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Hacker VIDEO: Secret Pigeons Helped Britain Win World War 2

The Secret Pigeons That Helped Britain Win the Second World War

Captain Caiger of the British Army Pigeon Service Credit: Hulton Archive...

The Telegraph UK, 21 Feb 2018.

Early one July morning in 1941 a Belgian farmer encountered a curious object among his crops: a cylinder a couple of feet long with a parachute attached.

Through a gap in one side he could just about make out a pair of beady eyes staring back at him. Attached was a note. It was from British Intelligence and asking for help.

Inside was a pigeon, codenamed NURP 39 TTTI. The lettering stood for the National Union of Racing Pigeons and number 39 denoted the year it fledged.

But this was not just any pigeon. Rather a bird which would end up proving so important it would deliver a message which ended up being passed all the way to Winston Churchill.

A map depicting the routes homing pigeons took in World War II
Credit: Tom Jamieson

It was part of a secret operation codenamed Columba whose story is told for the first time, <Secret Pigeon Service>, based on declassified files and personal accounts in Britain and Europe.

Thousands of birds were released in the operation, in a desperate attempt to procure allies in the darkest days of the Second World War. The plan was to take advantage of the remarkable homing instinct pigeons possess in the hope ordinary people would find the birds and note down details of what the Nazis were up to in their locality, before dispatching them back to Britain along with their covert cargo.

However far-fetched it may sound, these pigeons had a real impact on the war effort. Some birds even became recipients of the Dickin Medal, honouring the bravery of animals in World War II.

The Belgian bird had belonged to a pigeon fancier in Ipswich but ended up being sent to Newmarket racecourse – home at the time of the RAF Special Duties squadron, tasked with the hazardous mission of dropping secret agents into Nazi-occupied Europe.

The pilots often joked about this slightly bizarre add-on to their top secret missions for MI6 and the Special Operations Executive. An agent might sometimes have second thoughts about parachuting into what lay below but the pigeons had no choice. “I doubt if any of them survived,” one pilot reckoned. They were wrong. Some did.

However it was not ejection by the RAF but the moment of discovery once they had landed that was to prove of greatest peril for these plucky British birds.

There were rewards for handing them in to the authorities – and severe punishments for those caught using them. A few months after the pigeon landed in Belgium a poster went up in the occupied Channel Islands announcing a Frenchmen had been shot by firing squad for using one to send a message to Britain.

In other cases, villagers were simply so hungry that they disposed of the evidence by roasting the birds and eating them, served with peas.

Pigeon NURP 39 TTTI, however, was spared the pot and ended up being passed to a burgeoning resistance network led by a Catholic priest called Joseph Raskin.

The pigeon with the Belgian resistance

Raskin possessed a wide circle of contacts stretching to the King of Belgium. He had been with the king when Admiral Roger Keyes arrived as an emissary from Churchill in May 1940 during the desperate moment when British forces were being evacuated from Dunkirk and Belgium was being forced to surrender.

Following the arrival of the homing pigeon, Raskin and his friends spent days amassing all the information they could. Using his calligraphy skills – honed as a missionary in China – he crammed as much as possible on to the tiny piece of paper the British had provided.

With maps drawn and last minute details added, he added a final flourish – a swirling seal christening this tiny resistance network ‘Leopold Vindictive’; Leopold in tribute to the Belgian King, Vindictive after a British warship Admiral Keyes had used to block the port of Ostend in the First World War.

The message was placed in a small green container – not much larger than a biro lid – clipped to the pigeon’s leg. Before it was released they proudly took photographs of themselves holding the bird. This might be against every rule of spy-craft but it was a symbol of their pride in what they were doing.

After the pigeon flew home to Ipswich, the unopened container was sent on to the team who ran Columba – a little known subsection of British intelligence called MI14(d) whose job was to collect information on the occupation of Europe. They were the poor relation of the spies at MI6 who were rather sniffy about the use of pigeons – a prejudice that would come to plague relations amid occasionally bitter bureaucratic warfare (dubbed ‘pigeon-politics’).

The pigeon being prepared to be released

The two men on duty that morning were Brian Melland and ‘Sandy’ Sanderson. In those early days they wore a protective visor to open up messages, fearing the Germans might have booby-trapped a container by placing a small explosive inside.

Raskin’s message was the 37th to return to Britain via a homing pigeon. When it was transcribed it contained a treasure trove of information so in-depth the report stretched to 12 pages.

It contained extensive details of German positions around Belgium, recent bombing raids and suggestions of which camouflaged sites were susceptible to attack. Raskin had even included notes on the prevailing mood among troops and the local population.

Crucially it also revealed details of a key Nazi base installed in a heavily guarded chateau, which Britain had previously known next to nothing about.

The message was quickly passed up the chain of command. The Admiralty remarked on its “wealth of detail”. Two MI6 reports had suggested the possibility of a naval headquarters but there had been no confirmation until now.

“Having seen such a detailed report as No.37 it is clear that action should be taken”, a Naval intelligence officer noted.

The message was also shown to Churchill himself. Why? Churchill certainly loved to see raw intelligence but he had no real need to see the kind of detail this pigeon had provided.
The answer, I believe, is that all those who saw it understood the message symbolised something that Churchill understood better than almost anyone – the spirit of resistance.

The arrival of that pigeon set in motion a train of events – messages were broadcast to the Leopold Vindictive group on the BBC and there were multiple attempts to drop more pigeons, but they never made it to the Belgians.

A soldier releases a carrier pigeon in 1942
Credit: Bert Hardy/Picture Post

Meanwhile the group were collecting even more valuable intelligence and growing increasingly desperate to receive more pigeons so they could send back detailed maps. That forced them to take ever more risks widening their resistance circle.

MI6 also muscled into the operation and parachuted in two agents to try and contact the group. But rivalries and secrecy in London as well as treachery in Belgium meant that in the spring of 1942, nine months after the pigeon arrived, the men were captured. The three central figures – including Raskin – were taken to Germany and executed in 1943.

Their message, though, had confirmed the potential of Operation Columba. More than a thousand pigeon messages would eventually make it back during the war, providing valuable intelligence on V1 launch sites, resistance networks, even personal notes from crashed RAF airmen to their family.
Pigeons did not win the war. People did. But pigeons would play their part.

Out and About: Sir Bob Russell Explains How Racing Pigeons Helped Win the Second World War

Pigeon Patrol 21 Feb 2018.

ABOUT 300 Colchester racing pigeons were involved in secret service work in Occupied Europe during the Second World War, a little-known fact faithfully reported in Hervey Benham’s book Essex at War which recorded what happened between 1939 and 1945.

This remarkable aspect of the war is described by Mr Benham as follows:

“Let the Pigeons’ Part Not be Overlooked.

“Twenty-two Colchester pigeon fanciers played behind the scenes their part in the winning of the war.

“Prior to 1939 these men trained their birds for show purposes and for racing, but when in April 1943 a Special Section Carrier Pigeon Service was formed, efforts were wholeheartedly turned towards war.

“Mr Arthur A. Finch, of 12 Speedwell Road, Colchester UK, was appointed Pigeon Service Officer for the Colchester Section, and Colchester fanciers supplied approximately 300 birds for special secret service work in Occupied Europe.

“Several were used by the Maquis and gave the exact position of flying bomb sites.
“Several of the 300 birds never returned, many being wounded.”

The “Maquis” was the name given to members of the French Resistance against the Nazis. Pigeons would be smuggled into Occupied Europe in boxes dropped by parachute at pre-arranged locations.

These would be picked up by the Resistance who would then put messages in small containers fitted to the legs of pigeons which would then fly home to their loft in Britain, 22 of which were in Colchester.

The Secret Pigeons Whose Vital Intelligence Left the Nazis Flapping



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