The secret pigeon service: Heroes who risked all for the birds dropped behind enemy lines who flew home with vital intelligence and left the Nazis flapping
Enemy searchlights had caught its outline as the RAF Whitley reached Nieuport on the coast of Nazi-occupied Belgium, and the German batteries opened up. But unscathed, the pilots pressed on, heading inland as instructed.
Just minutes later, passing above the darkened fields of Flanders, the crucial moment had arrived. The flaps of the aircraft were lowered and, from a height of between 600 and 1,000ft, a British ‘agent’ parachuted gently to the ground.
This was July 1941, and an extraordinary new development in the intelligence war with the Wehrmacht was in full swing. So important was the information gleaned from this particular mission, it would end up on Churchill’s desk.
A member of a Royal Air Force aircrew holding a carrier pigeon taking part in Operation Columba beside a Lockheed Hudson of Coastal Command around 1942
Yet the figure floating down through the Belgian night was no normal operative, vulnerable to capture, to torture or to worse. For this was Operation Columba, a largely forgotten yet essential weapon in the fight against Nazi Germany, and one that played an important role in turning the fortunes of the War.
And the spy it was despatching behind enemy lines? A pigeon.
I first stumbled across this remarkable tale by chance one morning, while covering a quirky news story for the BBC. The boney leg of a dead pigeon had been found in a chimney in Surrey and attached to it was a message which, after investigation, had stumped even the top code-breakers of GCHQ, unable to decipher a seemingly random series of letters. What might this strange relic mean? No one seemed entirely sure. Could pigeons have been used in the Second World War, perhaps? Again, information was scarce.
My interest piqued, I spent a morning in the National Archives in Kew, West London, pulling up any and every relevant file – and one of the bundles that landed on my desk immediately stood out. Marked with the words ‘Secret’ and ‘Columba’, it contained compelling details of an operation, including tiny pink slips of paper that transpired on closer inspection to be messages from ordinary people living in occupied Europe.
They had clearly been brought back to Britain by pigeon. Filled with the day-to-day realities of wartime, the slips offered an intriguing insight into the small frustrations and dark tragedies of life under occupation.
None of them, however, compared with the one labelled Message Number 37. More like a work of art than an official document, it contained tiny, beautiful inky writing, too small to read with the naked eye and densely packed into an unimaginably small space. And detailed, colourful maps. Who had written it? And what had happened to them? There was little to work with as the message was identified with no more than a code-name – Leopold Vindictive.
After three years of searching, I finally found my answer in rural Belgium. The story of this unlikely spying mission began in April 1941. There had been attempts to drop secret agents behind German lines since the summer of 1940, but they were perilous. Some agents died before they hit the ground. Others were captured all too quickly.
So slim were the intelligence pickings that the secret services were even instructed to see if a Yorkshire astrologer and water diviner known as ‘Smokey Joe’ could help. MI6 had agents abroad, but the human networks were a mess.
In 1940, it was even claimed that German troops in Norway were practising the bagpipes and training to swim ashore wearing green watertight suits. And so an unlikely new strategy was devised – of dropping homing pigeons into occupied Europe in the hope they would fall into the hands of sympathisers who would send them home with information useful to the Allies.
Each bird would be placed in a special box with a parachute attached, and a tiny green Bakelite cylinder – about the size of a pen top – was placed around one leg.On the outside of each container was an envelope with a questionnaire, written in Dutch or French, some rice paper for the return message, a pencil, and a bag of pigeon food.
The latest edition of a resistance newspaper printed in London was enclosed, or sometimes a copy of the Daily Mail, to prove the bird had come from England.
Details of the operation were kept secret from the pigeon fanciers who volunteered the birds. So who was behind this outlandish mission?
Today, everyone is familiar with MI5 and MI6, but few have heard of MI14, let alone its sub-section MI14(d). Its job was to understand the German occupation of Western Europe. Working out of a basement room in the War Office in Central London, it initially comprised just two officers: Brian Melland, a former theatrical actor, and ‘Sandy’ Sanderson, who had served with the Highland Division in the First World War. This was the unit in charge of the Secret Pigeon Service.
Operation Columba got under way on the night of April 8, 1941. A Whitley crossed into Belgium near Zeebrugge then headed for the French border, where the pigeons in their containers were pushed out. Two days later, in the bowels of the War Office, at 10.30am, MI14’s phone started ringing. The first bird had made its way home to its owner in Kent. Columba message number one was phoned in.
It had come from a village called Le Briel in northern France and contained real information. ‘Pigeon found Wednesday 9th at 8am,’ it began. ‘The German troop movements are always at night. There are 50 Germans in every Commune. There is a large munitions dump at Herzeele 200 metres from the railway station. Yesterday, a convoy of Horse Artillery passed towards Dunkirk… The Bosches do not mention an invasion of England. Their morale is not too good. The RAF… should come to bomb the brick works as the proprietor is a …’ The next word was marked as ‘illegible’.
The message ended with ‘I await your return, I am and remain a Frenchman.’ At 3pm, message number two arrived, this time from Flanders.