The pigeons’ war on Hitler

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

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. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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.

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