Operation Columba - The Secret Pigeon Service: The Untold Story Of World War II Resistance In Europe
By Gordon Corera
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, $28.99; available this Tuesday, October 16
Gordon Corera, a Security Correspondent for BBC News since 2004, tells the remarkable untold story of how British intelligence secretly used homing pigeons as part of a clandestine espionage operation to gather information, communicate, and coordinate with members of the Resistance to defeat the Nazis in occupied Europe during World War II in the new book Operation Columba - The Secret Pigeon Service.
During World War II, from Between 1941 and 1944, British intelligence dropped sixteen thousand homing pigeons in an arc across Nazi-occupied Europe, from Bordeaux, France to Copenhagen, Denmark, as part of a spy operation code-named Columba.
The birds carried messages that offered a glimpse of life under the Germans in rural France, Holland, and Belgium back to MI14, the secret government branch in charge of the "Special Pigeon Service." The messages were written on tiny pieces of rice paper tucked into canisters and tied to the birds’ legs. They were all types of messages, some of them comic, most tragic, and occasionally invaluable.
They reported details of German troop movements and fortifications, new Nazi weapons, radar systems, and even the deployment of the feared V-1 and V-2 rockets used to terrorize London.
The people who sent these messages were not trained spies. They were ordinary men and women willing to risk their lives in the name of freedom. One group sending messages was the "Leopold Vindictive" network, a small group of Belgian villagers led by an extraordinary priest named Joseph Raskin. The intelligence Raskin sent back by pigeon proved so valuable that it reached British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and MI6 parachuted agents behind enemy lines to assist him.
Operation Columba opens a fascinating new chapter in the annals of World WarII, and it is a story of heroism, how people under threat of death bravely chose to resist during one of the darkest and most dangerous times in history.
Corera writes of the operation, "The driving force behind the use of pigeons in the Second World War were two men with experience of the previous war. one was a leading member of the fancy - the community of pigeon fanciers in the country - whose ambition would drive deep fissures within the pigeon world. The other was a washed-up spy looking for one more chance to make a difference.
"The name of Osman is to pigeon racing the equivalent of Kennedy in American politics: a family dynasty stretching back for decades. The founder of that dynasty was Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Henry Osman. Stout, with a proud mustache, Osman had abandoned a career as a lawyer to found the publication the Racing Pigeon in 1898. In the First World War, he brought his personal passion to bear as the leading light in all matters pigeon. A hundred thousand pigeons were bred for use in the war. First deployed on trawlers commandeered to carry out minesweeping in the North Sea, one brought news of a Zeppelin heading toward Britain. Another was released by a skipper who lay mortally wounded on deck after a U-boat attack, which led to his crew being rescued.
"Pigeon use quickly expanded across all the services. The army used them for communicating short distances from the front line, especially when cables had been cut or visual signaling was impossible owing to smoke or when a runner carrying a message had been shot. 'If it became necessary immediately to discard every line and method of communications used on the front, except one, and it were left to me to select that one method, I should unhesitatingly choose the pigeons,' wrote General Fowler, chief of signals and communications of the British Army, after the war. 'When the battle rages and everything gives way to barrage and machine gun fire, to say nothing of gas attacks and bombings, it is to the pigeon that we go for succor.'
"Belgium had the best pigeon service but had destroyed many of its birds at the start of the war to prevent them falling into German hands. The French released five thousand birds during the Battle of the Somme. The Americans took home and eventually preserved one bird that had arrived badly wounded with a message that saved a battalion trapped behind enemy lines.
"The British Army Pigeon Service was disbanded not long after the war. But as the 1930s turned darker and the threat of another war loomed, there were those from the fancy who saw themselves as voices in the wilderness, just like those calling for rearmament with tanks and airplanes. They urgently pressed the authorities to prepare to make use of pigeons once again. The leading advocate was Alfred Osman's son William. His poor eyesight meant he had been rejected from regular service in the First World War, but he had worked with his father. On Alfred's death in 1930, William inherited his father's mantle as editor of the Racing Pigeon and leading proponent of the birds' value in times of war. In 1937, he wrote to the Secretary of the Committee on Imperial Defence saying it was a mistake to not prepare pigeon plans. The army said it saw little need, apart perhaps from their use for contact with isolated garrisons. The RAF thought they might need a hundred or so birds as an alternative means of communication - for instance, if a plane crashed or a radio was jammed. But that could be organized when war began.
"Osman kept pressing. At over six feet, he had the bearing of an old-fashioned military officer and the manner to go with it - abrupt in a way that could easily be interpreted as rude. He did not suffer fools gladly. The next year he attended a meeting of the Committee on Imperial Defence and explained that it was a blunder not to have maintained a compulsory register of pigeon owners. His profound knowledge of pigeons was clear, but there was also an element of self-interest, as he proposed that an appeal for volunteers could be made through the Racing Pigeon, the newspaper he edited. It was agreed that a committee of four - including Osman - should start a National Pigeon Service, the NPS. It was to be riven by bitter infighting.
"An immense voluntary effort was at the heart of Britain's war-time pigeon operations. It is hard to appreciate just how popular a sport pigeon fancying was at the time. There were a quarter of a million people involved, with at least 70,000 lofts, mainly concentrated in working-class areas. At the outbreak of war, all pigeons had to be registered. In Plymouth, Bert Woodman went to the city police to collect his permit to keep his pigeons. A middle-aged local food factory manager, he was typical of the working men who would play their part. The regimen was strict: All foreign birds and those without a ring to identify their owner were destroyed. 'There was a terrible slaughter,' Woodman remembered. Registration was about control, but it also offered a route for those like Bert Woodman to volunteer for the new NPS. Two thousand signed up at first, but the membership would grow to include eighteen thousand lofts. NPS members agreed to offer at least twenty birds a month for national service, and membership was the only way a fancier could legally obtain food for his pigeons. Members were organized into local pigeon supply groups led b y a pigeon supply officer -Bert Woodman would take on the role in Plymouth, where he also acted as adviser to the police. Membership offered a way to make a difference and was one of the many ways in which the Second World War became 'the people's war' in which so many contributed. For one man, who had lost his brother in the last war but was now too old to fight, handing over his pigeons meant he could feel he was doing something for his brother's memory. Meanwhile, the children of a Nottinghamshire miner remember always being late for school on Tuesdays, as this was the day their dad was down the pit early and they had to excitedly wait for someone to come and pick up his pigeons for some kind of secret work. Pigeon keeping had been a largely male pastime, but many women also took over a husband's or son's loft as their loved ones served far away."