbreviation “lib.” (presumably short for “lib[éré“. [Speculation: because the “7” digit in the French hand is not crossed, might it be that the second writer was French/English bilingual?]
(5) I think it is reasonably safe to infer that the pigeon found dead in a Bletchingley chimney was probably returning from France to its loft in South-East England: “DK” / “TW” could well stand for ten-mile-radius geographic areas around Dorking and Tunbridge Wells (or possibly Twickenham). [Even so, I think it’s a bit odd that nobody with access to National Union of Racing Pigeon archives has yet worked out any kind of reasonably definitive answer to this – you’d think they’d be overjoyed for pigeons to be in the news in such a big way].
(6) Even though racing pigeons do often live to ten or more, their active racing life is typically only 6-7 years. However, I’m pretty sure that Freddy Dyke said the military had a preference for young birds (so many jokes present themselves that I simply can’t bring myself to choose). Put together, these suggest the two pigeons were sent after mid-1940 (when the younger of the two pigeons was born) but before (say) 1944, because by 1945 the “37” pigeon would have been 7 or 8 years old.
(7) According to Freddy Dyke, the figure of “over 200,000 pigeons” often quoted could only be reached by combining the numbers for the “National Pigeon Service, Army Pigeon Service, RAF Pigeon Service, Middle East Pigeon Service, Australian Army Signal Corps, and the Signal Corps United States Army”.
(8) If we are looking an Army pigeon, then we would probably need to look for information relating to the Army Pigeon Service / Army Carrier Pigeon Service. Luckily, there are quite a lot of documents relating to this at the National Archives in Kew. If only I had time…
If you want to read more, the best pigeon-related war book seems to be Freddy Dyke’s (2005) “Memoirs of a Wartime Teenager”. I’ve ordered myself a copy from tiny publisher Dreamstake Books (it doesn’t currently seem to be available anywhere else) – PayPal them your £8.99 + £1.99 p&p from this page.