Rachel Elbaum for NBC News, December 17, 2012:
A note written in code that was found on the skeleton of a carrier pigeon dating from World War II has been cracked, according to a Canadian history enthusiast.
Originally discovered in November, the message was enclosed in a red canister attached to the leg bone of the carrier pigeon. David Martin found the pigeon in the chimney of his home in Surrey, England.
The U.K. Government Communications Headquarters (GHCQ), one of Britain’s three national intelligence agencies, said at the time that the handwritten message “cannot be decoded without access to the original cryptographic material.”
But Gordon Young, from Peterborough, Ontario, set his mind to deciphering the message using his great-uncle’s World War I code book.
“It follows same sort of code they used in the first war,” Young told NBC News. “I’m not saying my note is perfect, but I am saying the code is crackable and this one is pretty close.”
It took Young, the editor of a local volunteer history group, 17 minutes to understand the message, which consists of 25 five-letter code groups.
He believes that the message was sent one afternoon in 1944, not long after the Allied landing at Normandy. It was written by an officer who was dropped behind enemy lines, confirming an earlier lunch-time note he sent giving the map coordinates of the Germans’ guns and tanks. It also confirmed that several units of American and British troops had finally met up.
In addition to using his uncle’s code book, Young double checked with infantry maps online to confirm his hypotheses.
“To really understand the exact circumstances of the note, we would need access to British and American war diaries from the time,” he said.
‘Impossible to verify’
Despite Young’s translation, the GCHQ still maintains that without the original codebooks the note is indecipherable.
“We stand by our press notice of 22 November 2012 in that without access to the relevant codebooks and details of any additional encryption used, the message will remain impossible to decrypt,” a spokesman for the GCHQ told NBC News in an emailed statement. “Similarly it is also impossible to verify any proposed solutions, but those put forward without reference to the original cryptographic material are unlikely to be correct.”
The pigeon is thought to have been part of a flock of 250,000 that were used to carry messages between the European front and Britain during World War II.
“I am hoping that this will stir up some interest in the bravery of the men who were dropped on the battlefield,” said Young.
“Imagine a guy dropping down behind enemy lines with crates of pigeons and a couple of bags of feed. How they didn’t get caught is amazing. It wasn’t like today where there are unmanned drones. These guys were risking their lives,” he added.