It may sound like the product of an over-imaginative mind, but Operation Columba, a clandestine British bid to gain intelligence from occupied areas, was very real.
Between 1941 and 1944, around 16,000 avian agents, hidden in canisters with little parachutes attached, fell to the ground in rural France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The plucky pigeons sparked hundreds of tiny acts of resistance: villagers sending back messages, tied to the legs of the birds.
One group of villagers, led by a local priest, provided intelligence so valuable it was shown to Winston Churchill — but their brave defiance ultimately led them to a gruesome death.
Gordon Corera, an author and the BBC’s security correspondent, has pieced together details of that group, known by the codename Leopold Vindictive.
“I never thought I’d be writing about pigeons,” he laughs.
He began his research a few years ago after coming across a news story about the discovery of a dead pigeon’s leg in a chimney in Surrey, in South East England.
“I kid you not,” he says.
“The dead pigeon’s leg had a message attached to it which appeared to come from World War II. I found it bizarre and fascinating.”
The message was a series of random letters — a code not even the country’s best minds could crack.
So, Corera began a quest to unravel the mysterious message himself.
It took him to the National Archives, where he found many files on the little-known Secret Pigeon Service.
They were mostly boring — like where to store bird feed — but one, which had only just been declassified, stood out.
“It was called Columba. It was a War Office file from a [section] of military intelligence I’d never heard of — MI14(d). I mean we’ve all heard of MI5, but MI14(d)?” he says.
“Even more bizarrely, it had a picture of a pigeon, and then a cartoon of Hitler lying on his back, as if the pigeon had just done its business on Hitler, causing him to fall over.
“I’d never seen a wartime file with such an almost absurdly comic cover to it.”
Inside the file was a rich trove of messages sent from occupied Europe via homing pigeon.
“They were from ordinary people, who’d picked up a pigeon in a field [and responded to] a questionnaire: ‘What do you see in your local area? Are there any Nazi troop movements? What’s morale like?'” Corera says.
Around 1,000 messages came back, but one was different.
Message 37 looked like a work of art, with detailed, colourful maps and writing too small to read with the naked eye.
It had been rolled up tightly into the size of a postage stamp so it could fit back into the cannister — and it produced 12 pages of raw intelligence.
“You can see in the files the British admiralty saying, ‘We weren’t sure about these pigeons, but this is real intelligence’,” Corera says.
“They showed it to Churchill, [I think because] it embodied the spirit of resistance… the idea that there were people out there in occupied Europe who wanted to resist, who wanted to work with Britain, who were willing to take huge risks.”
The Leopold Vindictive
Corera began to wonder about the people behind the message.
“The file had this codename, Leopold Vindictive, but it didn’t have their real names. I became slightly obsessed with trying to find out who they were,” he says.
“I knew they were Belgian villagers, so I started searching Belgian historical records and archives.”
The trail eventually led to Jozef Raskin, a Catholic priest who lived near the city of Bruges and was the leader of the resistance group.
That then led him to Raskin’s niece, Brigitte, and together they began to piece together his life story.
“He was a dedicated patriot. He wasn’t a normal priest, I think it’s worth saying,” Corera says.
“In the First World War, because he was quite an artist, he’d been involved in drawing maps of German positions in the trenches. So he already had a bit of a feel for military intelligence.
“He’d gone to China in between the wars as a missionary, and he’d learnt calligraphy, and how to write, that gave him the ability to write those tiny letters.
“And he also had a real network of friends across the country, because he went as a travelling preacher raising funds for the missionary organisation he worked for.”
The Leopold Vindictive was named for two of Raskin’s contacts: Belgium’s King Leopold, for whom Raskin had served as a chaplain, and a British admiral named Roger Keyes, whose ship was the Vindictive.
“He actually uses the admiral as a reference in the pigeon [message], and says ‘if you want to know who I am, contact the admiral. I was with him in 1940’.
“That’s one of the reasons they took the information so seriously.”
The group provided intelligence about troop movements, the results of bombing raids and specific information about a particular chateau the Germans were using as a base for their marine forces.
The two sides desperately tried to stay in touch and keep the information flowing.
“They tried to drop more pigeons, but the pigeons are hard to drop in a precise location, and they kept missing,” Corera says.
‘A gruesome, awful end’
Eventually Britain sent two MI6 agents to Belgium. Their mission included making contact with the Leopold Vindictive.
But by this stage Nazis had infiltrated parts of the resistance network, and they were closing in fast.
“I’m afraid that was the reality of wartime — the risks for these resistance groups, most would not survive,” Corera says.
“Surviving even for a year or two would be the exception, rather than the rule.”
Raskin was arrested and taken to Germany, where he was beheaded at a prison site. Two other members of his group were also killed.
“I’m afraid it was only discovered by their families after the war that they were executed there. It’s a gruesome, awful end,” Corera says.
“You want a happy ending to these stories, and you want to be able to say that it all worked. In this case the intelligence operation succeeded for a while, but it had its limits.”
But he thinks Raskin and others like him earned themselves everlasting respect.
“They do embody a spirit of taking those risks… for what they believed — their patriotism for their country, their desire to resist tyranny, in Raskin’s case his faith in God,” Corera says.
“That was a risk they understood and they paid a terrible price for it.”
And for the hundreds of other ordinary villagers who wrote a message on rice paper and sent it via pigeon, there was a powerful symbolism at play.
“They would watch them fly away, hopefully back to Britain,” Corera says.
“For them it was a symbol of hope and liberation. To liberate that pigeon was also emotionally very powerful for them, this idea of flying away and the hope that eventually their country could be free.”
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