The Nazi Pigeon Controversy

26th January 2012

To this day pigeons are used for spying and covert warfare.  This practice has on occasion caused international controversy.  I recently found myself swept up by the maelstrom that often results from the use of our feathered friends by the intelligence and security services. 

During the World Wars the use of carrier pigeons was commonplace.  They were used to fly key intelligence from place to place, and for units on the battlefield to quickly transfer information to their comrades nearby.  They were also sometimes fitted with cameras and then 'liberated', so they could take pictures of the terrain for military intelligence purposes. 

One story from WW1 is particularly heart-wrenching.  In October 1918, following a US attack in the Argonne Forest, several companies of the 77th Division became separated from the main army.  They were surrounded by German forces and were slowly being captured and killed.  To make matters worse for the Lost Battalion their own forces, who did not know where they were, began shelling them with artillery. 

A carrier pigeon was sent up with the message, 'Many wounded. We cannot evacuate', but it was shot down.  A second pigeon was sent with the message, 'Men are suffering. Can support be sent?' but it too was shot out of the air.  The final remaining pigeon, named 'Cher Ami', was prepared with a message saying, 'We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake, stop it!'. 

Cher Ami took flight, but was spotted by the German forces and shot down.  The brave little pigeon somehow managed to take flight again, and avoided enemy fire, shrapnel and poison gas to deliver the message to his loft some 25 miles away.  When he arrived he was covered in blood, blind in one eye, had taken a bullet to the breast and the leg to which the message was strapped was hanging by a tendon.  Miraculously he had survived, and his actions saved the lives of nearly 200 soldiers. 

Cher Ami message

Note of message delivered by Cher Ami

Army medics worked to save the life of this amazing creature, and though they succeeded they could not save his leg, so a wooden one was carved for him.  When he was well enough to travel he returned to the United States, living there for several months before eventually dying due to his wounds in June 1919.  He lived long enough to be awarded medals for his extraordinary service, and others were awarded posthumously.  Cher Ami was stuffed and put on show at the Smithsonian, where he can be seen to this day.  He even inspired an animated film

Cher Ami at the Smithsonian

Other pigeons such as Commando, GI Joe and Paddy also received medals, particular the Dickin medal for animals who have shown gallantry.  The stories of these extraordinary animals was finally recognised by Hollywood with the high-budget children's film Valiant in 2005. 

During the Second World War pigeons became a serious matter for the security services.  In particular, MI5 were worried that Nazi spies in Britain were using pigeons to send messages back to German and the occupied countries.  Reports from the Channel noting the presence of pigeons reinforced this belief.  MI5's answer was to train an elite squadron of Peregrine falcons to intercept the incoming and outgoing Nazi pigeons.  The falcons were caught in the wild, rigorously trained and then sent out on patrol.  According to one report this effort was in vain as the highly-trained falcon squadron felled not even a single Nazi pigeon, leading the report to the conclusion that there may have never actually been any Nazi pigeons being used for this purpose. 

Nazi pigeons falconry unit

Nonetheless, several Nazi pigeons were captured, including two that had apparently blown across the channel in bad weather.  This pair were turned and became double pigeons, working for the British.  The MI5 report chose to express this differently, calling them 'prisoners of war working hard breeding English pigeons'.

Nazi pigeons double pigeons

This was not the only amusing aspect of MI5's wartime pigeon escapades.  As part of the deception operations carried out prior to the D-Day landings, large numbers of pigeons were used to help convince the Nazis that the landing would be at Calais rather than Normandy.  A further deception operation was designed to sow confusion in the Nazi pigeon lofts.

Files released by the National Archives show how the British security services took the identification numbers from the ankle-rings of captured birds, and put these same numbers onto rings attached to the ankles of British pigeons.  These pseudo-pigeons were then released from planes over Holland and Belgium so they would wing their way into Nazi-controlled pigeon lofts. 

pseudo pigeons

It is not known how effective the pseudo-pigeons were in creating suspicion and confusion amongst the Nazi pigeon handlers.

In 1945 the British set up an ad hoc committee on postwar pigeon policy to look at whether there needed to be a permanent pigeon training and maintenace capacity.  They also looked into new development in the use of pigeons in warfare, including the possibility of launching them by parachute from high-speed aircraft.  Prototypes were built, but ultimately the practice was never taken up. 

Perhaps the most outrageous idea considered by the committee on postwar pigeon policy was the notion of using pigeons as suicide bombers.  It was suggested that a large number of pigeons, each loaded with a couple of ounces of high explosive, could be an effective and unpredictable weapon.  This idea was expanded to include the use of pigeons to deliver biological agents, which was seriously considered by the committee.  The dangers inherent in releasing thousands of pigeons carrying anthrax does not appear to have been discussed. 

To assist people in understanding the use of pigeons in overt and covert warfare, both in theory and in practice, I have put together a dossier on Spy Pigeons:

Spy Pigeons Dossier

You can download the dossier via the link beneath the document viewer or directly via this link (PDF, 14.7MB).

The blowback, or possibly blowforward, from this tragicomic history continues to this day.  Recently I was invited for an interview by TNSradio, an alternative media radio show, to talk about my 7/7 films.  When I registered for an account on their site I uploaded an avatar from a BBC story about the Nazi pigeons.

Nazi Pigeon BBC

This led to a dispute with the moderators on the site, and ultimately to me being banned from the site for reasons that have never been explained to me.  I can only assume the swastika in the image was deemed offensive, but I would have thought the sardonic presence of a pigeon in the same image would have made it clear I was not in any way supporting or advocating Nazism.  Furthermore, the idea that we can defeat fascism through censorship, that we somehow win by banning its symbols, is absurd.  I have no personal quarrel with TNSradio over this, indeed the host David who invited me onto his show has been friendly, polite and constructive.  If the Nazi pigeon controversy is resolved and the interview takes place it will be the subject of a future article. 

This is not an isolated occurence, as pigeons and other animals continue to cause diplomatic disputes all over the world.  In 2008 Iran arrested two pigeons suspected of spying near the Natanz nuclear plant, a uranium-enriching facility in an underground bunker.  It was alleged that they were carrying covert communications equipment.  In 2010 a pigeon was arrested in India and accused of spying for Pakistan.  As noted by the Telegraph:

The pigeon had a ring around its foot and a Pakistani telephone number and address stamped on its body in red ink.
- Telegraph

Pigeons are not the only animal suspects accused of working for the intelligence services.  In late 2010 shark attacks near Sharm El-Sheik in Egypt were blamed on the Mossad.  Israel has also been accused of sending a pelican and a vulture - both with GPS equipment and tags from Tel-Aviv university - to spy in Sudan.  In early 2011 another vulture was captured in Saudi Arabia bearing similar equipment.  The vulture was later released without charge.  These incidents are likely to increase given the news that the US spy services are developing a pigeon-like microdrone.

Pigeon microdrone

During World War Two MI5 believed in a national security threat from Nazi pigeons that didn't exist.  The man that they employed to run the falcon interceptor unit - the Fourth Baron Tredegar Evan Frederic Morgan - was imprisoned in the Tower of London for revealing his role in the operation to a friend.  Morgan was a strange man, an associate of HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and Aleister Crowley.  Today, one can be banned from an alternative media site for using an image of a Nazi pigeon, and pigeons (among other animals) are frequently arrested for spying.  From double pigeons to pseudo-pigeons to robot pigeon drones, what this story illustrates is the extent to which extreme fear has become the core mentality of our security services.  In understanding the terror which we are subjected to on a near-daily basis we should consider the possibility that it is actually the infliction of institutionalised paranoia by those who believe in their own nightmares.