World War II Pigeons Helped to Liberate Europe
Operation Columba was one of the most secretive aspects of British Intelligence during the second world war. Sadly, the achievements of the secret agents involved in the operation have not been greatly celebrated in the years since. But perhaps they should have been. Between April 1941 and September 1944, those special agents made 16,554 drops of vital information over a huge area.
The operation’s successes included the mapping of Belgium’s entire coastal defence system. Operation Columba was run by a specially created Secret Service division, M114 (d). Surprisingly, the unit’s agents were pigeons!
Unlike most forms of espionage, pigeon intelligence has failed to attract much interest over the years. This is a shame as pigeons played a crucial role in the successes of the allied forces during the war. Operation Columba took advantage of the homing instincts of pigeons and used the birds to courier thousands of crucial communications which could not then be intercepted by the enemy.
The Belgian Resistance and Pigeons
During the war, a Belgian resistance group called Leopold Vindictive was led by the Catholic priest Josef Raskin and used pigeons dropped by the RAF in their subversive mission. The group produced vital information for the British but their activities ultimately got them all killed.
Raskin had worked as an observer during the first world war, sketching maps of enemy positions. His skill, and the tiny handwriting he had perfected as a missionary in Shanghai, enabled him to condense many pages of intelligence information into folded documents which were the size of postage stamps. These were carried by the pigeons in cylinders attached to their legs. The other members of the group were Marie and Margaret Debaillie who possessed an extraordinary talent for everyday espionage and so managed to garner a great deal of crucial intelligence.
The Need for Speed
Pigeon communications had a 12 per cent success rate, which was no worse than many other methods. More importantly, the pigeons were quick. The average time it took for a human agent to return a report during the war was four months whereas a pigeon could achieve drop in just 36 hours.
There was even a parliamentary subcommittee for pigeons during the war! This was wound up in 1950 but not before there was a serious debate as to whether or not pigeons should be awarded medals for their exploits as dogs were. Since pigeons were following their instincts, the Air Ministry suggested, could their behaviour be considered brave? Their champions countered that pigeons could choose to overcome risk and that therefore their actions were worthy of decoration.
We probably shouldn’t get over sentimental about the role pigeons played in the war but it is important to note their achievements. The secret pigeon service made a significant contribution to the war effort and helped resistance operatives to deliver their intelligence. Britain was up against the enormity of the Nazi war machine and the humble pigeon did a grand job or assisting in its downfall.