An MI5 report on the use made of carrier pigeons by both the British and German intelligence services in World War II.
THE USE OF PIGEONS IN THIS WAR
We have, during this war, made a fairly complete study of the use of pigeons by the G.I.S. [German Intelligence Services] this study gives a good picture of the various ways pigeons were used and, with the general clear-up of P.O.W.s and agents now proceeding on the Continent, we hope to find characters whose interrogations will make it even more complete.
Briefly, the Nazi Party and the S.S. controlled all pigeon keeping in Germany before the war with a view to their use in war, and a pigeon section has been attached to most of the Abwehr units since 1939. They have been used by the G.I.S. in France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Germany.
They used them with stay-behind agents, line-crossers, saboteurs, parachute-agents, and, in wild and semi-occupied countries like the Balkans, with outlying agents for communication to central W/T stations. Pigeons were used where W/T conditions were difficult (mountainous country) and more often for a lack of W/T sets and trained operators. They were, however, usually linked at some point with the Abwehr W/T set up. The Germans no doubt intended to use pigeons with saboteurs or invasion troops from this country and were training them for that purpose; we believe, though, that they were never used. All the above information can of course be enlarged on.
On our side, pigeons have been used offensively by S.I.S. with agents, by S.O.E. for deception purposes and with agents, and by M.I.14 who gathered a lot of useful information by dropping quantities of pigeons on parachutes over enemy-occupied zones with requests to patriots to answer questionnaires.
Defensively, this department has taken an interest in the control of pigeon-keeping in this country, their import or export from Ireland, and investigated cases of suspected illicit use of pigeons. We instigated a watch by all coastguards and Observer Corps posts on the Southern and South-eastern coasts for any pigeons seen flying out to sea. Where a number of reports from the same point seemed to point to pigeons homing to the Continent we took steps to intercept them. For this purpose we started a Falconry Unit, with two falconers and trained falcons. Whilst they never brought down an enemy bird (probably because there never were any) they did demonstrate that they could bring down any pigeons that crossed the area they were patrolling - about two miles in diameter.
Just prior to D-Day, all the fanciers living near the Southern coasts were approached and asked to assist in a scheme to decoy into their lofts any single enemy birds that might be flying from this country: they were asked to organise the times at which they let their birds out for their daily flights so that there were always some birds in the air to attract tired enemy birds to join them.
We also arranged a little plan to hinder and perhaps to obviate the use of Abwehr pigeons in Belgium and Holland by "contaminating" their lofts. We searched, and found a method of soldering an identification ring (hitherto considered impossible) on to an adult bird. (The rings are usually put on when the bird is a few days old). Copying the numbering and markings of captured enemy pigeon-rings, we had a number of exact replicas made and put them on to English pigeons; the wing-stampings were also imitated. We then released these birds - free and without parachutes - from aircraft over Belgium and Holland. Far from home and lost, they would find their way - as homing pigeons always do - to some loft, and as all lofts were enemy-controlled it would be a German loft. There they would be taken in as one of their own pigeons, and if used for message carrying would of course go astray. Sooner or later the Germans would discover they have been fooled and they then would have to call in all their pigeons to check up which were the imposters. Whilst they were doing this they would be unable to use any of their pigeon services. Meanwhile, we would be sending over further batches of "phoney" pigeons at regular intervals.
The chief fact that has emerged from the use of pigeons in this war is that for straightforward use in Signals they are largely outdated, but that they have been used a great deal by both sides for Intelligence purposes and often with considerable success.
It seems worth considering, therefore, that to avoid our being found unprepared in any future war, the departments mentioned above should put into tabloid form an account of their activities in this war and that these accounts should be kept together for future references. Also, in order that the practical experience should not be lost, and to keep abreast of any developments, it is felt that the Intelligence Services should have some loft at their disposal in peace time; at this loft experiments could be carried out, equipment kept up to date with aircraft developments, and agents in training could be shown how to handle pigeons, conceal messages on them, drop them from aircraft, and use them in exercises.
It is felt that there is no need for any permanent section to cover this, but that the loft of some reliable civilian could be earmarked and subsidised for the purpose. An expert pigeon officer with experience in the use of pigeons for intelligence work could be paid a retaining fee for his services when required. In this way a thread of continuity would be kept going.
Finally, in order that there should be sufficient pigeons to meet any sudden emergency, some department should keep an up-to-date list of pigeon fanciers who would be willing to lend or give their birds if they were called upon to do so.
[Source TNA: HS 8/854, transcribed by www.arcre.com]