- Gordon Corera *
- For BBC History Extra magazine
On the night of April 8, 1941, a British Royal Air Force (RAF) Whitley bomber took off from Newmarket, home to the Special Tasks squad that left British intelligence agents behind enemy lines.
The plane was attacked by anti-aircraft fire near Zeebrugge, it managed to reach its destination: the Franco-Belgian border.
That’s where the operations really began.
But what emerged from the plane and fell on the ground they weren’t highly trained spies otherwise carrier pigeons.
The April flight was the first launch for a new secret operation, codenamed Columba (columba is the Latin word for dove).
Among other things, it was unusual in that it was based on the contributions of British fanciers. The birds they donated were placed in containers which were then parachuted onto the soil of Europe.
On the outside of the container was an envelope with a questionnaire, a request for help from the UK.
The operation lasted three and a half years and would see a fall 16.554 palomas in an arc from Copenhagen in Denmark to Bordeaux in southern France.
The goal was to collect information from ordinary people living under Nazi occupation.
Questions on the air
In order of priority, the Allies in 1941 needed to find out …
- details about a planned invasion of England,
- information about the troops in the area,
- enemy morale,
- the important addresses the Germans were using,
- the location of the airfields
- and the effect of the bombs dropped by the Allies.
Also, in an example of an early audience survey, they wanted to find out to what extent people could clearly hear BBC radio and their views on their service.
The questionnaire ended with the words: “Thanks. Armense of value. No the we will forget“.
The instructions showed how to properly hook the small green cylinder onto the pigeon’s leg after completing the questionnaire.
Once released, the birds would fly to their British lofts. Its owners informed the authorities and transmitted what they received to a little-known but important section of Military Intelligence: MI14 (d).
No one was sure if this ingenious operation it would work.
One official calculated that there were four options for the pigeon:
- That they did not find her and she died in her container
- Have a local pick her up and send a message
- That a German found her and sent a false message
- To be found by someone so hungry that he made pigeon pie.
The first bird to return
Two days after that maiden delivery in April 1941, at 10:30 a.m. the phone in the War Office rang, bringing good news: the first bird had returned home to Kent.
Columba’s message number 1 came from a small town called Le Briel in the Herzeele commune in northern France, not far from the Belgian border. It was short, but it contained genuine information.
“Pigeon found on Wednesday 9 at 8 a.m..m.“, it began.
“German troop movements are always at night… There is a large ammunition depot in Herzeele 200 meters from the train station. Yesterday a convoy of horse artillery passed towards Dunkirk via Bambecque and another towards Hazebrouck. The Bosches do not mention an invasion of England …
“The RAF has never bombed these parts. They should come bomb the brick factory because the owner is a … “
The translator recorded the next word as “unreadable“But one wonders if it was really to avoid the blushes caused by the crude French description of the collaborator.
The message ended: “I hope su come back, I am and still am French“It was signed” ABCD34 “.
That was just the beginning.
The intelligence collected by Columba would turn out to be wide-ranging.
It revealed the existence of small resistance networks eager to help the British.
It often provided glimpses of the realities of life under occupation: rationing, fear, anger. In other cases, it provided solid information on German positions that could later be attacked.
In the case of a message from a Belgian group called Leopold Vindictive, the data was important enough to show British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The key to a mystery
During the war, the job of British physicist and scientific military intelligence expert Reginald Victor Jones at MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence agency, was to study new German weapons and defenses.
One of his priorities was to understand why German night fighters were so effective in shooting down British aircraft flying over the continent.
None fintelligence source had managed to shed light on this enigma. But on June 5, 1942, a message from Columba clarified it.
The author of the message wrote that he thought the bird was destined for Belgium, rather than the Netherlands, but had decided to provide some details anyway.
For the British, it was fortunate that they did, as they reported a camp on Opperdoes with a lot of “technical installations, listening devices, jammers … From this camp, the night fighters receive their instructions“wrote the author, kindly providing a map showing the precise location.
Jones and the Air Ministry considered this message “first class”.
“The pigeons triumphed at three night fighter control stations,” Jones wrote.
Later they would also provide information on the V1 flying bomb drop sites.
Just got outa from the box
What made the intelligence provided by pigeons so valuable was the fact that it was incredibly cool.
Reports of undercover agents often took months to be smuggled out from behind enemy lines, often through Spain or some other devious route.
By the time they reached the UK, the information might be out of date.
But messages from Columba often arrived within days, even hours, after they were written.
Pain and defiance
The value of Columba to the Allies is reflected in the fact that it was still operational in the summer of 1944 and played a role in the preparations for the D-Day landings, particularly in identifying the readiness of the Nazi forces.
Many of the messages sent from occupied Europe were painful: some of the darkest are those that detailed civilian casualties from Allied bombing.
“I would ask you, my friends“wrote a French farmer who found a pigeon in his beet field at Mayenne,”what the notify the population a few minutes before the bombing because they kill many civilians who are their friends. Very few Germans die.
“It is almost always civilians who suffer. If it givesn turns before dropping their bombs, the population would have time to withdraw from the city, thus avoiding many French victims“.
The peasant’s message ended with a request for his release as soon as possible, since the Gestapo had taken all his friends. “Please send us weapons, rifles, revolvers and parachute ammunition“, wrote.
One of the most surprising messages came on July 13, 1944, from a resistance group in Britain.
“As we suspect that it is a German pigeon, thes we are sending you some news thats they will be interesting“the group wrote, explaining that they were now well supplied by the allies and were making preparations for”teach hims the lesson that I know deservesn…
“In the end it will paynsHe owes his debts to the prisoners, the families he hasn shot and those who haven tortured“.
The message offered another warning: “For us, as of today, 10 boches (German soldier) for each French; suffering for suffering; eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth …
“Yes we have killed Many beight and know what we have the necessary weapons as they will find out soon“.
They are not alone
Of course, a single piece of intelligence was rarely enough but it did help to form a bigger picture, and the Allied secret pigeon army certainly did.
However, the value of Columba lies not only in the information it obtained about German arms factories and troop movements.
That ingenious intelligence-gathering operation established a connection between people in Britain – spies and pigeon fans alike – and those living under Nazi occupation in Europe.
Served for what both parties they knew they weren’t fighting sunas against the germans.
The pigeons did not win the war, but the people. But Operation Columba certainly contributed.
* Gordon Corera is a BBC security correspondent and author of “Secret Pigeon Service: Operation Columba, Resistance and Fight to Liberate Occupied Europe”.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.