The fascinating, untold story of how British intelligence secretly used homing pigeons as part of a clandestine espionage operation to gather information, communicate, and coordinate with members of the Resistance to defeat the Nazis in occupied Europe during World War II.
Between 1941 and 1944, British intelligence dropped sixteen thousand homing pigeons in an arc across Nazi-occupied Europe, from Bordeaux, France to Copenhagen, Denmark, as part of a spy operation code-named Columba. Returning to MI14, the secret government branch in charge of the "Special Pigeon Service," the birds carried messages that offered a glimpse of life under the Germans in rural France, Holland, and Belgium. Written on tiny pieces of rice paper tucked into canisters and tied to the birds’ legs, these messages were sometimes comic, often tragic, and occasionally invaluable—reporting details of German troop movements and fortifications, new Nazi weapons, radar systems, and even the deployment of the feared V-1 and V-2 rockets used to terrorize London.
The people who sent these messages were not trained spies. They were ordinary men and women willing to risk their lives in the name of freedom, including the "Leopold Vindictive" network—a small group of Belgian villagers led by an extraordinary priest named Joseph Raskin. The intelligence Raskin sent back by pigeon proved so valuable that it reached Churchill and MI6 parachuted agents behind enemy lines to assist him.
Gordon Corera uses declassified documents and extensive original research to tell the story of the Operation Columba and the Secret Pigeon Service for the first time. A powerful tale of wartime espionage, bitter rivalries, extraordinary courage, astonishing betrayal, harrowing tragedy, and a quirky, quarrelsome band of spy masters and their special mission, Operation Columba opens a fascinating new chapter in the annals of World War II. It is ultimately, the story of how, in one of the darkest and most dangerous times in history, under threat of death, people bravely chose to resist.
Corera (Intercept: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking and Digital Espionage), a security correspondent for BBC News, unearths the intriguing story of the homing pigeon service used by British intelligence during WWII to communicate with the Resistance in occupied Europe. MI14 dropped more than 16,000 pigeons "in an arc" from Copenhagen to Bordeaux. The messages the pigeons brought back, written on sheets of rice paper and folded into canisters clipped on their legs by ordinary men and women living under German occupation, provided valuable information on everything from German morale to troop movements. Witty and meticulously researched, Corera's narrative highlights the story of a small Belgian resistance cell led by Catholic priest Joseph Raskin, who provided Operation Columba with such superior intelligence that two agents were parachuted in to help him, contributing to dire consequences for the whole group. He vividly describes the rivalries and lack of coordination among British intelligence branches, the memorable "array of oddballs and professors" who made up MI14, the network of resistance members and trained agents in the occupied territories, and the German spies who penetrated their cells. Corera succeeds in bringing a virtually unknown chapter of the war to life and pays tribute to the ordinary people who risked their lives to resist the Nazis.