The pi­geons’ war on Hitler

Gor­don Cor­era de­scribes an in­ge­nious Bri­tish op­er­a­tion to sub­vert Nazi rule in Europe – us­ing car­rier birds

BBC History Magazine - - Pigeons Vs Hitler -

On the night of 8 April 1941, an RAF Whit­ley took off from New­mar­ket – home of the Spe­cial Du­ties squadron which dropped agents be­hind en­emy lines for Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence. The plane was at­tacked by anti-air­craft fire near Zee­brugge but the rear gun­ner man­aged to take out one of the search­lights. As it ap­proached the Franco-Bel­gian bor­der, the dis­patcher was told to “com­mence op­er­a­tions”. But what emerged from the plane and glided to the earth be­low wasn’t highly trained spies, it was car­rier pi­geons.

The April flight was the first drop for a new se­cret op­er­a­tion – co­de­named Columba. It was un­usual be­cause it re­lied on the con­tri­bu­tions of Bri­tish pi­geon fanciers. The birds they do­nated were placed in con­tain­ers which then floated to the ground in Europe be­neath a parachute. On the out­side of the con­tainer was an en­ve­lope with a ques­tion­naire – a plea for help from Bri­tain. The op­er­a­tion would run for three-and-a-half years, and see 16,554 pi­geons dropped in an arc from Copen­hagen in Den­mark to Bordeaux in the south of France. The aim was to gather in­tel­li­gence from or­di­nary peo­ple liv­ing un­der Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion.

The Al­lies’ top in­tel­li­gence pri­or­ity in April 1941 was de­tails of a planned in­va­sion of Eng­land, fol­lowed by in­for­ma­tion on troops in the area, en­emy morale, sig­nif­i­cant ad­dresses the Ger­mans were us­ing, the lo­ca­tion of aero­dromes and the ef­fect of bombs dropped by the Al­lies. Plus, in an ex­am­ple of early au­di­ence re­search, they sought to dis­cover the ex­tent to which peo­ple could hear BBC ra­dio clearly and their views of its ser­vice. The ques­tion­naire ended with the words: “Thank you. Take courage. We will not for­get you.”

In­struc­tions showed how to cor­rectly clip the small green cylin­der onto the pi­geon’s leg again once the ques­tion­naire had been com­pleted. Once re­leased, the birds would fly home to their Bri­tish lofts. Their own­ers would in­form the au­thor­i­ties and pass in­tel­li­gence on to a lit­tle known but im­por­tant sec­tion of Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence – MI14(d).

No one was quite sure if this in­ge­nious en­ter­prise would work. One of­fi­cial reck­oned there were four op­tions for a pi­geon. It might not be found and sim­ply die in its con­tainer. A lo­cal could pick it up – as the Bri­tish hoped – and send a mes­sage back. The Ger­mans might find it – as the Bri­tish cer­tainly didn’t hope – and dis­patch it back with a fake mes­sage. Then there was a fi­nal op­tion: “They may be picked up by a hun­gry pa­triot and find them­selves in a pi­geon pie.”

The first bird back

Two days af­ter that in­au­gu­ral drop in April 1941, the phone rang at the War Of­fice, bring­ing good news: the first bird had made its way home to Kent. At 10.30am, Columba mes­sage num­ber 1 was phoned back to MI14(d). It came from a small vil­lage called Le Briel in the com­mune of Herzeele in north­ern France, not far from the Bel­gian bor­der. It might have been short but it con­tained gen­uine in­for­ma­tion.

“Pi­geon found Wed­nes­day 9th at 8am,” Columba mes­sage 1 be­gan. “The Ger­man troop move­ments are al­ways at night… There is a large mu­ni­tions dump at Herzeele 200 me­tres from the rail­way sta­tion. Yes­ter­day, a con­voy of Horse Ar­tillery passed to­wards Dunkirk via Bam­becque and an­other to Haze­brouck. The Bosches do not men­tion an in­va­sion of Eng­land… The RAF have never bombed th­ese parts. They should come to bomb the brick works as the pro­pri­etor is a…” The trans­la­tor recorded the next word as “il­leg­i­ble”, but one won­ders if it was ac­tu­ally to avoid the blushes caused by the French­man’s crude de­scrip­tion of a col­lab­o­ra­tor. The mes­sage ended: “I await your re­turn, I am and re­main a French­man.” It was signed “ABCD34”.

This was just the start. The in­tel­li­gence brought back by Columba would prove to be wide-rang­ing. It re­vealed the ex­is­tence of small re­sis­tance net­works ea­ger to help the Bri­tish. In the case of one mes­sage from a Bel­gian group co­de­named Leopold Vin­dic­tive, the in­tel­li­gence was suf­fi­ciently im­por­tant to be shown to Win­ston Churchill. Of­ten it pro­vided glimpses into the re­al­i­ties of

One of­fi­cial feared that the birds would be picked up by a hun­gry pa­triot and find them­selves in a pi­geon pie

life un­der oc­cu­pa­tion – the ra­tioning, the fear, the anger. In other in­stances, it pro­vided hard in­tel­li­gence on Ger­man po­si­tions which could then be tar­geted.

Dur­ing the war, the job of RV Jones at MI6 was hunt­ing for new Ger­man weapons and de­fences. One of his pri­or­i­ties was un­der­stand­ing why Ger­man night-fight­ers were so ef­fec­tive at shoot­ing down Bri­tish planes fly­ing over the con­ti­nent. All other sources of in­tel­li­gence had failed to shed any light on this co­nun­drum. But, on 5 June 1942, a Columba mes­sage came up trumps.

The mes­sage’s au­thor wrote that they thought the bird had been meant for Bel­gium, rather than the Nether­lands, but that they had de­cided to pro­vide some de­tails any­way. For the Bri­tish, it was for­tu­nate that they did, for they re­ported news of a camp at Op­per­does with a great many “tech­ni­cal in­stal­la­tions, lis­ten­ing-ap­pa­ra­tus, jam­mers… From this camp, the night fight­ers get their in­struc­tions,” the au­thor wrote, help­fully pro­vid­ing a map that showed the pre­cise lo­ca­tion. “Do come over this way and do not fly so high so we can see that you are Bri­tish.”

Jones and the Air Min­istry con­sid­ered this mes­sage “first class”. And it was just the start. “Pi­geons drew first blood on three night-fighter con­trol sta­tions,” Jones wrote. They would later also pro­vide in­tel­li­gence on the launch sites of V1 fly­ing bombs.

Fresh out of the box

What made the in­tel­li­gence pro­vided by the pi­geons so valu­able was the fact that it was in­cred­i­bly fresh. Of­ten it took months for re­ports from un­der­cover agents to be smug­gled out from be­hind en­emy lines, of­ten through Spain or some other cir­cuitous route. By the time it ar­rived in Bri­tain, the in­for­ma­tion could be out of date. But Columba mes­sages of­ten landed in Bri­tish laps within days – even hours – of the in­tel­li­gence be­ing col­lected.

As in­tended, the pi­geon-borne mes­sages even pro­vided the BBC with feed­back on how its broad­casts were be­ing re­ceived on the con­ti­nent. The cor­po­ra­tion’s Euro­pean in­tel­li­gence di­rec­tor told MI14 that, thanks to the im­me­di­acy of its mes­sages, Columba was of “the ut­most value”.

One per­son wrote of the BBC’s broad­casts to oc­cu­pied Europe: “Ev­ery­thing in­ter­ests us but speak clearly and loud.” A writer from Pas-de-Calais in France en­thused: “My wife would like to kiss the well-known speak­ers, as they are so pa­tri­otic.” A mes­sage from Brit­tany re­vealed that a wife was greatly cheered by hear­ing her hus­band speak­ing from Lon­don – and wanted him to know. Columba’s value to the Al­lies is re­flected in the fact that it was still be­ing used in the sum­mer of 1944, and played a role in the prepa­ra­tions for the D-Day land­ings – par­tic­u­larly in iden­ti­fy­ing the dis­po­si­tion of Nazi forces. Many of the mes­sages sent back from oc­cu­pied Europe must have made for dif­fi­cult read­ing. Some of the bleak­est are those that de­tail civil­ian ca­su­al­ties from Al­lied bomb­ing raids. “I would ask you, my friends,” wrote a French farmer who found a pi­geon in his beet­root field in Mayenne, “to warn the pop­u­la­tion a few min­utes be­fore the bomb­ing be­cause you kill many civil­ians who are your friends. Very few Ger­mans get killed. It is nearly al­ways the civil­ians who suf­fer from your air­craft. If you cir­cle be­fore drop­ping your bombs, the pop­u­la­tion would have time to with­draw from the town, thus avoid­ing many French vic­tims. You must spare your friends and kill the Ger­mans.” The farmer’s mes­sage ended with a plea for lib­er­a­tion as soon as pos­si­ble, since all his friends had been taken by the Gestapo. “Please send us arms, ri­fles, re­volvers and am­mu­ni­tion by parachute,” he wrote.

One of the more star­tling mes­sages ar­rived on 13 July 1944 from a re­sis­tance group in Brit­tany. “As we sus­pect that this is a Ger­man pi­geon, we are send­ing you some news which you will find in­ter­est­ing,” the group wrote, ex­plain­ing that they were now well sup­plied by the Al­lies and were mak­ing prepa­ra­tions to “teach you the les­son which you de­serve… In the end you will pay your debts to the pris­on­ers, the fam­i­lies you have shot and those you have tor­tured.”

The mes­sage of­fered an­other warn­ing: “For us, as from to­day, 10 Boches for one French­man, Suf­fer­ing for suf­fer­ing, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… Al­ready we have done in many Boches and know that we have the arms we need you will learn very shortly.”

Of course, a sin­gle piece of in­tel­li­gence is rarely trans­for­ma­tive. Rather, it con­trib­utes to a wider pic­ture – and the Al­lies’ se­cret army of pi­geons cer­tainly did that. But Columba’s value didn’t just lie in the in­for­ma­tion it gleaned on Ger­man arms fac­to­ries and troop move­ments. This in­ge­nious in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing op­er­a­tion es­tab­lished a con­nec­tion be­tween peo­ple in Bri­tain – spies and pi­geon fanciers alike – and those liv­ing un­der Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion in Europe. It served as re­as­sur­ance to both par­ties that they weren’t fight­ing the Ger­mans alone. Birds didn’t win the war. Peo­ple did. But the pi­geons of Op­er­a­tion Columba

cer­tainly played their part.

Gor­don Cor­era is the BBC’s se­cu­rity cor­re­spon­dent and the au­thor of books in­clud­ing The Art of Be­trayal: Life and Death in the Bri­tish Se­cret Ser­vice (Orion, 2011)

Mem­bers of the Home Guard train rac­ing pi­geons as mes­sen­gers in Black­burn, July 1940. Soon, car­rier birds like this would be sup­ply­ing vi­tal in­tel­li­gence on Ger­man arms fac­to­ries and troop move­ments in oc­cu­pied Europe

The De­bail­lie fam­ily pic­tured in 1941 with a pi­geon dropped be­hind en­emy lines by the RAF. As mem­bers of the Leopold Vin­dic­tive re­sis­tance group, th­ese Bel­gian vil­lagers would pro­vide pi­geon-borne in­tel­li­gence deemed sig­nif­i­cant enough to show to Churchill

A poster urges Bri­tons not to shoot car­rier pi­geons car­ry­ing “life or death” mes­sages on be­half of the armed forces

A mem­ber of the Army Pi­geon Ser­vice – har­nessed with a ‘back car­rier’ and pic­tured in July 1945 – which was used to carry mes­sages in Africa

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