Some years ago, Gordon Corera, the BBC's security correspondent, covered a strange story about a dead pigeon found in a chimney in Surrey. Attached to the pigeon's leg was a message that stumped even the code-breakers at Britain's Government Communications Headquarters.
Corera, determined to decode the message, visited the National Archives in Kew. There, perusing the contents of an unusual file, he chanced upon the incredible story of Operation Columba: a top-secret British mission to collect intelligence from behind enemy lines during the Second World War using homing pigeons (Columba livia is their scientific name).
So starved of useful knowledge about enemy movements were the British that, at one point, MI14, a military intelligence unit at the War Office created specifically to gather information about the German effort, briefly considered employing the services of “an astrologer and water diviner, ‘Smokey Joe’, from Yorkshire”. Pigeons, in this desperate situation, were a boon. The homing instinct of pigeons, as Corera writes, is an inexplicable super-power. Blindfolded and dropped hundreds of miles from their lofts, pigeons make their way “home” in a matter of hours. Scientists cannot explain how they manage to do this.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, pigeon fanciers – collectively known as “the Fancy” – in Britain were called on to register their birds; any pigeon found without a ring was culled and owners who hadn’t registered a pigeon weren’t allowed to buy bird food. Some 18,000 lofts were registered with the National Pigeon Service in 1939. And between April 1941 and September 1944, 16,544 pigeons were dropped in an arc stretching from Denmark to the south of France.
Each pigeon, with a tiny green Bakelite cylinder the size of a pen-top tied to its leg, was placed inside a special container along with two sheets of rice paper, a pencil, a questionnaire and a resistance newspaper. The boxes were dropped from an altitude of 600 to 1,000 feet by aircraft flying at 180 miles an hour – easy targets for enemy fire.
The exercise was animated by the hope that men and women under Nazi occupation might pick up the box, recognise its purpose, write down German positions on the rice paper, insert it in the green canister, tie it to the pigeon’s leg and release the bird into the skies. Some of the pigeons ended up as dinner. Some were probably never found. Yet, astonishingly, Operation Columba yielded results.
Corera narrates the poignant story of a Belgian priest who, upon finding a Columba pigeon in July 1941, laboured with a small band of patriotic anti-Nazis to share intelligence with the British; the information they supplied – written in minute characters on the rice paper – was so detailed that it filled a dozen pages when transcribed in England. The group, calling itself Leopold Vindictive, posed for a photograph before releasing the bird at 8.15am a few days after coming upon it; the pigeon was home by 3.30pm.
Members of the Leopold Vindictive were willing to risk their lives to spy for Britain. But, as Operation Columba became hampered by petty bureaucracy, they were eventually discovered and killed by the Nazis. Most of the pigeons, too, lost their lives on their flight home. The Germans released hawks against the British pigeons.
Corera's previous book, Shopping For Bombs, meticulously pieced together the story of the nuclear black market built by AQ Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. He brings to this book the same rigour. Although it sags a little in the middle, Secret Pigeon Service is a riveting and revelatory book.