During the Second World War the British initiated a secret operation to bring back intelligence from those living under Nazi occupation in Europe – using messages folded into tiny canisters tied to the legs of homing pigeons. The following is an extract from Secret Pigeon Service: Operation Columba, Resistance and the Struggle to Liberate Europe by Gordon Corera and published by William Collins, 2018.
The Belgian farmer could see there was something odd in his field, something that did not belong there. It was early on a July morning in 1941, just over a year after Nazi tanks had swept through the country. As he stepped closer the farmer could make out that the unfamiliar object was a small container with a length of white material attached. Picking it up, he realised the material was a parachute – but one too small for a man. Inside the box he could see something moving and a pair of eyes that peeped out at him through a small opening. Next came the unmistakable sound of a pigeon cooing. Attached to the side of the container was a message – a request for help. The farmer decided this was something that he needed to consult his wife about.
It was a moment of peril – one that many a British pigeon did not survive. The message made clear that this was no innocent pigeon but a very dangerous bird. It was a spy pigeon that could get the farmer and his wife killed. Many faced with the same discovery across north-western Europe would decide it was better that the pigeon died than they did. Often villagers would make the choice more palatable by roasting and eating the bird. Others went straight to the local police station or to their Nazi occupiers and took the reward on offer for surrendering one of these pigeons. That July morning, half a dozen other birds dropped in nearby Belgian fields would be handed over to the authorities out of fear or greed.
But this farmer and his wife were not like the others. And so the first in a series of small choices was made. The wife set off by bicycle, hiding the container in a sack of potatoes. She had an idea where to go. The small local town of Lichtervelde was, like Belgium as a whole, divided by Nazi occupation. The split was delineated by alcohol. Those who frequented a local pub called De Keizer were known as whites – they thought of themselves as “patriots” – meaning they were against the occupation.
Meanwhile those who frequented De Zwaan were blacks – nationalists who often wore black shirts and sympathised with the Nazis. Everyone knew who was who and what side they were on.
The farmer’s wife parked her cycle by a grocery shop on a corner a few streets from the centre of town. She carried in the sack of potatoes nothing suspicious, since it was part of the regular drop-off of supplies for the shop’s owners. But she also handed over the spy pigeon to the family who ran the store. Why them? For two reasons. Everyone knew that the Debaillie family were patriots – three brothers and two sisters, plus assorted relatives sent to them for safety during the war. But there was another reason. One of the brothers, Michel, was a pigeon fancier.
|Michel Debaillie with a pigeon destined for Britain|
The brothers and sisters gathered round as Michel – gangly, with a mop of unruly curly hair – carefully took the bird out. Like any pigeon fancier, he knew how to hold it tenderly but firmly. With the bird were a small sack of feed, two sheets of fine rice paper, a pencil, a resistance newspaper and a questionnaire. The questionnaire, like the pigeon, was from England. It asked for help: specific and dangerous help.
It was time for another decision, one that would shape the course of the lives of this family and others. To help or not to help? To spy or not to spy? To resist or not to resist?
Not all were sure. Michel’s younger brother wanted to act. The elder thought it was dangerous. But collectively, they made their choice. If they were patriots, they were patriots.
What did they know about spying? Nothing, really. But they had some friends who might be able to help. One was a former soldier from the First World War who had a fascination with military maps. The other, more surprisingly, was a priest. By the next day, these two had arrived in the corner shop and were inducted into the secret of the pigeon. An amateur spy network, consisting of a band of friends, had been born, driven by a desire to do something about the Nazi occupation that blighted their homeland.
For the first friend, the former soldier, the bird was a thing of beauty that he marvelled at, reminding him of the pheasants he kept at home. For the priest, the rice paper was what lured him in. It was like the type of paper on which he had learnt to write characters in China a decade-and-a-half earlier. Like the paper he had used to draw maps of German positions in the last war. And so, he knew, the paper and the pigeon were drawing him into the world of espionage – to make him once again priest, patriot and spy.
I stumbled across Operation Columba by chance when, a few years ago I was covering a quirky news story about a dead pigeon’s leg found in a chimney in Surrey. Attached to the bony leg was a message – a series of seemingly random letters – which had stumped GCHQ’s top code-breakers. Everyone seemed quite surprised to learn that pigeons had been used in the Second World War.
Perhaps there was some clue in the national Archives at Kew which could unlock this pigeon’s secrets? I spent a morning there pulling up every file that looked as if it might relate to pigeon messages in the Second World War. One file that landed on my desk immediately stood out. The front cover bore only two words: ‘Secret” and, in elegant handwriting, “Columba”.
Loosening the ribbon that bound the file, I uncovered riches: riches that came in the form of tiny pink slips of paper. These were messages from ordinary people living under Nazi rule in occupied Europe that had been brought back by pigeon. But message number 37 was unlike everything else.
The original message had been included in the archive, clearly because it was something special. Rolled up tightly into the size of a postage stamp so it could fit into a cylinder attached to a pigeon’s leg, was an astonishing 12 pages of raw intelligence in tiny, beautiful inky writing too small to read with the naked eye, and detailed colourful maps that clearly had had a profound impact… it was passed around the highest levels of government, many referring to it in almost reverential terms. Who had written it? And what had happened to them?
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