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Undercover pigeons, and other stories

Published on 23 October 2019

Undercover pigeons, and other stories

How much do you know about pre-post communications? Here’s a short history.

The astonishing ability of homing pigeons to find their way back to base from pretty much anywhere has been used for thousands of years. By 1167 there was a regular pigeon post service between Baghdad and Syria; the founder of Reuters used pigeons to carry news between Brussels and Aachen in 1860; and in 1897 the first airmail stamps were issued for the Pigeon-Gram service between Newton, New Zealand and Great Barrier Island.

Perhaps their most famous work, though, has been in carrying messages across enemy lines during wartime. In the First World War a French pigeon received the Croix de Guerre for her brave service, and in the Second, 32 pigeons received the PDSA’s Dickin Medal for their outstanding efforts. In one instance boxes of pigeons were dropped by parachute in the Netherlands and France from where they returned to London HQ with vital information from local resistance agents. Operation Source Columbia proved very effective.

After the war the Pigeon Sub-Committee was closed down, but the CIA continued tests using animals as intelligence aids. Dolphins, ravens, cats and dogs were co-opted, as well as pigeons. Recently, de-classified Cold War documents have revealed details of secret pigeon photography missions over the Soviet Union. The pigeon was equipped with a harness weighing 5g and a camera weighing 35g. The camera could take 140 shots (presumably automatically). Testing during the 1970s showed clear photographs of a US shipyard and in 1976 a Leningrad submarine base was chosen as a target – whether the operation was carried out or not is, sadly, still classified.

If you have classified pigeon epistles, confidential dolphin details or just vital information you need to keep safe, our ultra-secure deep storage facility held within expertly converted Second World War munitions storage tunnels in the West Country could be exactly what you are looking for. To find out, just call us on 0333 060 6824.