Operation Columba

Jon Day

  • Secret Pigeon Service by Gordon Corera
    William Collins, 326 pp, £20.00, February 2018, ISBN 978 0 00 822030 3

There are 290 species of pigeon in the world, but only one has adapted to live in cities. Feral pigeons are synanthropes: they thrive in human environments where they can skim a living off our excess, nesting in the nooks and crannies of tall buildings that mimic the cliff faces on which their genetic ancestors – Columba livia, the rock dove – once lived. We think of pigeons as grey but they are composed of an oceanic palette: deep blues and greens flecked with white, like the crest of a wave. When not mangled or amputated by wire and string, their feet – which the poet Mina Loy described as their ‘coral landing gear’ – are strong, elegant and reptilian. They can see far further and with greater clarity than we can. In the 1970s and 1980s, the US Coastguard trained pigeons to recognise people lost at sea as part of Project Sea Hunt. The birds were placed in observation bubbles mounted on the bottom of helicopters and trained to peck at buttons when they spotted a scrap of coloured fabric floating in the sea. Pigeons were able to find the fabric 93 per cent of the time. Human subjects managed the same task 38 per cent of the time.

Pigeons are more intelligent than we give them credit for, one of the few animals – along with great apes, dolphins and elephants – able to pass the mirror self-recognition test. If you mark a pigeon’s wing and let it look in a mirror it will try to remove the mark, realising that what it sees is a reflected image of its own body. Pigeons can recognise video footage of themselves shown with a five-second delay (three-year-old children find it difficult to comprehend a two-second delay). They are able to recognise individuals from photographs, and a neuroscientist at Keio University in Japan has trained them to distinguish between the paintings of Matisse and Picasso. ‘Modesty,’ Marianne Moore wrote, ‘cannot dull the lustre of the pigeon.’

Pigeons move through a human world. They stay close to the land, often flying at street level, below the height of the rooftops. Recent studies have suggested that they navigate using human structures as well as natural ones: they follow roads and canals, and have been observed going round roundabouts before taking the appropriate exit. They can fly extremely fast – up to 110 miles per hour – and with a following wind can cover 700 miles in a single uninterrupted flight (pigeons don’t like to fly at night but can be trained to do so). There are faster birds – peregrine falcons, the pigeon’s main predator, can reach 200 miles per hour on the stoop – but none can fly horizontally, under its own power, as quickly as a pigeon.

Feral pigeons are close cousins of the hundreds of varieties of fancy pigeon that have been bred since their domestication by the Sumerians four thousand years ago. The most celebrated, and familiar, of these is the racing homer, a breed selected for its unrivalled navigational abilities. Once their enclosure, or loft, has been imprinted on them – something that happens when a bird is around six weeks old – homing pigeons will return to it for the rest of their lives, even after many years away. They can fly thousands of miles and cross oceans in order to get home. One of the longest homing flights ever recorded was made by a bird owned by the Duke of Wellington, which was liberated from Ichaboe Island, off the coast of Namibia, on 1 June 1845. It took 55 days to fly the 5400 miles back to Nine Elms, where it was found dead in a gutter a mile from its loft.

A carrier pigeon being released from a British tank during World War One.
A carrier pigeon being released from a British tank during World War One.

Just how pigeons navigate is much disputed. Darwin believed that they found their way by keeping track of the twists and turns of the outward journey to calculate the route back. But placing pigeons in darkened revolving drums before removing them from their lofts in an attempt to disrupt their impression of the journey doesn’t seem to affect their ability to home. In the 1950s the biologist Gustav Kramer found that pigeons, like all migratory birds, possess an incredibly accurate internal chronometer which allows them to use the sun as a compass, but even when released under cloud cover they can still successfully return home. It seems most likely that pigeons use a range of little understood sensory abilities to navigate. Vision plays a part, especially when they are flying over the area around their lofts, but birds given opaque contact lenses can still fly home with little difficulty, though they can’t find their way into their lofts once they get there. Researchers have fitted pigeons with devices that change the magnetic fields around their heads to see if, like many sea creatures, they use the poles to locate themselves. In the 1970s Italian scientists discovered that cutting the olfactory nerve prevented pigeons from finding their way home and subsequent studies have suggested they use scents carried on the wind to form an ‘olfactory map’.

It is the remarkable, if poorly understood, ability to home that has made pigeons one of our most exploited companion species. Pigeons flew across the Roman Empire carrying messages from the margins to the capital. Decimus Brutus broke Marc Antony’s siege of Mutina by sending letters to the consuls via pigeon. ‘What service,’ Pliny wrote, ‘did Antony derive from his trenches, and his vigilant blockade, and even from his nets stretched across the river, while the winged messenger was traversing the air?’ Pigeons only really came into their own with modernity, however, when their speed, reliability and tractability made them particularly attractive to communications entrepreneurs and military strategists. During the 19th and early 20th centuries they became important auxiliaries to the technological networks that were springing up across the world. Reuter’s News Agency was established in 1850 with a flock of 45 pigeons, which were used to cover a gap in the telegraph network between Brussels and Aachen, giving Paul Reuter a monopoly over all telegraph traffic between Belgium and Germany. The five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild used pigeons to stay in touch as they travelled around Europe consolidating their father’s banking dynasty. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, pigeons were taken out of the city by balloon and returned carrying thousands of letters stored on microfilm and sewn into their tail feathers.

During the First World War, soldiers at the front used pigeons to communicate with those behind the lines, and with tank commanders when their radios failed. In the Second World War most bomber crews carried a pair of birds in a specially designed floating cage. If they were shot down they would release a pigeon bearing a message detailing their position. ‘If it became necessary immediately to discard every line and method of communications used on the front, except one,’ wrote Major General Fowler, the British army’s chief of signals and communications, ‘and it were left to me to select that one method, I should unhesitatingly choose the pigeons. 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.’

The idea of using pigeons to gather intelligence was one of a number of responses to the difficulty of getting information out of Europe at the start of the Second World War. During the previous war, MI6 had employed couriers and passeurs to carry intelligence across enemy lines. It was dangerous work and many were caught and executed. The need for new means of communication led to some curious schemes, of which Operation Columba was among the more successful. In Secret Pigeon Service, his book about the operation, Gordon Corera reports that attempts were also made to send messages ‘written in invisible ink on banknotes and dropped in offertory boxes in Catholic churches, which were allowed to be taken across enemy lines’, and to transmit Morse code with ‘infra-red rays’ by signalling back and forth in front of a hot oven.

Successful communication was often extremely slow: messages were passed from hand to hand, as radio technology was crude and easy to intercept. The Funkabwehr, German radio counterintelligence, became more sophisticated as the war went on, and by 1943 it was dangerous for an agent to use a radio for more than a few minutes at a time. It took around three months for an agent’s report to reach MI6 from the field. Compared to radio, pigeons were reliable, especially over short distances. Unless they were caught in the act of releasing the birds, the locations of the handlers couldn’t easily be discovered. But the main attraction of pigeons was that they might allow British intelligence agencies to communicate directly with people living in occupied territory, whose information was often more detailed and dependable than that of their own spies. According to Corera, one agent sent a report claiming that ‘German troops in Norway were training to swim ashore wearing green watertight suits and had been heard practising on Scottish bagpipes.’

Operation Columba was conceived and run by a raggle-taggle band of secret service officers, pigeon-fanciers, aristocratic animal lovers and soldiers, who didn’t always work well together. It was directed by MI14(d), the Special Continental Pigeon Service, a branch of Military Intelligence (MI16), and was the brainchild of Rex Pearson, an agent who spent the interwar years at Unilever in Switzerland as cover for his work for the Z organisation, a parallel intelligence network run by MI6. In 1939 he suggested that pigeons could be used not only to receive intelligence from established agents but also as a means of recruiting new ones. MI6 thought the idea ridiculous and wanted nothing to do with it. But Military Intelligence, which was run by the army and based at the War Office rather than the Foreign Office, allowed Pearson to go ahead.

His plan was enabled by the work of William Osman, a combative member of a famous dynasty of fanciers. William’s father, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Henry Osman, had abandoned his legal career to spend more time with his birds and in 1898 founded the Racing Pigeon, which is still in print today. Alfred had been responsible for pigeon training and organisation during World War One. After the war the pigeon units had been disbanded, but in the 1930s William argued that a standing National Pigeon Service should be established, and recruited a network of two thousand amateur fanciers to provide birds. After war broke out members of the NPS agreed to provide twenty birds a month, in return for which they were allowed to keep their lofts running and to buy feed for their pigeons.


The first experimental pigeon drops of Operation Columba took place at the end of 1940, and from early 1941 until September 1944 the service dropped 16,000 pigeons on small parachutes over occupied Europe, in an arc running from Copenhagen to Bordeaux. Attached to the pigeons was a questionnaire asking whoever found them to provide intelligence – on troop movements, the position of guns or radar arrays and ‘the extent to which people could hear BBC radio clearly and their views of the service it provided’ – by return of pigeon. Many of the birds were lost (Corera says that over the course of the war only one in ten birds made it home), dying when their parachutes failed to open, or falling into enemy hands, or being eaten by starving locals. But thousands of birds did make it back to their ramshackle lofts in the gardens of suburban semis across Britain.

The messages they carried were by turns useful, unintelligible, petty, funny and moving. People wrote asking for supplies (sometimes guns and ammunition; often whisky and cigarettes), to taunt the enemy, to denounce traitors and ask for them to be condemned on the radio, or to tell the allies to be more careful when they dropped their bombs. Sometimes they just seemed intrigued by the birds. ‘I found this pigeon … early in the morning while I was cutting clover for the animals,’ one person wrote, ‘and I have looked after it well and given it food and drink and am now anxious to know if the little animal reaches its loft.’ A message from the Netherlands to Lancashire signed by ‘The Two Pirates’ sent greetings to Churchill as well as to the queen of Holland, who was in exile in Britain. ‘I would ask you, my friends,’ wrote a French farmer who had found a pigeon in his beetroot field, ‘to warn the population a few minutes before the bombing because you kill many civilians who are your friends. Very few Germans get killed.’ A message sent from Assen in the Netherlands read simply: ‘Help our Jews.’

Most of the people who found Columba’s pigeons were civilians – villagers and farmers who came across the birds lying in their fields – but a few fell into the hands of more organised groups. In some cases resistance units formed around the discovery of a pigeon and Corera follows one such group in particular, Leopold Vindictive, a Belgian cell led by a charismatic priest called Joseph Raskin. During the First World War Raskin had been an ambulance driver, stretcher-bearer and war artist, painting watercolours of German positions at the front. He had spent time in China as a young man, where he developed calligraphic skills that would come in useful for writing pigeon messages on tiny slips of rice paper. When, in 1941, some friends discovered a Columba pigeon on their land, Raskin organised the assembly of an extraordinarily detailed message – five thousand words long and containing several maps – to send back to London. The group released the pigeon on 12 July and it arrived at its loft in Ipswich the same day. Their message was on a desk in Whitehall within 36 hours. Despite describing Columba as a ‘racket’, MI6 had to admit the report was useful.

While they waited for another bird to be delivered, Leopold Vindictive spent months mapping Germany’s Belgian defences from De Panne, near Dunkirk, to Knokke on the Dutch border, covering 67 km of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The message they put together – a minute and beautiful map detailing gun emplacements, railway lines and points where bombs might be most effectively dropped – would have been incredibly useful to British Intelligence. But the group received no more pigeons and the new message never made it to Britain. Raskin and his co-conspirators were betrayed, and he was executed in 1943.

Over the course of the war the Germans became, as MI6 put it, ‘pigeon minded’. Rewards were offered for pigeons turned in, and booby-trapped birds were placed in fields to injure anyone who might be tempted to send information back to Britain. Sometimes the Germans left their own birds disguised as British ones, and these would fly back to German lofts, betraying those who had used them to send messages. The German army even developed a hawking division, led by Hermann Goering, to fly peregrine falcons at pigeons along the coast.

The British, too, were worried that German spies were using birds to communicate, and a team of British falconers was established to try to intercept them, but they only managed to catch friendly birds, probably because, despite the hysteria, there were no German pigeons in Britain. As the war progressed, MI14(d)’s pigeon plans became more elaborate. Fanciers along the coast would train their pigeons all at once, creating ‘screens’ of birds that were supposed to tempt any stray German birds away from their home lofts. None was captured. Another proposal was to drop ‘second-rate’ British pigeons wearing fake German identity rings over France, in the hope that they would follow German pigeons into their lofts. If they were chosen for communication they would then carry their messages back to Britain – what Corera calls ‘the avian version of the double cross system’.

Towards the end of the war, the Columba birds were used not to collect intelligence but to spread misinformation. The questionnaires were modified in an attempt to draw German forces away from Italy to the Eastern Front by pretending an attack on France and Norway was imminent. Some of the last birds used in the war were sent with soldiers as they landed on the beaches of Normandy. They weren’t needed for messages in the end – the soldiers’ radios worked well enough – but a few birds arrived back home covered in blood, having been released in the confusion when their handlers were shot on the beaches.

Operation Columba was formally closed down on 14 February 1945, three months before VE Day. In the months after the war there was some discussion about whether pigeons should be eligible for the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross, awarded for gallantry. One bureaucrat argued that it would be unfair to dogs if pigeons were awarded the medal, as dogs had been taught to use their brains whereas pigeons were just following instinct. ‘Do pigeons have brains?’ he wrote in a memo, ‘please comment.’ In the end a senior officer overruled him, pointing out that on their most arduous flights pigeons displayed not just instinctive behaviour but ‘voluntary determination’. ‘The pigeon,’ he concluded, ‘had to overcome its fear of drowning and take huge risks despite being more naturally timid and nervous than a dog.’

After the war the armed forces continued to research possible military applications. Could pigeons be trained to home to a particular object – a searchlight, say– while carrying tiny bombs or biological weapons? ‘A thousand pigeons each with a two ounce explosive capsule, landing at intervals on a specific target might be a seriously inconvenient surprise,’ one enthusiast wrote. The psychologist B.F. Skinner was approached by the CIA to develop a new kind of homing missile, codenamed Project Orcon (‘organic control’). He trained pigeons to peck at the image of a target on a screen – a capacitor on the pigeon’s beak translated this pecking into directional information, guiding the missile onto its target. Skinner was convinced of the utility of the scheme, but the project was shelved. ‘Our problem,’ as he later admitted, ‘was no one would take us seriously.’ Within a few years the British and American armies had lost interest, and the government’s pigeon subcommittee, which considered such proposals, was wound up in 1953.

Despite the waning military interest, after the war pigeons in Britain were treated not as pests but as heroes. Pigeon racing became hugely popular. During the 1950s and 1960s it was the most popular sport, by participation, in the country, with a quarter of a million active flyers tending to 70,000 lofts. Today the sport is in decline. The Royal Pigeon Racing Association now has only 21,500 members, and numbers are dropping all the time.