Did a Canadian hobbyist just crack the World War II carrier pigeon message?

Early last month we told you about the recent effort to decrypt a secret World War II message found on the remains of a military pigeon. Since work started the team has made zero progress and they're completely stumped. But now, the editor of a local history magazine in Ontario is claiming that he's deciphered the message — and that it took him just 17 minutes to do it.

To quickly recap, U.K. resident David Martin discovered the remains of a pigeon while renovating his chimney. Upon closer inspection he noticed that the dead bird had a red capsule attached to its leg, what has now been confirmed as a top secret message that was en route to an unknown location in Britain during World War II. Based on a few clues, some experts suspect that the bird was returning from Normandy soon after the Allied landing — and that it carried some important news.

Did a Canadian hobbyist just crack the World War II carrier pigeon message?

Historians think it's important because the 27 handwritten blocks of code were sent by not one, but two birds — neither of which made it to their destination.

Now, using World War II logbooks, the GCHQ team at Bletchley Park has been working to crack the code. And therein, argues Peterborough's Gord Young, lies the root of the problem.

Young, who is the editor of a local history group, Lakefield Heritage Research, contends that it's not a WWII code at all — but rather a World War I code. Young happens to be in the possession of a Royal Flying Corp [92 Sqd-Canadian] aerial observers' book he inherited from his uncle, and after some simple cross referencing he was able to decipher the message in a matter of minutes.

Young believes that the message detailed German troop positions in Normandy. So, assuming he's right, the message was pretty damned important.

He also believes that it was written by 27-year-old Sgt William Stott, a Lancashire Fusilier, who had been dropped into Normandy — along with pigeons — to report on German positions. He was killed a few weeks later and is buried in a Normandy war cemetery.

The BBC explains why it's possible that a World War I code could have been used during the Normandy invasion.

The code is simple, relying heavily on acronyms, said Mr Young.

Some 250,000 pigeons were used during the war by all services and each was given an identity number. There are two pigeon identification numbers in the message - NURP.40.TW.194 and NURP.37.OK.76. Mr Young says Sgt Stott would have sent both these birds - with identical messages - at the same time, to make sure the information got through.

"Essentially, Stott was taught by a WWI trainer; a former Artillery observer-spotter. You can deduce this from the spelling of Serjeant which dates deep in Brits military and as late as WWI," he said.

"Seeing that spelling almost automatically tells you that the acronyms are going to be similar to those of WWI.

"You will see the World War I artillery acronyms are shorter, but, that is because, you have to remember, that, the primitive radio-transmitters that sent the Morse code were run by batteries, and, those didn't last much more than a half-hour tops, probably less.

"Thus all World War I codes had to be S-n-S, Short-n-Sweet.

"And, as you can clearly see, Stott got a major report out on a pigeon."

Dude seems to know what he's talking about. And since claiming to have cracked the code, Young has contacted Britain's codebreakers at GCHQ — but they remain skeptical. While very interested in seeing his results, they insist that "without access to the relevant codebooks and details of any additional encryption used, the message will remain impossible to decrypt."

In response, Young told the BBC that it's not complex. "Folks are trying to over-think this matter."

UPDATE:

A reader alerts us to a Telegraph article that has published the (alleged) contents of the message:

Artillery observer at 'K' Sector, Normandy. Requested headquarters supplement report. Panzer attack - blitz. West Artillery Observer Tracking Attack.

Lt Knows extra guns are here. Know where local dispatch station is. Determined where Jerry's headquarters front posts. Right battery headquarters right here.

Found headquarters infantry right here. Final note, confirming, found Jerry's whereabouts. Go over field notes. Counter measures against Panzers not working.

Jerry's right battery central headquarters here. Artillery observer at 'K' sector Normandy. Mortar, infantry attack panzers.

Hit Jerry's Right or Reserve Battery Here. Already know electrical engineers headquarters. Troops, panzers, batteries, engineers, here. Final note known to headquarters."

"Jerry" of course was how the Brits, aka "Tommies", referred to the Germans.

Source and images: BBC.