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 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). He is also the author of Secret Pigeon Service: Operation Columba, Resistance and the Struggle to Liberate Occupied Europe (William Collins, February 2018).
This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine