Subversive Pigeons

The introduction to Jacob Shell’s Transportation and Revolt (my semi-review here) begin with a précis of pigeon paranoia: the shooting of pigeons in occupied Belgium during the First World War, the systematic slaughter of British pigeons at the start of the Second, pigeon registration in the postwar USSR, a ban on carrier pigeon by the Taliban, the temporary prohibition on pigeon racing during the 2012 Communist Party congress in Beijing. Renowned as a tool of smugglers, criminals, and secret agents – in the imagination even more than in reality – the pigeon is the spur to the question that Shell’s book attempts to answer: “What sorts of carrying technologies have political regimes associated with the movement of weapons papers, or people for political subversion and revolt?”

Pigeon paranoia goes well beyond the examples that Shell notes, wide and fascinating as they are. My favorite anti-pigeon countermeasures remain the Second World War efforts to weaponize birds of prey in both Britain and the United States to hunt “enemy” pigeons. Attempts during the same war by the British to distract German pigeons with British ones (and therefore lead them to British lofts) or to poison the enemy’s pigeon supply with friendly birds (who would fly back to Britain rather than to their expected destinations) can only come a close second.

Pigeons have several advantages as a form of clandestine communications. They are easily concealed, have no electronic signature, and can even be hidden in plain sight where civilians keep pigeons themselves. In fact, the homing pigeon is, to some extent, the living equivalent of espionage’s dead drop. In a dead drop, neither user necessarily knows the identity of the other. The separation between them prevents the capture of one user necessarily revealing the identity of the other. The same is true with a homing pigeon, which is trained to fly regardless of circumstances back to its home loft. Depending on how the pigeon was delivered to its sender, the recipient knows nothing about him or her apart from what they themselves disclose. Likewise, the pigeon’s sender has no way of being sure where the bird is heading.

Perhaps the best example is British intelligence program known as COLUMBA. Starting in 1941, a sub-section of army intelligence (known as MI 14(d)) parachuted homing pigeons with which sympathetic French, Belgian, or Dutch individuals could report back to Britain on the German defenses in their area. As the Telegraph describes it, “Each pigeon came with a miniature spying kit: a bakelite tube to put a message in; sheets of ultra-thin paper and a special pencil; detailed instructions in French, Flemish or Dutch on how to fill in a report.” The attached questionnaire asked about preparations for the invasion of English, troops in the area, military movements, enemy morale, German lodgings, and restrictions on the movements of civilians, among other topics. (Jennifer Spangler has posted many documents related to COLUMBA at her blog, World War 2 History and the WW2 Pigeons. Scroll down in this entry to see the questionnaire.)

COLUMBA relied on the faith of the European resistance that its pigeons were heading for England and the faith of British intelligence that the reports received were genuine. There was, after all, no way to be sure it hadn’t been a German soldier who attached the message to a pigeon’s leg.

In December 1943, MI 14(d) summarized its impact in five points:

1.One out of every nine birds returns.
2. Supplies are ample.
3. Enemy fully pigeon minded.
4. Service worth while.
5. Liaison between 21 Army Group, “I” and R.A.F. to be established for coming operations.

By the middle of 1944, the British had sent more than 13,000 pigeons to the continent. 1,373 returned to Britain, 808 of those with messages. That was only 6% of messages sent out but apparently the resulting information was impressive. The staff of COLUMBA cheerfully reported all evidence of Germans reacting to the Allied operation. Reactions included a 2,000 franc reward for turning out a pigeon with equipment and message and occasional reports that the Germans were dropping their own decoy pigeons to sew confusion among potential correspondents. They also concluded that there had been little or no contamination of the intelligence with deliberate German misinformation.

I don’t know exactly what happened to COLUMBA after the invasion of Normandy, but a summary report a month after D-Day said they were ramping up to deliver 2,000 pigeons a month and that mobile lofts were ready to join the 21st Army Group in France.

Several European countries, including Britain, maintained military or intelligence service pigeon operations after the Second World War. The Swiss had 7,000 military-owned birds in 1995 and the French were still maintaining a cadre of 150 in 2012. The fact the Cold War stayed cold meant none of them saw action, but one homing pigeon did find itself unexpectedly drafted into the propaganda war being fought across the Iron Curtain.

I turned out that it was possible – albeit difficult – to “hijack” a homing pigeon en route and use it to deliver an entirely unexpected message. In 1954, a homing pigeon involved in a race from Nuremberg to Munich got lost and crossed the Iron Curtain, landing in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Found by someone who recognized its West German banding, they attached a message for the US-operated Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against Communist aggression, because Communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.
We always listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat Bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.
We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.
– Unbowed Pilsen

The message and pigeon, delivered to RFE by its owner, were an instant propaganda coup. “Leaping Lena” became the symbol of RFE’s 1955 fundraising drive, then retired to US Army Signal Corps pigeon breeding center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (The story appears on the RFE website, but that seems just to repeat what’s in newspaper articles from the time.)

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