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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1559

Pigeon Coding: a challenge for code-breakers

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London….

coding.gifThe findings of a dead member of the National Pigeon Service of the Royal Air Force - a unit of 250,000 trained pigeons during the Second World War as messengers – which was found stuck inside a chimney in a home in Surrey by the owner of the house while he was renovating the fireplace, is reviving the interest in the ingenious communication technique worldwide.

David Martin found the ‘scroll’ inside a small, red, plastic cylinder, which had been attached to a leg of the bird. Although, only the skeletal remains of the bird are visible, the container has managed to keep the message intact for more than six decades, despite being enveloped in soot and dust in equal proportions.

By strange coincidence, the message consists only of 143 characters –3 more than the length of a Twitter message: there are 27 5-letter words, arranged in 7 rows; the last two words have numbers and a back-stroke.

So far, Britain’s best code-breakers have failed to crack the message. The officers at GCHQ – Government Communication Head Quarters – say they cannot crack the code without the corresponding codebook. So, they want the public come forward and decipher the mysterious contents, which are as follows:


The sender of the message, according to the paper, is “Sjt W Stot” and the intended recipient was “X02”. The military analysts, judging by the spelling of ‘Sjt’, believe that the sender must have been someone from the Royal Air Force. If it was “Sgt”, they believe, the officer would have been from the army.

The recipient, many assume, as the Bomber Command in Britain during the last phase of the war, perhaps Field Marshall Montgomery, the allied Commander, himself. The fact that that it had been written completely in code, indicates its nature of high secrecy, which in turn has left the intelligence community baffled. The aluminium ring that had been attached to the leg of the bird indicated the birth year of the bird as 1940.

In the absence of sophisticated communication methods, the Europeans used birds for the daunting task, especially pigeons. Their ability to fly at over 100 km per hour, cover over a thousand km and effectively use earth’s magnetic field in navigation proved to be indispensable during the Second World War when allied felt threated by Nazis.

During the war, military pigeons were dropped by bombers near enemy lines so that allied soldiers can capture them, attaché secrete message to them and release them. The birds fly back home using the earth’s magnetic field where code-breakers were eagerly waiting for the news from the war front.

According to the officials at GCHQ, the public response has been very encouraging since they asked the public to decode the message. So far, however, no one has decoded the message satisfactorily, apart from the folks who are interpreting it just for a laugh. There are, meanwhile, people, especially the retired intelligence officials, who does the same in a different way:

warning us not to decode the message while highlighting the importance of national security. Mr Martin, the pensioner from Surrey, had similar experience when he approached a local folk first.

Since the birds had been used quite effectively during the recent wars for military purposes, it is quite clear they may have been used by our ancestors for various constructive purposes too. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the poetic work, Paravi Sandeshaya – a message conveyed by a pigeon - by Thotogamuwe Sri Rahula Theoro, cannot be just dismissed as a figment of imagination on the part of 15th-century monk, in the light of these revelations. The existence of a few other ‘Sandeshaya’ indicates the use of other birds for the similar tasks by our forefathers.

As we are approaching Christmas, there is a strong possibility that an aspiring entrepreneur may even come up with a device to distribute the message found by Surrey resident in an eye-catching seasonal container – in order to elevate the growing enthusiasm to the next exciting level.

- Asian Tribune -

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