Because Trove holds newspaper articles all the way up to 1954, you occasionally stumble across interesting stories from around the world picked up by Australian newspapers. And because I’ve been raking over the various editions of the Truth, my virtual path has recently been littered with such things (though admittedly slightly racier and more gossipy than the dear old Adelaide ‘Tizer).

We surely all know about the Somerton Man: so here’s a link to the Truth’s take on the story, including this photo:

Another mysterious man was found near a beach on 2nd July 1949 (said the Truth elsewhere). However, this quickly turned out to be 23-year-old ex-soldier David John Wicks. He had been working as a yardsman at the Pineapple Hotel on Kangaroo Point: it seemed likely he had died as a result of having previously contracted malaria. Doubtless people will construct conspiracy stories around Kangaroo Point (which has appeared a fair few times here). *sigh*

Much more recently, yet another mysterious man found at Poona Dam at Nambour, 9th September 2008: “apart from the smiley face message, the only other thing in his wallet was an old Plains Video Kingaroy rental card.” A reconstructed picture of his face looked like this:

Again, a possible breakthrough was made earlier this year, when a man came forward to report that his brother Charles Rawlins was missing:

But what about the pigeon, Nick?

Ah, yes, sorry about that. The Truth related the tale of a pigeon-based cipher mystery so straightforwardly that it would be churlish not to quote it in full:

The Brisbane Truth 28th September 1952, p.34


LONDON, Sat.— A carrier pigeon landed on the deck of an American cruiser during the recent ‘Exercise Mainbrace,’ the North Atlantic Treaty Powers’ manoeuvres. It bore a peculiar message.
No cyphers could be found to fit it. So the captain decided to rush it to headquarters. There, code experts got to work on it.
After seven hours it remained unbroken. It was a perfect code. Code breaking machines were put to work on it — no result!
Then it came into the hands of a Scottish sub-lieutenant: ‘It’s written in Gaelic,’ he pronounced.

A few years ago, while giving a talk at Westminster Under School on the WW2 pigeon cipher, I mentioned that (a) Typex messages were sent in groups of five letters; and (b) when some German codebreakers looked at intercepted Typex messages early on in the war, they noticed that the last letter of each cryptogram was almost never X.

I then asked the Westminster boys what the Germans inferred from this (which was actually an incredibly subtle and difficult question). I was thoroughly delighted when a quiet high voice at the back suggested that the Germans could have concluded that they were looking at an Enigma-class machine encryption, where the last letter group was padded out with Xs.

Indeed, our young future head of GCHQ was right: the space bar on the Typex keyboard was attached to the X key, and operators typically used spaces (i.e. Xs) to pad out the final message group to a multiple of five letters.

Separately, German codebreaker Otto Buggisch also noticed early on in the war that the first three letters of RAF Typex messages were almost never A, I, and R respectively: though Buggisch deemed his obervation to have “no practical significance”.

All the same, this is a good example of bad enciphering practice (because stereotyped contents such as HEILHITLER or KEINEBESONDERENEREIGNISSE leave all cipher systems exposed), and goes to show that Britain started the war with cipher practices that were essentially no better or worse than Germany’s.

Yet if we have a look at the secret history of the QQQQQ group as used in Typex messages, we find something that might help us to (eventually) reveal the contents of a well-known cipher mystery…

The British Navy and Typex

ADM 1-27186 tells us in good detail how Typex cipher practice changed in the British Navy through the war years.

The Navy started with the same set of five black rotors used by the Army: the machine setting keys specified which drums to use, and were initially constant for a week, but on 2nd September 1940 were changed every day. A further two red rotors were added on 1st June 1941, giving a choice of seven rotors.

At first, the per-message drum settings were chosen at random by the operator and “the actual initial setting of the drums was transmitted as the first and last groups of the message or message section”. “Message sections were limited, for security reasons, to 60-70 groups, after which a new message section was chosen. Sections were separated by groups of five Q’s.”

Hence the first appearance of QQQQQ in Naval Typex messages was as a plaintext separator between message sections. That is, a typical long message would look as follows, where ABCDE was the (raw) indicator of the first message section and LMNOP was the (raw) indicator of the second message section:

ABCDE ….. [60+ groups] ….. ABCDE QQQQQ LMNOP ….. [more groups] ….. LMNOP

Buggisch also recalled that some Typex-related documents found at Dunkirk (along with a rotor-less Typex machine, and perhaps a reflector) mentioned “an English cipher security officer point[ing] out that he has noticed frequent breaches of the strict regulation that wheels should be turned on at random after a message has been enciphered”.

On 1st November 1941, however, Navy operators’ freedom to choose their own settings was curtailed, and books of disguised message settings were introduced in the Navy: at the same time, the practice of using QQQQQ as a section separator ceased.

After 1st March 1942, the optional use of Typex plugboards was indicated by FIELD at the start of messages.

1st February 1943 saw the introduction of two sets of seven new rotors wired specifically for the Navy, called “Code X” (for normal secure traffic) and “Cypher X” (for more secure traffic with plugboards), and where the original seven drums were still used for Inter-service traffic. Then:

On the 29th December, 1943, following a further review of Typex security, which amongst other things showed this system was particularly vulnerable to cryptographic attack from stereotyped beginnings, a revised procedure for concealing the start of the text was brought into force. From this date, the first ten to fifteen words of the subject matter were buried in the text, in addition to the address.

A new (and somewhat cumbersome) doubly-enciphered message setting procedure was introduced on 1st February 1944: but this was broadly balanced out by extra latitude when dealing with multiple message sections. Now “message sections were once again distinguished by the self-evidence group of five Q’s with the added proviso, however, that after each such group the right hand drum must be rotated one place before encyphering was continued.”


In April 1944, the cyclic procedure was introduced as a security measure in the cyphering of short messages which, by reason of their brevity, were unsuited to the “buried address” procedure.

I don’t know what “the cyclic procedure” was, all suggestions gratefully received. 🙂

The British Army and Typex

Christos has a good page on the Typex, with scans of HW 40/89: ‘Typex questionnaire’:

From this, we know that at the very start of the war, each Typex rotor contained 14 “large” letters (of 26), where operator-set random settings could only use these large letters: but this restriction disappeared in mid-1940.

Codress burying (i.e. concealed coded addresses) was introduced on 1st January 1941, while disguised message settings were introduced on 19th May 1941, some six months before the Navy did the same.

A letter-shift procedure was introduced on 1st Feb 1944, and a figure/letter shift procedure on 1st September 1944: these were introduced in the Navy on the same dates.

The Royal Air Force and Typex

It was the RAF who invented Typex: but the amount of RAF-related Typex information I have found is quite small.

However, Stuart Rutter once posted some scans (now only in the Wayback Machine) from the February 1943 user manual for the (mostly) portable Typex Mk VI (which is what I suspect was used in the field for the Pigeon Cipher):

Preparation of message for transmission – Withdraw and detach the tape from the message printer and insert in manuscript, as the first group, the disguised message setting used at the commencement of the message. If the message is complete in one section write this disguised message setting and groups of five Q’s must be inserted appropriately in the spaces left for that purpose. Each section must begin and end with the disguised message setting, in manuscript, appropriate to it. The tape should then be gummed to a message form so that there are ten groups in each line. This is done in order to facilitate the counting of the total number of groups.

It’s not as clear as in the other cases how the QQQQQ section should be used, but it’s there nonetheless.

Can Love Conquer All?

Dufty recounts (chapter 43) a charming “cryptological love story” about two lovelorn Typex operators separated by General McArthur’s push North, who would occasionally hide messages to each other at the start of Typex messages.

The way they had been trained to use Typex was to write some filler nonsense text at the start (presumably the “ten to fifteen words” mentioned in the Navy account), followed by an (enciphered) QQQQQ separator, followed by the address and finally the actual message contents. Because the filler text was stripped out of the message at the far end before being passed onwards, the operators had just enough latitude to insert their own messages.

Incidentally, it’s not clear to me whether this QQQQQ was always added at a five-letter boundary or whether it could appear at any position: I strongly suspect the former, so it could prove valuable to find out from any still-living Typex operators if this is correct. (Perhaps I’ll ask David Dufty if he would be so kind as to ask one of the Australian Typex operators he interviewed.)

The reason this might be interesting to us is that if (as has seemed reasonably likely to me for some time) the Pigeon Cipher was sent on D-Day (6th June 1944), their Australian love messages in the margins were being sent at about the same time.

And so it may well be that the Pigeon Cipher’s internal structure includes a short filler section and a (plaintext) QQQQQ block, followed by a single extra step on the rightmost rotor: and only then the actual message.

Cryptanalyzing QQQQQ?

The introduction of a filler header plus a QQQQQ separator to Typex messages certainly had the effect of hiding stereotyped beginnings, which was a positive lesson learned from attacking Enigma.

Yet had German cryptanalysts had a reflector and a set of Typex rotors to work with (which they very nearly did on a number of occasions, most notably in Dunkirk and in Tobruk, and there was even a “North African Story” that claimed that they did), could they have exploited (later in the war) the presence of plaintext QQQQQ to crack messages, perhaps with some Bombe-like machine assistance?

Kelly Chang’s (2012) dissertation on the cryptanalysis of Typex is silent on this: Chang treats Typex messages as if they were flat, uniform text messages (i.e. ‘pure’ Typex), which – as we can see from all the above – they were often not.

So, if a Typex message contains plaintext QQQQQ, where would it be? A first trick is to note that because we also know that Q cannot encipher to itself on both Enigma and Typex machines, we need not search for QQQQQ anywhere in a Typex message where Q appears: that is, we can sometimes see where QQQQQ isn’t. And if it turns out that the practice was to only place QQQQQ on five-letter boundaries in the plaintext, we need not check any ciphertext block containing a Q.

Furthermore, given a day’s collection of intercepted Typex messages (which would all have the same rotors selected), a German codebreaker could select the message with the most (random) instances of Q in the top part of the message, so as to sharply reduce the number of places to brute-force search for QQQQQ (because each Q instance in the ciphertext would ‘knock out’ itself and four preceding positions to check).

Curiously, in the case of the Pigeon Cipher, if we colour blue the five-letter indicator groups at the start and end, and colour red all the instances of the letter Q…

…you immediately notice that the third line (“PABUZ WYYNP …..”) contains no letter Q instances at all. This may just be a coincidence, of course: but I personally would be unsurprised if that line turned out to contain QQQQQ in the plaintext somewhere.

If this is right, do we now have enough to break the Pigeon Cipher? I’m not yet sure: but I suspect we’re starting to move closer to a position where we can reduce the search space by millions (if not billions) of times. And at some point, perhaps we’ll have reduced it enough to be able to sensibly set a search in motion… we shall see, fingers crossed!

Here in the UK, it all started with a story in 27th August 2015’s Daily Telegraph:-

Didac Sánchez, a 22-year-old Spanish IT entrepreneur, says he has deciphered Second World War message following a three-year effort at a cost of €1.5 million (£1.1m) – but won’t reveal its message.

Didac Sanchez

Sánchez claims he told GCHQ of the message’s contents: but GCHQ (of course) denies all knowledge of it.

Now, I have to admit that this is quite a different angle from the media’s usual cipher mystery-related tosh. But what’s in it for Sánchez? Ah, the Telegraph went on to say:

He [Sánchez] now plans to market new security software based on the code, a system he has christened 4YEO (For Your Eyes Only) and which will allow any text, document, WhatsApp, Messenger, SMS or Skype conversation to be encrypted, as well as telephone calls.

And A Didac Sánchez Cryptogram Too…

And – mirabile dictu – Sánchez’s clever people have posted up a challenge cryptogram supposedly generated using 4YEO’s software, offering a bounty of 25,000 euros to the first person who can crack its “indecipherable” secrets before, errrm, 31st December 2015:


Things to note about this Sánchez challenge cryptogram:
* There are three 5-letter repeats (OTASR, RLESS, GDNFP), which I think would imply that this is not a simple substitution cipher.
* From the presence of “Ñ”, it seems that the plaintext is probably Spanish or Catalan [Catalan does not have a Ñ letter].
* The most common letters are EAOINRSLTC, whereas the most common letters for Spanish are EAOSNRILDT, and the most common letters for Catalan are EASRLTINOUM.
* Hence it seems that, completely unlike the WW2 pigeon cipher, this is nothing more than a path transposition cipher of a Spanish plaintext.
* The length (in characters) is 1428, which factorises as 2 x 2 x 3 x 7 x 17. [But see the update below!]
* Hence this might feasibly be formed from four sequential transposed blocks of 17 x 21 (or of 21 x 17) characters. [But see the update below!]
* Given that no algorithm is specified, it seems that the cryptogram maker is inexperienced in cryptography and hoping for “security by obscurity”.

Naturally, my normal 15% crypto-consultancy rate applies if you manage to crack it from this. 😉

What Does Nick Think?

What do I make of all this? Well, from all this I hear the clear guiding voice of someone who appears to know almost nothing about how encryption technology works in the real world of heterogenous networks and protocols: there could be no single ‘silver bullet’ that could satisfy the technological needs of encryption in all these areas simultaneously.

So all I can honestly see here is a fake from start to finish, a homegrown transposition cipher cobbled together by someone who has perhaps seen the Feynman Challenge Ciphers (but little else besides), and designed to hype some vapourware (i.e. software which hasn’t yet been written). Do I honestly believe that Sánchez’s allegedly crack team of, errm, code crackers ever existed, never mind cracked ‘our’ WW2 pigeon cipher? No, sorry, I don’t. I really don’t.

So unless anyone has proof otherwise, I call this entire story as a Big Fat Modern Bluff, someone trying to appropriate a real-life cipher mystery to promote some crypto-security vapourware that hasn’t even been written. Would I entrust my data to any company who thinks this is in any way “indecipherable”? No, I would not, sorry.

And this is exactly where I planned to finish the whole coverage of this story…

But Then I Read This…

According to this first part and this second part of detailed Spanish exposé from last September, courtesy of Madrid-based online political daily ‘El Confidencial’:

* Didac Sánchez is just a frontman for a group of companies
* Of those (at least) fifteen companies, only three have so far filed any accounts, with a total combined turnover of less than a million euros, some 2% of the amount claimed in the press.
* The journalists were unable to find any genuine trace of several of the other companies (e.g. Hilton Clinic), despite numerous promises made by Sánchez himself to supply them documentation on the companies’ activities.
* Sánchez’s original name was Diego Giménez Sánchez, but he changed it to Diego Sánchez Giménez
* Sánchez’s real history is to be found in connection with his original name (Diego Giménez Sánchez)
* On 29th May 2005, Diego Giménez Sánchez was (at the age of 12), while living in the Casal dels Infants del Raval in Barcelona, sexually abused by a 45-year-old man by the name of José María Hill Prados. José María Hill Prados was convicted in February 2007 (and banned from contacting Giménez Sánchez for five years or coming within 1000 metres of him), but later appealed, saying that Giménez Sánchez had withdrawn all the claims. However, the court was not swayed by this, or by Sánchez’s many letters (and even TV interviews) at the time. José María Hill Prados has since been released.
* Fast forward to 2015, and El Confidencial’s journalists discovered that the person actually behind all Didac Sánchez’s companies was none other than… José María Hill Prados, whom El Confidencial helpfully labels as “pederasta del Raval”.

Personally, I have no way of knowing what the truth of this matter is. At the very least, the existence of Sánchez / Hill Prados’s company ‘Eliminalia’ that helps people remove their unwanted past from the web is an aspect to this whole affair that is either horribly cynical or spectacularly ironic. Closets have rarely held more skeletons simultaneously, it would seem.

Make of all this what you will. 😐

Update: I just now noticed (*sigh*) the connection with the WW2 pigeon ciphertext – the first five-element code group (GDNFP) is the same as the last (GDNFP). In the case of the WW2 cipher, this is almost certainly because it encrypts the initial settings for the five drums used in the Typex machines used so much by the British Army: but in this challenge cipher, who knows? But this would probably make the length of the ciphertext either (by excluding the final GDNFP) 1423 (which would be a high unlikely message length for a transposition cipher, because it’s prime 🙂 ), or (by excluding both the first and final GDNFP) 1418 which equals 2 x 709, which is also somewhat unlikely as a transposition ciphertext length.

So what is probably going on is that “GDNFP” is encrypting some kind of reordering key to the transposition cipher. If A = 1, then (in ascending order) G = 7, D = 4, N = 14, F = 6, and P = 16. If an idiot programmer was behind this, one might possibly predict that this encodes a five-letter-long hex number (i.e. 0x63D5F = 408927) as the enciphering key. If an idiot mathematician was behind this, these might be indices into a list of prime numbers, A = 2, B = 3, C = 5, D = 7, E = 11, F = 13, G = 17, H = 19, I = 23, J = 29, K = 31, L = 37, M = 41, N = 43, O = 47, and P = 53, so [GDNFP] might instead encode [17,7,43,13,53]. Chances are that these are the kinds of thing this peasanty / homegrown transposition cipher will prove to use.

At a Westminster Under School Open Day not so long ago, I was delighted to find out from Miss Ellis (WUS’s Head of Mathematics) that after their final exams, Year 8 boys there spend time discovering the joys of cryptography and code-breaking: specifically, they go to Bletchley Park, find out about Enigma, and break some ciphers.

All the same, what with “The Imitation Game” and so forth, Nazi cryptography is at risk of becoming old hat (or do I mean alter Hut?). But what about Allied codes and ciphers? And – dare I ask it – what about that pesky WW2 cipher pigeon? Of course, once she found out that I knew about such wonderfully recondite (yet also historically and cryptologically rich) subjects, she set about trying to persuade me to give a presentation at the school.

What, me talk about Allied codes and ciphers, wartime pigeons, Typex machines, and D-Day history for two hours? (To be fair, I should perhaps say “for only two hours”.)

Needless to say, she didn’t have to twist my arm particularly hard. Or… at all, truth be told.

And so a few weeks ago, I pitched up at Westminster Under with a giant printout of the enciphered pigeon message, a 50-plus-slide Powerpoint presentation (heavy on nice photos, but light on text), and… a big empty space where I had originally hoped a Typex machine would be. (My cunning plan to borrow one from a friendly crypto collector fell through a few weeks beforehand, sadly. Oh well!)

To make the crypto side of the talk as ‘hands on’ as possible, I gave the boys a practical challenge using Double Transposition (The link is to a description I adapted from a genuine WW2 document Stu Rutter and I found at the National Archives in Kew.)

The boys divided into teams of three or four on a table, for each team to encipher secret messages for a different team to decipher (i.e. by supplying a pair of transposition keys with the message). Once they had got the hang of the technique, I set everyone the challenge of reliably enciphering the same short message at high speed: this was competitive and fun, yielding quite a nice balance of serotonin and adrenaline. 😉

In fact, there was a very specific Cipher Mysteries point to the exercise. Because we can tell that the cipher pigeon’s message was enciphered in only three minutes, we can deduce that it can only have been made using a machine cipher – nobody, I’m sure, could reliably encipher a message of that size in three minutes using Double Transposition, nor indeed with any of the other non-machine ciphers the Allies used in WW2. And Typex aside, the only other Allied machine cipher was the M-209, which had a ten-letter indicator (both the cipher pigeon message and Typex messages had five-letter indicators).

Incidentally, one nice crypto thing is that, having first gone through the history of the Typex machine, I decided to see how on the ball everyone was by throwing out a properly difficult crypto question to the audience:

Early in the war, German cryptanalysts noted that the probability of the letter ‘X’ appearing in the last 4 letters of a Typex message was extremely low. What did that tell them?

Naturally, when a boy (I didn’t get his name, sorry) at the far side called out the answer, I was hugely delighted, because many, many adults would not have reached that. (And so I leave it as an exercise for the reader, just as you’d expect).

As I’m sure will be no surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed myself – it was a great opportunity to give my cipher pigeon / Typex material a bit of a public airing – and I really hope that a fair few of the boys did too. They behaved in an exemplary manner, and were every bit as sharp, fast and engaged as I hoped they’d be. All credit to them for that, and a twenty-one gun salute to Miss Ellis not only for making it happen, but also for helping out on the tables for the Double Transposition exercise (which was very kind of her, and utterly necessary as it turned out).

Same again next year? I hope so! 🙂

PS: right at the end, one of the teams very kindly handed me a nice Double Transposition cipher challenge they had devised, which I thought I’d share with you here (I hope that’s OK with them). I’ve kept their original keys ( 😉 ) but modified their cipher only very slightly:

Sender: Strawberries & Cream
Primary Transposition Key: 9, 1, 10, 4, 2, 7, 6, 8, 3, 5
Secondary Transposition Key: 3, 1, 4, 5, 9, 2, 6, 8, 7, 10
Cipher Message:

Can you decipher it? Enjoy! 🙂

Here’s a lovely 50-minute film from 2005 for you about WWII pigeons (both English and German) called War of the Birds, made by Richard Cane for Atlantic Productions Ltd for Animal Planet. [IMDB page]

Though I knew about this ages ago, the link I had been given was to a compressed video that somehow managed to crash my various web browsers: but this new one works perfectly OK for me, so I’m happy to pass it on now. 🙂

As (almost) always with TV documentaries, it gets a fair few small details wrong (the pigeon message pad shown wasn’t a 418B, etc), but it gets enough big things right that this doesn’t really matter. The film even has Freddy Dyke (author of “Memoirs of a Wartime Teenager”, which I still haven’t been able to get a copy of) as one of its talking heads, complete with a properly resplendent moustache.

Recommended! 🙂

A quick recap: a copy of the WW2 cipher was placed on the leg of two pigeons, one with ring NURP 40 TW 194 and the other with ring NURP 37 DK 76. But we haven’t been able to identify either of these birds, or their owners, or even their clubs.

I recently suggested that NURP 37 DK 76 might have been owned by Mr L Duke of Great Shelford, and I continue to pursue that possibility. But just now, while speculatively browsing the (paywalled) British Newspaper Archive, I found a whole lot of stuff that was new to me…

Lost Pigeons

During WW2, Robert Lever of Ticehurst, Sussex placed a series of small ads in the Kent & Sussex Courier, offering sizeable rewards for lost racing pigeons (these were plainly no ordinary pigeons). And many of these had exactly the kind of NURP … TW pigeon rings we’re looking for:-

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 29 November 1940, page 12
* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 06 December 1940, page 12

Ring Numbers NURP 39 NSC 62 (Black), NURP 40 TW 243 (Blue). — ROBERT LEVER, HIGHLANDS, TICEHURST

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 14 February 1941, page 10

Black Hen, NURP 39 NSC 62. Blue Cock, NURP 40 TW 243. Blue Chequer Pied Hen, NURP 40 HBC 182. Red Chequer Cock, NURP 40 W 4323.–ROBERT LEVER, HIGHLANDS, TICEHURST.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 13 June 1941, page 8
* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 20 June 1941, page 8

Red Chequer Hen, NURP 39 JWS 31; Dark Blue Chequer, NURP 41 TW 5; Blue NURP 41 TW 14; Blue Chequer, NURP 41 TW 22.–Robert Lever, Highlands, Ticehurst, Sussex.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 22 May 1942, page 8

£1 REWARD.–Racing Pigeons, NURP 39 JWS, 119 (Blue); NURP 39, NSC 17 (Black Pied); NURP 39, NSC 8 (Black); NURP 41, TW 25 (Light Blue Chequer). –Lever, Highlands, Ticehurst.

Lever’s Pigeons

There are lots more local newspaper references to Robert Lever’s pigeons in wartime races:

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 05 September 1941, page 5


PIGEON RACING.–The final young bird race was flown on Saturday from Tavistock (197 miles) under good weather conditions. Result: Sargent (Lewes) 1160, 1158; Lever (Ticehurst) 1159, 1157, 1154, 1152; Bristow (Lewes), 1106; Mrs Oswald Smith, 1078, 1077; Hills, 882. Mr Hills wins the “Frank Simms” young bird average cup : runner-up, Mrs Oswald-Smith.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 28 August 1942, page 5


PIGEON RACING CLUB.–The young birds racing from Dorchester (122 miles) for the first time attained a speed of 48 miles per hour. Liberated at 11.35 a.m., members were clocking-in arrivals from 2 p.m. Result : Henshall, 1443 ; Simms 1434; Carter, 1423; Ransom and Coleman, 1417; Mrs Oswald-Smith, 1407; Booth, 1385; R. Lever, 1326 ; Westow, 1295 ; Hills, 1293.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 28 May 1943, page 5


PIGEON RACING.–On Saturday, the race birds experienced a hard fly from Selby. Mr R. Lever, Ticehurst, timed in the winning bird, which flew the distance of 199 miles in 5 hours 47 minutes. […]

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 26 May 1944, page 5


PIGEON RACING.–On Saturday, members raced their birds from Selby (191 miles). Liberation took place at 12.30 p.m., and birds were being clocked-in from 4.30pm, the leading ones putting up a speed of 45 miles per hour. Result: Lever, 1365, 1354.2 ; […]

…and again for Friday 9th June 1944, when Mr Lever’s pigeons were racing from Morpeth (290 miles).

Tunbridge Wells Racing Pigeon Club at War

Unsurprisingly from the above, Mr Lever’s local club was Tunbridge Wells Racing Pigeon Club: which was, far from coincidentally, pretty much my first guess as to the likely location.

Nicely, though, the Kent & Sussex Courier also included a number of short pieces from the same club that help us see the larger picture about pigeons in wartime. It may be a bit TL;DR for some, sure, but I rather like it all, and I get to choose what gets included. 🙂

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 28 February 1941, page 6


At the invitation of the President (Mr W. C. Raiswell) and Mrs. Raiswell, members partook of tea, followed by discourse on club matters which are affected by war conditions, at their residence, Halls Hole, Forest-road, on Saturday. Amongst others who attended were Dr. and Mrs. Oswald Smith. Mr. H. Wallace Stubbs (Crowborough), Mr. T. Ashdown and Mr. A. Ransom (Chairman). Letters of apology for absence were read from Major J. G. Hiley, Messrs. H. Ashby and J. F. Mitchell. Corpl. W. J. Muddle, late loft manager to Mr. Raiswell, who is serving with the Royal Air Force, wrote referring to the valuable work the racing pigeons were doing in the R.A.F.

The PRESIDENT expressed regret at the unavoidable absence of Major Hiley, who is in command of a section of the Carrier Pigeon Service, and stressed the fact of how little was known of this essential war effort members were doing for the Services. The cost of breeding and training the right type of bird for strenuous flying was high. Unfortunately, many were shot or injured when on Service flights. Mr Raiswell thought the difficulty of overcoming the shortage pigeon food was not insurmountable, and he hoped that members would not let that obstacle deter them or reduce their stock, as the Army required every serviceable pigeon. He hoped the Club would not disband for the duration of war.

Mrs. Oswald Smith presented the following cups to the winners: Raiswell Cup for the best old bird average, F. Simms, average velocity 1,028 yards per minute over 10 races; “Robert Lever” Cup for bird winning the longest distance race (Fraserburgh, 462 miles), F. Simms; “Frank Simms” Cup for best young bird average, F. Carter, with an average of 1,136 yards per minute over four races.

The SECRETARY (C. R. Suffolk) gave brief report on the finances and equipment of the Club, which were in sound condition. Commenting on the possibilities of racing this season, he said much depended upon the conditions of rail transport. Apart from that he saw no reason why races should not be flown. He expressed his thanks to the Chairman and Mr. F. Simms for their valuable assistance setting and checking clocks and preparing racing panniers for despatch of birds; also to Mr. H. Colebrook for providing a trunk for storage of clocks and other equipment.

The CHAIRMAN, replying, said it was a pleasure to both himself and Mr. Simms to help the Club in every possible way. A cordial vote of thanks was passed to Mr. and Mrs. W. C. Raiswell for entertaining the members; also to Mrs. Oswald Smith for presenting the cups.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 06 November 1942, page 6


Presentation to Mr. C. R. Suffolk

Describing what was perhaps the finest five minutes of his life, Councillor W. C. Raiswell recalled the indescribable thrill of pigeon racing and the intense exitement of waiting for and seeing the birds return to their loft after being on the wing for many hours.

The occasion was meeting on the 21st anniversary of the Tunbridge Wells Racing Pigeon Club, held at “Little Bredbury,” Tunbridge Wells, by kind invitation of Dr. and Mrs. H. Oswald-Smith, when prizes for the 1942 season were distributed and presentation was made to the secretary, Mr. C. R. Suffolk.

After report by Mr. SUFFOLK on the year’s programme, which had been most satisfactory despite wartime limitations, Mr. RAISWELL briefly reviewed the past 21 years. He recalled the old days when they had only two clocks for recording the return of the birds and a system wiring in was used. One member, he said, who had had a loft over a shop in Calverley-road, used to throw out of his window message to a boy waiting below, who would then wire in the time of the pigeon’s arrival. Later, when had installed a clock on the lawn at his house, he recollected members rushing madly down the hill on bicycles eager to “clock in.”

The President went on to speak of the vital work of what he considered to be the most important club in Tunbridge Wells. It was now stronger than it had ever been, and every member was really doing a great public service. Not only could pigeons be relied upon as valuable inland messengers, but they could be and were being used in co-operation with the R.A.F. and Royal Navy. Already they had been instrumental saving the life of Service personnel, though the full story of their achievements in that direction could not be told until after the war. Had the Club not been formed it would not have been possible to help in the national effort, and therefore grateful thanks were due to Mr. Suffolk, who had been Secretary from the beginning. “I have been requested by the members the Club,” concluded Mr. Raiswell, addressing the Secretary, “to ask you to accept something in recognition of the service you have given for so many years; a token of gratitude and appreciation what you have done.” He handed a cheque to Mr. Suffolk.

In reply. Mr. SUFFOLK expressed his thanks. Remarking that bis association with pigeons had commenced many years ago, when he had bought pair of birds for his small daughter. Mr. Suffolk told how suddenly he bad found hlmsAf Secretary of the Club, and later Federation Secretary when the Club had Joined the South Coast Federation He was able to bring to mind many interesting and amusing incidents in this all-absorbing sport, and how untiring enthusiasm had been rewarded by one of the greatest thrills, the thrill of seeing bird drop on to the loft after, a 500-mlle race. Unable now, for health reasons, to take part in actual racing, Mr. Suffolk said bow much he as Secretary enjoyed working out the times and velocities of the birds, details which required minute calculations. Mr. Suffolk hoped the Club would be enlarged after the war. and was particularly glad to note the ardent enthusiasm displayed by the Club’s youngest member, 13½-year-old Ernest Colebrooke. Finally, his special thanks went to Mr. Raiswell, Mr. Ransom and Mr. Simms for their constant support and co-operation.

Commenting upon a particularly successful season, Mr. RANSOM remarked that members were definitely improving, since all those who had raced had won a prize. One other presentation was to have taken place, that of a water-colour painting of his favourite pigeon to Mr. F. Simms in recognition of his untiring work on behalf of the Club, but unfortunately that gentleman was unable to be present. This remarkable piece of work had been painted by Mr. Suffolk, whose artistic invitation cards had also been greatly admired by all members.

For their charming hospitality a hearty vote of thanks was passed to Dr. and Mrs. Oswald-Smith, who at the close of the meeting miraculously produced a most Inviting tea.

Prizes were distributed by Mrs. Raiswell follows: Mrs. A. Oswald- Smith, 3 firsts, 6 seconds, 1 third and special; R. Lever, 3 firsts, 3 seconds, thirds and 2 specials; F. Simms, 2 firsts, 2 seconds, 7 thirds and 2 specials; E. G. Hills, 2 firsts, 2 seconds, 2 thirds; W. Henshall, firsts, 2 seconds; A. J. Westow, 1 first; Ransom and Coleman, 1 second, 1 third; G. Amsden, 1 first; F. Carter, 1 second, 2 thirds; S. E. Booth, 1 third. Ralswell old bird average cup—Mrs. A. Oswald- Smlth with average velocity of 1,082 yards per minute over nine races. Frank Simms young bird average cup—W. Henshall. velocity 1,036 (seven races). “Robert Lever” cup for longest distance old bird race —H. Colebrooke and Son, velocity 993. Number of birds sent to race points, 613. Amount paid out in prize-money and specials: £24 4s.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 28 February May 1945, page 7


A thoughtful reminder of the Important part that pigeons have played in the war, particularly with the R.A.F., was that given by Messrs. W. C. Raiswell in one of their windows in Mount Pleasant. Alderman Raiswell is the President the Tunbridge Wells Racing Pigeon Club, exhibited on Tuesday and Wednesday 10 birds which have been on active service carrying important messages. One was used by the R.A.F. when a V1 site was located. A notice read “Our tribute to the pigeons and the members of the Tunbridge Wells Pigeon Club.” Also on view were some exceptionally fine photos of famous birds. The pigeons were loaned by Mrs. A. Oswald Smith, Mr. F. Simms, Mr. A. Ransome and Mr. W. Henshall.

As part of my preparations for a talk on the ‘cipher pigeon’ that I’ll be giving at Westminster Under School in a couple of months’ time, I’ve been making sure that there aren’t any books I should have read.

The one I’ve most wanted a copy of is “Memoirs of a Wartime Teenager” By Frederick Dyke: but this is out of print and out of reach, so I’d need to book a day at the British Library to have a look at it. Perhaps I’ll get a chance shortly.

However, I recently found another book that I knew instantly I had to have: “Pigeons in World War II” by W. H. Osman (presumably a relative of “the late Lt.-Col A[lfred] H[enry] Osman, CBE”, who wrote extensively about pigeons under the pen-name “Squills”).


Though having said that, it’s not so much a ‘book’ as a book-shaped database: firstly, of letters from top-ranking officials thanking the nation’s pigeon breeders and trainers for their outstanding effort in WWII; and secondly, of microstories describing individual pigeons’ contributions to the same war effort.

Cross-referencing and correlating these pigeony microstories does conjure up a number of slightly larger pigeon-related narratives. For example, it seems clear that many of the pigeons employed by the US Army in Normandy for D-Day were bred and trained in and around Plymouth.

Yet the question I particularly wanted to try to answer – of course – is if we can find out any more about the two wartime pigeons “NURP 40 TW 194” and “NURP 37 DK 76” who were apparently carrying the two copies of our mysterious (or if not ‘mysterious’ then certainly frustrating) enciphered message.

Even though single-letter NURP pigeons (e.g. “NURP.42.A.4708”, “Bred by N.P.S. member, H. R. Veal, Basingstoke, Hants”, and “Trained by R.A.F. Station, Gillingham”) had a fairly random geographic distribution, I think it’s fair to conclude that multi-letter NURP pigeons tended to have at least some method to their naming madness. For example, “TTT” always corresponded to a group of pigeon breeders and trainers in Ipswich: “WAC” corresponded to Walthamstow, “SBC” to Shepherd’s Bush, “DX” to Doncaster, “WMK” to West Malling, and so forth. Additionally, many three-letter sets beginning with N– were from Nottingham, while many three-letter sets beginning with P– were from Plymouth. Just to keep you on your toes, it turns out that “XEB” was from Bexleyheath / Welling in Kent.

At the same time, there were also a fair few exceptions with no obvious rationale (“BFF” was from Poole, etc), so there was no universal naming convention, and hence we must tread carefully with our heavy-booted inferences.

The nearest to our DK and TW letter-groups was “RP.40.DUK.57” (p.116), a pigeon from an unnamed Thames Estuary breeder that was liberated in France on D-Day (i.e. the pigeon was liberated, not the breeder *sigh*), but who didn’t get home until the 8th of the following month. There was nothing remotely like the “TW” group to be seen.

I then checked this against the Special Section pigeon archive I had previously photographed at Bletchley Park (just to be sure), but that had no additional information (on its p.47) beyond what I’d just found:-


However… when I double-checked this against the list of owners in the Thames Estuary Group, one name in particular stood out like a severed thumb (guess who was just reading Conan Doyle’s “The Engineer’s Thumb” with his son?!):


So: my current best guess is that of our two pigeons, the “DK” one may well have been owned by L. Duke of The Stores, Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire – so I’m now following this up, and will see where it leads.

At the same time, another owner from the same Thames Estuary Group was W. H. Twigg of 71 Stevenson Avenue, Tilbury. Might it be that the “TW” was short for “Twigg”? It’s entirely possible (but still a bit of a long shot).


Hopefully, we shall see before too long…

It’s been a bit quiet on the WW2 pigeon cipher front (the GCHQ Historian has been working hard to try to find some Typex rotor wiring diagrams for us, but so far without any luck, *sigh*), but I thought you might like to see some nice action shots of pigeons and pigeon handlers from WW2 archives.

Shows two of the crew of an Australian Lancaster Squadron with their pigeons before leaving for a raid on Berlin
H98.100/4278 Shows two of the crew of an Australian Lancaster Squadron with their pigeons before leaving for a raid on Berlin – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

(The remainder of the photos were taken by Army photographer H. J. Nott.)

A.T.S. woman being shown how to release a pigeon
H2000.200/418 A.T.S. woman being shown how to release a pigeon – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Attaching a message to a bird for dispatch
H2000.200/419 Attaching a message to a bird for dispatch – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Officer in the field writing a message for dispatch by pigeon
H2000.200/420 Officer in the field writing a message for dispatch by pigeon – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Releasing the pigeon
H2000.200/421 Releasing the pigeon – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Last flight of B.L.A. war pigeons
H2000.200/422 Last flight of B.L.A. war pigeons – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Releasing pigeons in the field
H2000.200/423 Releasing pigeons in the field – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Attaching message cylinder to pigeon's leg
H2000.200/424 Attaching message cylinder to pigeon’s leg – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Attaching message cylinder to pigeon's leg
H2000.200/424 Attaching message cylinder to pigeons leg (closeup) – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

'Premier' the pigeon arriving home with a message
H2000.200/425 “Premier” the pigeon arriving home with a message – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Showing A.T.S. woman how to attach a message
H2000.200/426 Showing A.T.S. woman how to attach a message – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Birds arriving back in lofts after training flight
H2000.200/427 Birds arriving back in lofts after training flight – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Message transferred from pigeon to dispatch rider
H2000.200/428 Message transferred from pigeon to dispatch rider – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Loading pigeon into special container for dropping over occupied territory
H2000.200/430 Loading pigeon into special container for dropping over occupied territory – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Pigeon dispatch riders on the road
H2000.200/431 Pigeon dispatch riders on the road – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

'Tommy' the pigeon being awarded the Dicken medal for distinguished war service
H2000.200/432 “Tommy” the pigeon (NURP.41.DHZ56) being awarded the Dicken medal for distinguished war service – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

'Tommy' the pigeon being awarded the Dicken medal for distinguished war service
H2000.200/432 “Tommy” the pigeon being awarded the Dicken medal for distinguished war service (closeup) – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

And finally, a couple of photos by H. J. Nott that appeared in a story reported in the Ottawa Journal, 12 January 1945, p.2:-

Canadian corvette, H.M.C.S. “Mayflower”, was given an unexpected chance to help speed the victory. The tired pigeon carried important information from a French patriot regarding gun emplacements and flying bomb platforms. It was sent aboard the “Mayflower” which broke wireless silence to send the information in code to shore authorities. The picture at the left shows the pigeon being passed in a bag from the tug to the Canadian corvette, and the one on the right shows the well-bred and mannerly visitor taking its ease by a porthole of the wardroom on board the “Mayflower”. Lieut Douglas Marlen, Halifax, was senior officer of the convoy, and the message written in French was translated by Sigmn. Andre Belland, Montreal.

Pigeon being passed from British tug to Canadian corvette.
H2000.200/434 Pigeon being passed from British tug to Canadian corvette – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Weary pigeon resting on board the H.M.C.S. Mayflower, the ship sent its message on in code
H2000.200/433 Weary pigeon resting on board the H.M.C.S. Mayflower, the ship sent its message on in code – Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

The WW2 cipher pigeon message we’ve been trying to crack is addressed to “X02″… which is what, exactly?


Speculation in the initial Daily Mail article was that X02 was a code denoting RAF Bomber Command in High Wycombe. However, against that notion runs the facts that (a) the message was written on an Army Pigeon Message pad, (b) the message was inside a red-coloured (probably British Army) canister, and (c) the British Army enciphered much of its communications.

The problem here is that even though this “Bomber Command” suggestion is therefore fairly threadbare, nobody has yet come up with any properly credible alternatives. It appeared to be yet another aspect of the message that was destined to stay mysterious.

But now I can reveal what X02 actually means.

If you spend the day in the archives at the Royal Signals Museum in Blandford Forum, Dorset (as Stu Rutter and I did yesterday), you might just happen to ask their very helpful archivist if the museum’s archives contains any boxes on codes and ciphers cyphers. And you might then just happen to find at the bottom of one of the two boxes of files a small blue handbook:-


This booklet briefly describes a selection of common “X-codes” used in signalling, most of which are made up of “X” followed by three digits. (There is also a large set of three-letter Q-codes and a large set of three-letter Z-codes.)


However, there’s one very specific exception to the three-digit X-code layout: and that is for codes beginning with “X0”, which are specifically to do with addressees:-


Hence “X0234” would mean “pass to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th addressees”. In the case of our pigeon message, “X02” simply means “pass to the 2nd addressee“. Which would strongly imply that the (already very short) ciphertext includes at least two addressees. (It was perfectly normal Army practice to include addressees inside ciphertexts: an encrypted address / addressee was known as a codress, while an encrypted address that was concealed within a message (rather than in a consistent place) was known as a “buried codress”.)

And that’s basically it: the mystery of the X02 solved.

OK, I’m sorry Stu & I weren’t yet able to crack the rest of our cipher pigeon’s message, but rest assured we’re hot on its trail… 🙂

According to Stu Rutter’s latest raid on the National Archives, the Allies’ WW2 “Typex” cipher used a single five-letter indicator, placed both at the start and end of messages [so says WO 208/5109, anyway]: and so he concludes that Typex was very probably the system used by our wonderfully mysterious WW2 pigeon cipher. Having said that, I do wonder whether the first five plaintext letters will turn out to be “QQQQQ”, as I recall that many messages had this dummy text group added at the start to avoid stereotyped messages, even though it was itself an even more stereotypical sequence. Perhaps combining this with the ciphertext might let us work back to the rotor contents and settings… just a thought!

[Typex remains a great working hypothesis, though personally I’d still like to see how the Air Support Syllabic Cipher (War Office document BX 724) and Royal Engineer Syllabic Cipher (War Office document BX 724/RE) worked. But that’s another story!]

Intriguingly, GCHQ’s archives holds a Typex document which Stu would understandably like to get access to: and at last weekend’s Big Bang Science Fair at London’s ExCel venue (which my son thought was really fantastic), I was very pleasantly surprised to bump into the GCHQ Historian hard at work on the GCHQ stand, busily helping children encipher their own Enigma messages for Bletchley Park’s rebuilt Bombe to try to crack. He told me that GCHQ releases documents more according to security-related criteria than in response to Freedom of Information requests: and even though he would send us through the appropriate paperwork to fill out, we should necessarily be somewhat patient… it’s no secret that it’s not the fastest of processes (for example, they released the last Enigma file only last year). Fingers crossed that all goes through!

Incidentally, the Americans didn’t think Typex was properly fit for purpose, sniffily describing it as “nothing but a glorified German Enigma, with 5 rotors instead of 3 and with arrangements for printing” (NARA: RG 457 HCC Box 804 NR 2323, quoted in Ratcliff “Delusions of Intelligence”, p.167), while British cryptologists also saw flaws in Typex “as early as 1940”, though their recommendations as to how to work around them seem to have been acted upon (“Delusions”, p.179). Yet even though the Germans knew exactly how Typex worked, they had “abandoned work on it” prior to 1942, presumably because of its structural similarity to their own ‘unbreakable’ Enigma variants (“Delusions”, p.178 and p.202).

But here’s something to do with Typex that’s rather interesting (and more social history than overtly cryptographic) which I liked, and think you may well like too. 🙂

Having posted a few days ago on the British Army’s pervasive use of ciphers for pigeon messages, I was intrigued to read about the Army “cipher room” at Arundel Castle mentioned by Bill Button: and so decided to snoop around the web for further mentions of WW2 cipher rooms. The nicest things I dug up by far were three reminiscences made by Jessie Dunlop in 2004 (courtesy of her daughter Ann Wild) on the BBC’s “People’s War” website. Rather delightfully, these described her wartime cipher experiences, firstly at Low Grade Cipher School in Eccleston Square, secondly at High Grade Cipher School in Half Moon Lane, London, and then finally at SHAEF Supreme headquarters in an Underground tunnel between Goodge Street and Warren Street Station, at which time she met her future husband Jack.

Confusingly, she misremembered Typex as “xyco” (which is why these posts didn’t show up in web searches), but that’s entirely to be expected – it was a very long time ago, after all. In a follow-up comment from 2004, she further described how xyco / Typex was used:-

“I think it was modelled on the Enigma. It had several drums in the top with a lid to be lifted to reach these. The first one was static and was set each day with the beginning of the day’s code. The rest were also set each day but they revolved. A keyboard like a typewriter was below these and on this the message was typed in. It came out in groups of letters, I think. Sometimes we could add what was called a scrambler, an electrical gadget which we plugged in if the the message was top secret. This was indicated at the end of the message in the code.”

And so it would seem that in the pigeon cipher, we’re looking at
* an enciphered Army message (quite possibly in Typex);
* not sent during Operation Overlord (i.e. not on D-Day or shortly after); and
* not top secret (and hence not using any kind of scrambler).

This is really useful, because it probably means that Stu Rutter need not worry about scramblers or reflectors (I think): for if we are looking at a non-top-secret Typex message, it probably wasn’t using a scrambler. So as long as he has an accurate copy of the the contents and structure of the rotors and the way the Typex worked, who’s to say that Stu’s JavaScript simuator won’t be able to give us the answer? If so, it might arguably be the first Typex message ever decrypted by anyone… and how cool would that be? 😉

Incidentally, one great sanity check might be to ask the Royal Signals Museum in Blandford, Dorset if they could use their Typex machine to encipher some test messages with various rotor settings to validate Stu’s simulator. In return, perhaps they might like to have his simulator on display next to their machine, so that visitors can try it out for (virtually) real? That would be good for everyone, I think. 🙂

Anyway, here’s a question for you all: how can we find out if Jessie Dunlop – or indeed anyone else who worked on British Army High Grade Ciphers, whether in SHAEF or elsewhere – is still alive? Perhaps having her looking at our pigeon message might trigger some memories of how it all worked. Something to think about! 🙂