The most secret of messages…

Franco-British carrier pigeon which makes long...
Franco-British carrier pigeon which makes long distance flights (Photo credit: National Library of Scotland)

David Martin, a retired British civil servant was cleaning the chimney of his house in Bletchingley (Surrey), 35 miles south of London, when he found the remains of a pigeon. But this was not any pigeon: it was a carrier pigeon, and its leg still had attached to it a red metallic container with an encrypted message inside. Experts from the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have recently given up and recognised that it is almost impossible to find out the content of that message.

They know it is a message of World War II, that the addressee was X02, code name of the Bomber Command and believe that the pigeon could have started its flight around the time of the Normandy landings. They also know that it was heading to Bletchley Park, the communications centre during the war, some 100 km north of London.

They also know other things. They know that the sender’s signature, Searjeant W Stot, suggests that it was a message from the RAF. The spelling of the word “Serjeant” is crucial as the RAF used letter “j” instead of “g”.

However, they have failed to know the meaning of the message. They have no idea of the way to decipher the meaning of the 24 blocks of five letters each, and which to the eyes of the layman and the expert alike are nothing more than an alphabet soup of seemingly meaningless strings of letters: Take a lok at the first line of the message: AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC.

These types of code were used in operations such that the messages could only be read by the people who sent them and the rightful recipients.

GCHQ have said that there are two possibilities. If the code was based on a codebook designed specifically for a single operation or mission, “it is unlikely” that someday it can be deciphered. If it was used only once and the encryption is truly random, and the key was just kept by the person who sent the message and the person who would receive it, then it quite likely that the message is indecipherable.

The code is impenetrable to the current government experts and it has been suggested that the only way to gain some insight is a collaboration with experts active at the time the message was sent, i.e. the people who were at Bletchley Park during the war and are now around 90 years old.

The British Army trained 250,000 carrier pigeons to be used in their secret communications during the war. They were particularly useful during the Normandy landings because Churchill had imposed a blockade of radio communications to increase safety and avoid providing clues to the Germans. The pigeons could fly at speeds greater than 125 kilometres per hour and cover distances of over 1,500 kilometres.

Percy, as this particular pigeon has been named, was probably disoriented and lost due to bad weather or simply exhausted after crossing the English channel. Carrier pigeon enthusiasts have proposed that the government posthumously grant Percy the Dickin Medal, the highest award given to animals for their courage.

Can you help crack the code?

The pigeon message is as follows:

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC
RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX
PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH
NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ
WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH
LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ
KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6

 

Quantum Tunnel Podcast – Episode 2

The podcast can be downloaded here.

Bletcheley Park

Should you be in the UK and want to visit a very special place, I would suggest to visit Bletchley Park where ciphers and codes of countries such as Germany, Japan and Italy were decrypted during the Second World War.

Bletchley Park is located in the town of Bletchley in Buckinghamshire, England and the estate houses a museum where Enigma and Lorenz machines can be seen. The present mansion became the home of Sir Herbert Samuel Leon in 1883 and with its quirky mixture of Tudor, Dutch Baroque and Victorian Gothic styles it truly has become a symbol for the museum itself.

In 1938, with the threat of Hitler’s movements in Europe, the UK government needed a safer location for the Government Code and Cypher School, which at the time was based in London. The position of Bletchley Park at a junction of a major road,  rail and teleprinter connections, while being in the middle of a rural landscape, made it an irresistible option. Being the tenth station acquired by MI6 for its wartime operations, Bletchley Park was given the cover name Station X.

We visited Bletchley Park on a chilly spring Sunday morning and despite the cold it was pleasant to see many visitors around the site. Bletchley Park can easily be reached by train, bus or car. There are frequent services from London Euston or Birmingham New Street. From Milton Keynes there are several buses arriving at Bletchley Bus Station.  The park is open every day except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day. Your ticket is an annual pass and secures admission to the site for twelve months, which really is a bargain.

Bletcheley Park is owned by the Bletchley Park Trust, a registered charity. It is very surprising that despite the importance of this place, it receives no public funding and thus the trust relies upon donations to help preserve and revitalise the Park. If you are interested in helping you can indeed pay a visit and maybe even make a donation. For more information visit their website and you can also follow their tweeter feed @bletchelypark.

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