The following notes, contained in a Special Operations Executive file, give details on the use, advantages and disadvantages of carrier pigeons for agent communications.
In all operations the great difficulty is usually inter-
communication. A solution is to have as many and as varied
means of communication as possible. Pigeons form an efficient
additional means and one that has not been fully tried or
(a) Direct contact with agent.
(b) Long messages may be sent with no chance of distortion,
as is sometimes the case with W/T messages.
(c) Diagrams and sketches can be sent.
(d) Quick and simple forms of acknowledgement.
(e) Once liberated the agent has no fear of detection and
has nothing to connect him with the bird or message,
if it is captured or his is searched.
(a) Only one way.
(b) Possibility of message falling into enemy hands.
(c) Bird through some mischance may never get through.
(d) Birds cannot be kept for longer than about 10 days.
4. MESSAGE WRITING
(a) Agents should be instructed in writing on the special
paper. A fine pen and a magnifying glass are very
useful, and by their aid long messages can be written
on the small sheet.
(b) A supply of paper will be given to Sections if they will
ask for it.
(a) Written codes and Originators Prefix
The code to be used and the prefix of the user must be
decided upon beforehand by Country Sections in consultation
with Codes Section.
(b) Without writing a message
Simple codes can be worked out by means of rings and the
position of the message container.
Further details and advice can be given on this point
6. CARE AND CAPABILITIES OF PIGEONS
Instructions regarding the capabilities of pigeons and
their care are given in Appendix A attached.
7. INSTRUCTION IN HANDLING PIGEONS
To make certain that a bird has every chance of returning,
it is of value if agents receive instruction from an expert
in the correct way of holding, fixing message and liberating.
This instruction will only take about half an hour and the
date and time will be arranged to suit Country Sections.
The best day is that on which the final conference is held.
MO/B will make the arrangements with the C.S.O. and the
Country Sections for this instruction.
8. METHOD OF CARRIAGE
(i) Single, holding one bird and carried on or by the man.
(ii) Group of Six. This is one package made up of six
single containers, each holding one bird. It
is dropped by parachute and can be quickly
divided into its six separate containers on
Samples can be seen on request.
(b) On the man:
(i) While jumping two birds can be carried in a ruck-
sack but there is always the danger of the man
falling back and crushing them. One can be
carried in a single container strapped to the
stomach; trials are being carried out to see
if two can be carried in this manner.
(ii) When on the ground, birds if necessary can be
hidden in rucksacks and suitcases, the birds
being in a container. It is also possible to
carry a bird wrapped in paper in a pocket. In
every case the bird must have plenty of air.
9. METHOD OF DELIVERY
(a) Pigeon service notify MO/D that bird has arrived in loft.
They will quote code letter of section using the bird.
(b) MO/D will warn CODES, Baker Street that message is on its way.
(c) Pigeon Service will then deliver the message direct to
"DOVES" Room 055A, The War Office, together with
description of bird (rings and their position). 055A
will deliver it to 64 BAKER STREET, marked "DOVES".
(d) On receipt at 64 Baker Street, the message will be passed
direct to Codes who will:-
(i) If the message proves to be in clear pass it direct
to the Country Section concerned, Copy to MO/D.
(ii) If the message is in code inform Country Section
concerned and MO/D of receipt by telephone immediately,
sending the decoded message to the Country Section,
copy to MO/D as soon as possible.
10. METHOD OF DEMAND
(a) All demands will be made through MO.
(b) A.T.F. No. 1 and No. 3 will be used. These forms will be
amended in due course, but until they are, the following
information will be added by Country Sections:-
Number required ............................
Containers - Groups of six .................
" - Single ........................
Area from which operating,
if not given on the form .................
(c) For long and difficult operations early warning is
essential as special birds may have to be obtained and
trained, or even a new loft established.
PIGEONS - THEIR CARE AND CAPABILITIES
1. Conditions of captivity. The best way to hide the pigeon,
pending its release, is to keep it where other animals
are kept. In a basket or a rabbit hutch it will not
attract any attention.
If it is necessary to keep the pigeons longer than
24 to 48 hours give it more space to prevent wing stiff-
ness. Put it in a shed, attic or outbuilding (beware
of cats or rats).
When you know the approximate time you are intending to
release the bird, put it back in the basket or rabbit
hutch shortly before so that you will be sure of being
able to catch it at short notice.
2. Weather conditions. Naturally, the better the conditions,
the more reliable and rapid will be the return of the bird.
(a) Favourable conditions are clear atmosphere and following wind.
(b) Unfavourable conditions
Fog. Bird loses homing instinct.
Darkness. Bird cannot see and will stop flying
Snow, Heavy Rain and Mist.
Head Winds. Tires bird and reduces speed.
3. Endurance of Pigeons
Flying time. March - May Birds will fly 8 - 10 hrs.
June - Mid. August Birds will fly 14 - 16 hrs.
Mid. August - Oct. Moult in progress and flying
time reduced to 6 - 7 hours.
Nov. - Feb. Condition of pigeon good
and time limited by hours of
4. Time for liberation. Every endeavour should be made to permit
the bird to 'home' the day it is liberated. Best time is
early in the morning after sunrise, but if conditions are
doubtful wait for an improvement, keeping in mind the
(i) Distance to be flown to reach loft.
(ii) Speed of flight (40 kms. per hour against wind.
(60 kms. per hour with wind.)
(iii) Birds flying time (See Previous Section)
(iv) Length of daylight, as birds will not fly after dark.
In assessing distance home, add 100 kms. to the distance
to the coast of England. Only liberate during hours of
darkness if no other alternative.
5. Conditions of liberation. Liberate clear of buildings, high
trees and wires.
If two birds are available, send message in duplicate and
liberate together. They fly better in company and are
more reliable. If more than one message to be sent,
number all message consecutively.
(a) Times. Feed twice a day, in morning about 9 o'clock
and again in the afternoon before sunset.
Pigeons cannot see and will not feed in the dark.
If the pigeon is nervous or refuses to
eat, leave the food in front of it until it
does, and afterwards remove food as soon as it
(b) Quantity - One eggcupvul (sic), say 30 - 35 grammes per day
per pigeon. They must not be overfed or they
will become unwilling to leave.
(c) Pigeons in Basket or Confined Space. Feed in the basket
removing all surplus food afterwards and washing
it, as otherwise it will be fouled by excreta
and become unusable.
(d) Pigeons unconfined in Shed or Attic. Place food in
shallow receptacle such as cardboard box lid,
in a prominent position taking care always to
put it in the same place so that the bird gets
used to seeing it.
(e) Fresh Water. Should always be available and should be
placed in a saucepan or a shallow bowl. A
saucepan is better as it will not overturn.
Water must be kept clean and should be cold.
If sugar is available, a teaspoonful per cupful
of water acts as a tonic and helps to maintain
(f) Uncooked Rice. A small quantity mixed with the food
supplied will also help to maintain condition.
7. TIME PIGEONS CAN BE KEPT AWAY FROM THEIR LOFT
As a general rule, the following is a guide as to the time
they can be kept:-
(a) Pigeon in cylinder. 24 hours.
(b) Pigeon in large basket or ventilated box. 48 hours.
(c) After 48 hours they must be li[b]erated daily in an attic or
shed so that they can exercise their wings.
(d) Pigeons confined in Shed or attic. Should not be able to
see out or they may learn their surroundings and refuse to leave.
(e) Maximum Time. If it is possible to give pigeons exercise
daily, they can be kept for seven or ten days.
[Source TNA: HS 8/854, transcribed by www.arcre.com ]