WW2 was for the birds: The secret missions of pigeons
Intelligence agents came in many forms during the war
Early one July morning in 1941, a Belgian farmer encountered a curious object among his crops: a cylinder, a couple half a metre long, with a parachute attached.
Through a gap in one side he could just about make out a pair of beady eyes staring back at him. Attached was a note. It was from British Intelligence and asking for help.
Inside was a pigeon, code-named NURP 39 TTTI. The lettering stood for the National Union of Racing Pigeons and number 39 denoted the year it fledged.
But this was not just any pigeon. Rather, it was a bird that would end up proving important enough to deliver a message that made its way to Churchill.
It was part of a secret operation code-named Columba, the story of which is told for the first time in my book, Secret Pigeon Service, based on declassified files and personal accounts in Britain and Europe.
Thousands of birds were released during the operation, in a desperate attempt to procure allies in the darkest days of World War 2. The plan was to take advantage of the remarkable homing instinct pigeons possess in the hope that ordinary people would find the birds and note down details of what the Nazis were up to in their locality, before dispatching them back to Britain along with their covert cargo.
However far-fetched it may sound, these pigeons had a real impact on the war effort. Some birds even became recipients of the Dickin Medal, honouring the bravery of animals in World War 2.
The Belgian bird, Pigeon 39, had belonged to a pigeon fancier in Ipswich but ended up being sent to Newmarket racecourse — home at the time of the RAF Special Duties squadron, tasked with the hazardous mission of dropping secret agents into Nazi-occupied Europe.
The pilots often joked about this slightly bizarre add-on to their missions for MI6 and the Special Operations Executive. An agent might sometimes have second thoughts about parachuting into what lay below, but the pigeons had no choice. “I doubt if any of them survived,” one pilot reckoned. They were wrong. Some did.
However, it was not ejection by the RAF but the moment of discovery once they had landed that was to prove of greatest peril for these plucky British birds. There were rewards for handing them in to the authorities — and severe punishments for those caught using them. A few months after the pigeon landed in Belgium a poster went up in the occupied Channel Islands announcing a Frenchman had been shot by firing squad for using one to send a message to Britain.
In other cases, villagers were simply so hungry that they disposed of the evidence by roasting the birds and eating them, served with peas.
Pigeon NURP 39 TTTI, however, was spared the pot and ended up being passed to a burgeoning resistance network led by a Catholic priest called Joseph Raskin.
Raskin possessed a wide circle of contacts, stretching to the King of Belgium. He had been with the king when Admiral Roger Keyes arrived as an emissary from Churchill in May 1940, as the British forces were being evacuated from Dunkirk and Belgium was forced to surrender.
Following the arrival of Pigeon 39, Raskin and his friends spent days amassing all the information they could about the Nazi occupation. Using his calligraphy skills — honed as a missionary in China — he crammed as much as possible on to the tiny piece of paper provided. He added maps and last-minute details, and then a final flourish — a swirling seal christening this tiny resistance network “Leopold Vindictive”; Leopold in tribute to the Belgian king, Vindictive after a British warship Admiral Keyes had used to block the port of Ostend in World War 1.
The message was placed in a small container — not much larger than a biro lid — clipped to the pigeon’s leg. Before it was released they proudly took photographs of themselves with the bird. This might be against every rule of spy-craft but it was a symbol of their pride in what they were doing.
The pigeon flew home to Ipswich and the unopened container was sent on to the Columba team — a little known subsection of British intelligence called MI14(d) whose job was to collect information on the occupation of Europe. They were the poor relation of the spies at MI6, who were rather sniffy about the pigeons — a prejudice that would come to plague relations amid occasionally bitter bureaucratic warfare (dubbed “pigeon-politics”).
The two men on duty that morning were Brian Melland and “Sandy” Sanderson. In those early days they wore a protective visor to open up messages, fearing the Germans might have booby-trapped a container by placing a small explosive inside.
Raskin’s message was the 37th to return to Britain via pigeon. When it was transcribed it contained a treasure trove of information so in-depth the report stretched to 12 pages. It contained extensive details of German positions around Belgium, recent bombing raids and suggestions of which camouflaged sites were susceptible to attack. Raskin had even included notes on the prevailing mood among troops and the local population.
Crucially it also revealed details of a key Nazi base installed in a heavily guarded chateau, which Britain had previously known next to nothing of.
The message was quickly passed up the chain of command. The Admiralty remarked on its “wealth of detail”. Two MI6 reports had suggested the possibility of a naval headquarters but there had been no confirmation until now. “Having seen such a detailed report as No37 it is clear that action should be taken”, a naval intelligence officer noted.
The message was also shown to Churchill. Why? The prime minister certainly loved to see raw intelligence but he had no real need to see the kind of detail this pigeon had provided. The answer, I believe, is that all those who saw it understood the message symbolised something that Churchill knew better than almost anyone — the spirit of resistance.
The arrival of Pigeon 39 set in motion a train of events — messages were broadcast to Leopold Vindictive on the BBC and there were multiple attempts to drop more pigeons, but they never made it to the Belgians. Meanwhile, the group was collecting even more valuable intelligence and growing increasingly desperate for more pigeons. That forced them to take ever more risks, widening their resistance circle.
MI6 muscled in on the operation and parachuted in two agents to try to contact the group. But rivalries and secrecy in London, as well as treachery in Belgium, meant that in the spring of 1942, nine months after the pigeon arrived, the group was captured. The three central figures — including Raskin — were taken to Germany and executed in 1943.
Their message, though, had confirmed the potential of Operation Columba. More than 1,000 pigeon messages would eventually make it back during the war, providing valuable intelligence on V1 launch sites, resistance networks, even personal notes from crashed RAF airmen to their families. Pigeons did not win the war. People did. But those plucky birds played their part.
– © The Daily Telegraph