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It’s hardly the image of wartime intrigue: a group of British pigeon fanciers discussing—what else—pigeons one Sunday afternoon in London in 1939. On this occasion the men were wondering whether the homing pigeon would have a role in the looming war, as it did in those of the past. Surely the birds would be useless com- pared with wireless radio, a breeder named Jack Lovell ventured. “Don’t be so sure,” a friend replied. “A message transmitted by radio can be intercepted; it’s not secure. The one thing about a pigeon, Jack, it can’t bloody talk, can it?”

He was right. For all of the advances in communications technology, homing pigeons still had abilities nothing else could approach. When Britain entered the war later that year, Jack Lovell’s pigeons did too.

Homing pigeons allowed silent communication when the enemy was close at hand, or when telephone lines were down or nonexistent. They permitted armored spearheads to communicate under radio silence. And when radios simply didn’t work, pigeons did. “The pigeon to the army was like a revolver to a civilian,” Maj. J. J. Baker of the British Army Pigeon Service explained. “You probably never needed it. If you did need it, you needed it badly.”

As a result, one of the oldest forms of military communication came to be used widely by both sides in World War II, which saw the most extensive use ever of the birds. Drafted as messengers and as spies, pigeons helped communicate news from the front and relayed intelligence from resistance workers in occupied countries; some were even used as counterspies, and a few were instrumental in a propaganda campaign near the end of the war. Although their contribution is little remembered today, homing pigeons saved thousands of human lives during World War II while carrying out missions full of risk and—yes—intrigue.

A major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps gave them the ultimate accolade. “Pigeons,” he proudly told a New York Times reporter in 1941, “can win battles.”

Agents of the Office of Strategic Services operating in Burma routinely had company when they were dropped behind enemy lines; each was para- chuted in with a small bamboo cage containing a pigeon, which was used to report on the condition of the radio that had also been dropped. “After the agent had landed, cleared the drop zone, and had an opportunity to test his radio,” said Col. William Raymond, commander of the OSS’s clandestine Detachment 101 operation, “he would release the pigeon, preferably near daylight, with a coded message either indicating that all was well or giving instructions when and where to drop another one.”

When an American airborne patrol lost its radio operator during a jump in 1944, the bird that jumped with them, a four-month-old pigeon named Jungle Joe, filled the void. For a week, Joe stayed inside his cage while the patrol gathered information on Japanese troop positions and movements. Then he was set free, flying through 225 miles of mountainous terrain to deliver his message. The information he transmitted contributed to the capture of a large section of Burma by Allied troops.

To intercept the message, the enemy would have had to intercept the pigeon, something understandably difficult to do. When that did happen, the opportunity to taunt or demoralize wasn’t overlooked. One American bird returned to its handlers on the Italian front bearing this message:

To the American Commanders, 36th Division, Infantry Herewith we return a pidgeon to you. Your officers are too stupid to destroy important documents before being captured. At the present moment your division in the southern sector is getting a good hitting. You poor fools.

The German Troops

That was a rare event, however; more than 95 percent of all messages carried by U.S. Army pigeons, for example, were successfully delivered under combat conditions. And those messages were not only responsible for tactical gains; they often saved lives.

On October 18, 1943, the British 56th Infantry Division was to attack the Italian village of Colvi Vecchia. But they encountered little enemy resistance and wound up occupying the village hours ahead of schedule—just before Allied bombers were to strike. They were unable to notify the Allied XII Air Support Command, 20 miles away, by radio, and lacked telecommunications lines, so they dispatched a pigeon named GI Joe with a message to cancel the bombing mission. He arrived at the base within 20 minutes—having made a 60 mph flight—just as the bombers were warming up. Gen. Mark Clark, the commander of the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy, estimated that at least 1,000 Allied troops would have been lost had the pigeon not reached the base in time. For his actions that day, GI Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal (the equivalent of Britain’s Victoria Cross, for animals), the only American animal to be given that honor. Of the 54 animals awarded the medal during World War II, the majority, 32 of them, were pigeons, a measure of their usefulness during the war.

In addition to providing a means of communication when none else existed, the birds could be intelligent and resourceful, which made them extremely useful in combat. A pigeoneer with Australia’s Signal Corps Carrier Pigeon Service, Mick Lawrence, recalled how quickly the birds learned to adapt to dangerous environments. “We would send two messages on two pigeons, as the Japanese had machine gunners looking to cut our flying communication down,” he recalled of an operation in New Guinea. To avoid Japanese gunfire, “pigeons would learn to stay below the tree tops, or even fly out two hundred yards off the beach then circle the island, darting back in only once they had spied the loft twenty yards back in the trees.”

Pigeons also proved amazingly persistent in their drive to reach their home loft, wherever that might be. In 1943, a pigeon breeder in Cleveland, Ohio, shipped a bunch of recruits to Camp Crowder, Missouri. One of the birds went AWOL and, despite a severe snowstorm in the region, returned home—800 miles away—a few days later.

Even when the birds couldn’t fly at all, the instinct to return to the home loft prevailed. At Fort Meade, Maryland, a pigeon named Chester was part of a group of birds released one morning on a training flight from a nearby town; that evening all but Chester had returned. The next day, a soldier traversing a nearby road found Chester—his wings somehow covered with oil, leaving him unable to fly—trudging down the road in the direction of Fort Meade.

But that paled in comparison with the journeys pigeons made at the front. A pigeon named Winkie seemed to have a number of strikes against her when the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber she was in crashed in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland on February 23, 1942, 150 miles from base. Wet and oily after escaping from her broken enclosure, she nonetheless arrived home to her RAF handler. The staff at the base deduced what they could from the bird’s bedraggled appearance and the plane’s last known location and launched a rescue; the entire bomber crew was recovered within an hour of Winkie’s arrival.

On top of all that, there was the added bonus that pigeons were inexpensive to maintain. It cost the U.S. Army only six cents a week to feed each bird, a bargain that Sgt. Peter Zakutansky—a pigeon enthusiast as a youngster who later trained army pigeons—referred to as “a penny a day for a hero.”

Serious scholars of animal behavior might scoff at such sentiment, but the individuals charged with training and caring for military pigeons by and large weren’t serious scholars of animal behavior; they were just people who liked pigeons. Men selected for the U.S. Army Pigeon Service were chosen for their gentleness and patience, and were often pigeon fanciers in their prewar lives.

The pigeons were primarily selected for intelligence and stamina. “Speed is not important,” explained Tech. Sgt. Clifford Poutre in early 1941. “They’re all fast on the wing. What we want is a bird that will get back, one that won’t get flustered, and that is intelligent enough to be self-reliant.”

Training began when the birds were four weeks old. They were just starting to fly by then and had not yet bonded to a home loft—something that occurred at about six weeks of age. In the United States, the center for military pigeon training was at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, headquarters of the U.S. Signal Corps Army Pigeon Service. During the war, the service trained 54,000 homing pigeons, 36,000 of which were sent overseas for active duty. In Great Britain, close to 200,000 pigeons were placed into military service.

“As the homing pigeon learns its duty it may ride in a jeep or aboard a ship, fly in an airplane, be carried on a man’s back or on a war dog’s shoulders, or go on a secret mission in a manner which even yet cannot be disclosed,” wrote the service’s Lt. Col. Joseph F. Spears, in a 1947 article for National Geographic. “Wherever the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard, or the Marines go, a pigeon may go also.”

Military pigeons were specialists. Pigeons by nature tend to avoid flying over water and will fly around large bodies of water rather than over them if given the chance. So pigeons being trained for water flights were allowed to fly only over water. And because pigeons instinctively roost when it gets dark, those intended for night flying were trained only in the dark. “What we do is teach them self-confidence,” said Poutre. “They can fly at night. We simply prove to them that they can.”

Because the usefulness of the pigeon is based on its instinct to return home, the vast majority of the birds’ missions were inherently one-way: they were released somewhere out in the field, and would fly back to their home loft. But trainers in the United States and elsewhere got birds to accept the concept of a moveable home loft by putting one on wheels and gradually repositioning it day after day, which increased the birds’ utility on an everchanging front. By 1942 the U.S. Army was using a 50-pigeon trailer that could be pulled by a jeep. There were even birds specially trained for two-way missions, but Poutre remained mum on how that was done: “We have them. That’s all I can say. We trained them, but how we trained them is a military secret.”

Military secrets were what the birds were all about, and in Europe during World War II, the use of pigeons to transmit secret information became a highly evolved enterprise, with both sides of the conflict pushing the state of the art.

Beginning early in the war, the British dropped pigeons by parachute to resistance workers in German-occupied territories. They sent more than 17,000 pigeons to the French Resistance alone. R. V. Jones, a British physicist and specialist in scientific intelligence, described the protocol in his autobiography, Most Secret War, including how he used questionnaires to elicit information particularly valuable to him in seeking the location of German Würzburg radar stations.

“In areas where we had no direct contact with the Resistance movement,” he wrote, “we used to get our bombers to drop homing pigeons in containers which would open after a few hours and release the birds if they had not been found by someone on the ground. Attached to the containers were questionnaires asking a series of simple questions which, for example, a farm labourer might be able to answer, and which might be helpful to us. My own question was ‘Are there any German radio stations in your neighbourhood with aerials which rotate?’ This feature was an almost certain criterion of a radar station, and we dropped the pigeons wherever we saw a gap in our knowledge. Before the end of 1942 the pigeons had given us the locations of three stations hitherto unknown to us, and more followed during 1943.”

Around the same time that Britain started reaching out to resistance workers, Germany put its own surreptitious plans for the pigeon into play. Britain got wind of one of these plans in 1940 when what British military intelligence documents referred to as “German pigeon personnel” were captured and interrogated, revealing that Nazi pigeons had been infiltrating the United Kingdom to allow enemy agents there to send secret communiqués back to the Fatherland.

“It is said that Himmler, who has been a pigeon fancier and enthusiast all his life, is the head or president of the German National Pigeon Society,” one intelligence report read. “And he has brought his enthusiasm for pigeons into the Gestapo, who are said to use this form of communication both in Germany and in the occupied countries.” When MI5 agents located dozens of lofts scattered across German-occupied territory, including Belgium, west Holland, and the Balkans, they took action and began training peregrine falcons to intercept pigeons along Britain’s borders, and banned the destruction of predatory birds nesting along the Dover cliffs on England’s east coast.

The U.S. Army was also dabbling in falcons around this time—not only as a means of intercepting enemy pigeons but as a weapon in themselves. The Signal Corps announced in the summer of 1941 that it planned to train 200 to 300 falcons to attack pigeons and parachutes. The head of the program, which was also based at Fort Monmouth, refused to elaborate on details, but at least one report said the birds would have steel blades attached to their bodies. Before the falcons could attack, however, falcon fanciers did; a University of Pennsylvania professor of zoology pronounced the program “silly,” and a falcon enthusiast and U.S. Army pilot delivered the fatal blow by convincing Washington bigwigs that it was thoroughly impractical. By early 1942 the United States’ falcon program was history.

Britain’s defensive falcon force, however, was still going strong; a 1942 intelligence report called the program “a great success.” Falcons positioned in the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast “could watch not only a part of one island, but the whole group, and any pigeon flying over them would be attacked.”

In early 1944, as both military and civilian populations began to anticipate the Allied invasion of France, a group of British pigeon fanciers approached the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) intelligence staff in London about contributing their birds to the Allied cause. Any plan involving the birds would be inherently scattershot, because unlike the specially trained birds already in service, these would not be returning to any central location, but to home lofts scattered all over England. With that exception, the proposed plan was similar to earlier efforts: drop the pigeons in crated pairs in regions of France, Belgium, and Holland, bearing letters printed in French, Flemish, and Dutch. Locals who picked up the birds would be able to use them to convey information on troop movements and the like to British intelligence.

“From the counterintelligence viewpoint, the proposal seemed very safe, since carrier pigeons do not possess national characteristics, are resistant to interrogation, and once in a loft would be indistinguishable from local birds,” the deputy SHAEF intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Betts, wrote after the war. The real question, he felt, was whether anything was to be gained. One factor eventually proved key in swaying Betts and his colleagues: the pigeon fanciers themselves.

“They were earnest, decent people,” he recalled. “And their pigeons obviously represented their greatest treasure in a grim, war-torn world. They all tended to be thin; we suspected they were sharing their scanty rations with their birds. Above all, we were conscious that they were seeking to give up their most dearly loved possessions in the Allied cause.”

So the go-ahead was given in March, and the plan given the name “Operation Columba”—“Columba” from the species name for the rock dove, Columba livia, as the common pigeon is more formally known. (The British called their earlier operation “Source Columba”; it is uncertain whether the name was a reference to the latter, or represented a confusion of the two.)

There were a couple of concerns from the beginning, which Betts, clearly a newcomer to pigeon warfare, went on to report with a rather bemused detachment. First, the planners were concerned about how bomber crews, who would be asked to drop the birds, would react to the assignment. “We could understand the natural feelings of the pilot who, keyed up to his best to deliver a massive load of destruction at great personal risk, would find himself sidetracked en route by Operation Columba,” he recalled. “It was too much like stopping off at the supermarket on the way to your wedding.” (The American and British bomber crews, in fact, proved to be quite willing.)

Second, there were those falcons prowling the cliffs of Dover in search of enemy pigeons, which had seemed such a good idea in 1940. Although the British had successfully continued their clandestine communication with the Resistance, the presence of the predatory birds raised a concern. “Now our men pointed out that the predators would not discriminate between patriotic British pigeons and treacherous Axis birds,” Betts noted. “Please then would we have these enemies of the pigeon restored to their true status as vermin.”

So the predators were declared fair game again, and the pigeon drops began. Aware of the plan almost from the beginning, the Germans quickly resorted to countermeasures. A source in the French Resistance warned British military intelligence that the Germans were dropping pigeons by parachute into France disguised to look like Allied pigeons: “The containers have attached a packet of English cigarettes and the envelope contains a notice to the finder stating that as the invasion is imminent we the Allies are anxious to have the names of all the local patriots.” When released by well-meaning informants, these stool pigeons would swiftly wing their messages back to Germany.

Meanwhile, Columba’s planners awaited the return of their pigeons. Three weeks went by without result. Finally week four brought one pigeon—and the unenlightening message that there were “lots of Germans around Lier [Belgium].” Great amounts of nothing and a smattering of something became the pattern, and Betts ultimately deemed the operation a failure.

But there were unexpected benefits. The Germans became uneasy with the whole affair and began cracking down on pigeon fanciers in the occupied areas, which only served to ally more of them with the Resistance. More than that, the Germans kept track of where the birds were being found, concluded that the locations indicated a special interest in Calais, France, near the narrowest portion of the Strait of Dover, and used this to bolster their theory that this was where the Allied invasion would occur. Thus, virtually by accident, Operation Columba contributed to the Allied deception scheme that obscured the plan to invade Normandy.

Following D-Day, the focus of the bird war in Europe turned toward Germany itself. A member of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) suggested dropping pigeons into Germany much like the drops that had already been made into the occupied regions—this time as part of an ongoing psychological warfare campaign, to give war-weary Germans the opportunity to repudiate Hitler. They decided to elaborate on that plan by dropping not only live pigeons with questionnaires that people could fill out, but dead or “stale” pigeons—pigeons that weren’t reliable homers and therefore were likely to remain in Germany—bearing questionnaires already filled out, apparently by disloyal German citizens, but actually by British black propaganda operatives.

“The object, of course, was that the birds and their completed questionnaires should fall into the hands of the Gestapo who would try and detect from the answers what traitor had written them,” explained British propagandist Sefton Delmer. “We would phrase the answers in such a way, I suggested, that the Gestapo would be led into arresting some of their own trusted Party functionaries—men who they would be led to believe were now trying to buy themselves a little slice of last minute reinsurance with the Allies. And if the dead bird was picked up by an ordinary civilian who did not hand it over to the police, it would still provide admirable evidence that well informed and authoritative Party comrades were defecting. It would encourage him to do so himself.”

In April 1945, later and with more restrictions than the planners had preferred, a total of 330 pigeons were dropped all over Germany. But it was too late in the war to have a real impact. By now, the Nazis’ fate was sealed anyway. Although no one knew it at the time, pigeons’ use in war had seen its heyday as well. (When the U.S. Army went on to announce in late 1956 that it was discontinuing its pigeon service, Time magazine reported the event by noting that the homing pigeon had “been superceded by the vacuum tube.”)

Only nine birds from the SOE’s black propaganda operation made it back to England that spring. Of these, five carried messages. One read: “Thank you. I had the sister of this one for supper. Delicious. Please send us some more.”

At least one bird returned with useful information, although not enough to make a difference. “The pigeon was found at four o’clock in the morning in our village,” the unknown author wrote. “There are no German military personnel in our village. The name of the village is Hellensen. As far as I know, Ludenscheid will not be defended because there are many hospitals in the town. The Party swine have all cleared out. Kreisleiter Joust was seen in the town yesterday in civilian clothes.”

The writer then revealed he had something in common with those who had sent the pigeons, besides a distaste for the Nazi Party, by concluding his note with a personal aside: “I am also a pigeon fancier and send my greetings. Good flight.”

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here