Fights of fancy: MI5’s post-war plan to use remote-controlled homing pigeons

Military pigeon

It would most likely be dismissed as a bird-brained idea nowadays.

But a former spy chief’s diaries have revealed he seriously considered using radio-controlled homing pigeons with experts after the Second World War.

Guy Liddell, then deputy director general of MI5, wrote on October 3, 1946, how he had a meeting with Captain James Caiger, who ran the Army’s pigeon loft.

He wrote: “He is our pigeon expert. He talks, thinks and dreams about them.

“He has had pigeons since he was a boy and his father had pigeons before him.

“I asked him about the homing instinct. He said the matter is quite unsolved.

“There is however, one curious fact, namely that in a sun spot year, all pigeons go haywire.

“Sun spots are, of course, minute radio-active particles – though how they affect the pigeons’ homing instinct nobody knows.

“This gives some colour to the suggestion that pigeons might be able to home on an electric beam, in other words that you might have radio-controlled pigeons.”

Previously released MI5 files have referred to plans to train pigeons to carry explosives to fly into enemy searchlights.

Mr Liddell’s diaries, just released to the National Archives in Kew, West London, also refer to a meeting with colleagues in 1949 to discuss impregnating papers with radioactive substances to set off an alarm if they were taken from a building.

He wrote that he was told, “It is quite possible to impregnate paper, metal clips or ink with a radioactive substance and to install either under the floor boards or in a door post, or under the ground outside an apparatus which will register if anybody goes out of the building with a secret paper so impregnated”.

He wrote there would also be a minor health risk if someone left the papers lying around.

“It would at the outset produce extreme lassitude and later a loss of blood counts,” he said.

“No serious harm would result if the papers were removed and the symptoms detected.”


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