Friday, November 9, 2018

Operation Columba by Gordon Corera

Did you know that homing pigeons were used in world war II? I didn't. I thought they were only used in the first world war. But they were used, and quite creatively. At the time, using humans to get messages and vital information gathered about the enemy and the placement of weapons, locations of bases..etc. to England was taking about 1/3 of a year from the time it was collected to the time it ended up in British hands. Using pigeons, one could get the message in a matter of days after it was written instead of weeks or months. This way the intelligence was fresh, not outdated.

Operation Columba: The Secret Pigeon Service by Gordon Corera is the story of how these pigeons were used, the organization who controlled their usage, and those in occupied territory who risked their lives in sending Britain information via the pigeons.

An idea was implemented, to drop British homing pigeons into occupied territory by means of baskets (with parachutes attached), included in the basket was a little pigeon food, instructions, a question sheet, a pencil, and very thing paper to fold up into a tube to attach to the pigeons leg. The goal was that some of the townspeople would find them and would answer the questions and send them back, and any other information they could give.

It was a method that was more likely to work for Britain than for Nazi Germany. As the author notes about the Germans: "If they had dropped pigeons into England, it is hard to believe many people would have chosen to fill out questionnaires." But the British could drop them into France, Belgium and other German occupied territories as there would be a high chance that a lot of the people were discontent with the Nazi takeover. Though whether or not the people would be willing to risk their lives to get information to the allies was another question.

One family in particular helped out. They found one of the pigeons and, instead of merely telling what they knew offhand, they decided to be very proactive actively gather information to send. A friend of the family, a priest, helped as well. He had been a mapmaker during the previous war, and an artist too. He used his skills to transcribe all of the information they gathered onto the thin sheets of rice paper sent with the bird. He even drew tiny maps. He wrote the notes so tiny that he suggested those who received them via the bird use a magnifying glass to read them. He initially named their group the "Leopold Vindictive", signing their papers with their initials so that Britain could address them via radio broadcasts, tell them when and where more pigeons would be dropped, and so that Britain would know when information came from their group again. But Getting more pigeons to them was quite the task, made much more difficult by the chaotic conflict within the organizations in Britain as to who should have control over the pigeon operations. Sadly, the account of this family's brave attempts to help doesn't end very well.

All in all, it's an interesting account. It's filled with suspense and drama. It's quite frustrating and sad at times. But still an interesting account of this operation in history.

Thanks to the folks at William Morrow for sending me a free advanced review copy of this book (My quotation [above] from the book may not be exactly the same as the final product). My review did not have to be favorable.

This book may be purchased at

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