The eagle ‘clasps the crag with crooked hands;/Close to the sun in lonely lands’. The nightingale, that ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’, sings ‘of summer in full-throated ease’. The skylark ‘from the earth … springest/Like a cloud of fire’.
The pigeon? Well, the great poets have generally been less inspired by the humble pigeon (Columba livia). Its song is not a mellifluous cascade of liquid notes. It does not fall like a thunderbolt from the sky. It is not rare or endangered – exactly the opposite – and familiarity has bred contempt.
But it does have a ‘superpower’, as Gordon Corera terms it: an innate homing ability. Selective breeding has produced birds that can be taken hundreds of miles from their nests or lofts, even to another country, and then unerringly return home. This ability, still poorly understood by science, was harnessed in the extraordinary Second World War cloak-and-dagger operation that is the subject of Corera’s fascinating book.
Corera, the BBC’s security correspondent, stumbled upon Operation Columba accidentally. A quirky news story about an indecipherable coded message attached to the leg of a dead pigeon found in a chimney sent him to the National Archives in Kew to research the use of pigeons in the war. A file, labelled ‘Secret’, contained dozens of tiny slips of paper – transcripts of messages from ordinary people living in Nazi-occupied Europe. They had been delivered to British military intelligence by pigeon and contained valuable information about German troop movements and military sites.
One message in particular, Message No 37, stood out. It wasn’t a typed transcript but a copy of the original. ‘It looked more like a work of art than an official document. There was tiny, beautiful inky writing, too small to read with the naked eye and densely packed into an unimaginably small space … And maps, detailed colourful maps.’ Corera has painstakingly uncovered the story behind that message and its authors – a small group of Belgian patriots – and uses it as the framework for a broader account of the ‘Secret Pigeon Service’.
Operation Columba was overseen by MI14(d), a branch of military intelligence housed in the basement of the War Office and tasked with understanding the enemy’s thinking. At the start of the war, intelligence from occupied Europe was scarce, a situation not helped by the unhealthy rivalry between the various agencies whose job it was to provide it.
The use of pigeons to carry information was not new – Julius Caesar had employed them during the conquest of Gaul – but Columba’s innovation was to see that they could be used not only to deliver intelligence but also to recruit agents to gather that intelligence in the first place.
Birds provided by volunteer pigeon fanciers (who knew nothing of the operation) were placed in containers attached to parachutes. On the outside of each container was an envelope with a questionnaire in Dutch or French, some rice paper for the return message and a copy of a recent Resistance newspaper printed in London to reassure the finder of the package’s provenance. These containers were dropped by the RAF all over occupied Europe, from Denmark to the south of France.
When found, hopefully by a local who hated the Nazis, an intelligence report could be inserted into the tiny canister attached to the bird’s leg. The pigeon would then fly back to its loft in England. Its owner informed the authorities, the bird was picked up and its message was called through to London.
Columba ran from April 1941 until September 1944. More than sixteen thousand pigeons were dropped. One in ten returned, about a thousand carrying messages and some of those bearing important intelligence. Message No 37 was even shown to Churchill.
Corera has the clear, brisk style of a first-class reporter and expertly navigates the complexities of the espionage world to tell this dramatic and colourful tale, with its astonishing cast of crackpots, mavericks and heroes. Among others, we meet Viscount Tredegar, an occultist and friend of Aleister Crowley. He was for a time in charge of the section of the army that supplied MI14(d) with birds but was eventually court-martialled for gossiping about Columba’s work. His defence cited his unhappy childhood and the fact that his mentally ill mother had built herself a large bird’s nest in the living room and sat in it wearing a beak.
There is Mary Manningham-Buller, pigeon keeper and mother of future MI5 chief Eliza Manningham-Buller. Mary owned a pigeon that was awarded the Dickin Medal after several sorties behind enemy lines as part of the hunt for intelligence about V-1 and V-2 rockets.
Then there are Father Joseph Raskin, Hector Joye and the Debaillie family, the brave group of friends who answered London’s call and, on 12 July 1941, risked their lives to dispatch the bird bearing Message No 37. They were subsequently let down by elements inside the British intelligence establishment, but Corera has done them a great service in bringing them into the light. He has also done the humble pigeon a favour. Columba livia will never be the poets’ favourite, but anyone reading this book might well find themselves converted into an armchair pigeon fancier.