During wars and conflicts, there had been a lot of experiments and studies that involved the use of animals to help soldiers accomplish their missions and tasks. There had been trusty dogs, attempts to establish a Camel Corps and more uncommon ones like mice and bottlenose dolphins. There were also pigeons. These intelligent birds were trusted enough during the Second World War in an operation rarely talked about: Operation Columba.

Pigeons Finding Their Way Home

Their names suggest that homing pigeons are birds known for their excellent navigational abilities. In the past, they were commonly used as the primitive and not-so-instant messaging version of the apps we have today for long-distance communication. They were also used in international races.

Pigeons could find their way homes up to 1,000 miles away, which is impressive. For years, scientists studied and had theories on how these birds could manage to do it. One idea is to use the sun’s position and angle to identify their flight’s direction correctly. Two main theories are that the birds use their senses of smell to find their way back home or that maybe they follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines.

Canadian PO (A) S Jess, wireless operator of an Avro Lancaster bomber operating from Waddington, Lincolnshire, carries two pigeon boxes. Homing pigeons served as a means of communication during a crash, ditching, or radio failure. (Royal Air Force official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jon Hagstrum, a geophysicist who grew fascinated with homing pigeons, conducted some experiments and found out that what pigeons used as their map “probably depends on where they’re raised. In some places it may be infrasound, and in other places [a sense of smell] may be the way to go,” as said Bowling Green State’s Mora, explaining about Hagstrum’s discovery.

Whichever it was, what’s certain was that these homing pigeons are intelligent enough to navigate their way home using nothing but their senses. So perhaps we should stop equating “bird brain” with “stupid”?

Operation Columba

The operation, named after the scientific name for a pigeon genus, was put into motion in Great Britain during the early 1940s. The plan was to use these pigeons to gather intelligence reports from locals like movements of troops and other helpful information. British and American bird keepers donated thousands of these birds to help in the war effort until a breeding program began so the government could produce its supply as needed.

The homing pigeons were air-dropped in small containers attached to a parachute behind enemy lines in German-occupied Europe (France and the Netherlands) so that locals could give out information to British intelligence. In addition, each of these birds was equipped with sheets of thin paper, a special pencil, and a tube where the message could be stored. French and Dutch instructions were also included on how to fill in a report.

A pigeon bone was found with a red capsule with a message inside. (abcnews.go.com)

In 1941, six hundred and ninety homing pigeons were dropped, one hundred and fifty of them returned, and eighty-two carried messages. In 1942, 146 of the 276 birds that returned home had messages in their papers. This was out of the 2044 original birds that were released. Then in 1943, 5814 birds were parachuted, 634 returned, and 366 messages were delivered. Most of the homing pigeons were parachuted in northern France.

Operation Columba’s challenges included weather, pigeon predators, and Nazi sympathizers.

Axis Countermeasure

Soon enough, the secret pigeons were not so personal to the Axis Powers anymore, so they started with their countermeasures. In 1944, when Allied Invasion was clearly on the way, the German counterintelligence began dropping their pigeons to lure the locals into thinking that the birds were also from the British. Their pigeons were accompanied with a packet of English cigarettes and instructions to drop the names of the resistance leaders, with the alibi being so that they could be “rewarded” for their heroism. When the Allies learned about this, the French forces were advised to “smoke the cigarettes and eat the pigeons.”

The operation was incredibly successful, with over 50% of the intelligence reports deemed valid. Thirty-one pigeons received the Dickin Medal, the highest British military decoration for animals. However, the details of the operation were only revealed in 2007 after the National Archives released files relating to it.