The Pigeons of D-Day

American Cemetery at Normandy


This week we reflect upon and marvel at that heroic invasion of France 75 years ago, and the sacrifice of so many that resulted in the defeat of tyranny.  Much has been written about the campaign.  I have just read “Double Cross, the Story of D-Day Spies” by Ben Macintyre, which describes the incredible web of allied secret agents (double, triple, and even quadrupled in allegiance) that created a cloud of deception regarding the time and place of the D-Day invasion.  Surprisingly, this ruse even extended to the use of carrier pigeons.

Rock Pigeon, Columba livia

English Flight Lieutenant Richard Walker was obsessed with pigeons and headed MI5’s “Pigeon Special Service Section, B3C”.  He loved his birds and extolled their magical ability to find their way home from as far away as 700 miles.  But all birds are not created equal, he said, with only one in a hundred showing the industry, courage, intelligence, and resourcefulness to fulfill its wartime mission.

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

I’ve always considered pigeons and doves to be on the lowest rung of avian intelligence.  Their heads seem too small for their bodies, and their eyes all show that vacant bewildered stare.  But they do possess the amazing homing urge that both we and our enemy were able to appropriate during both World Wars.  I’ll need to reconsider my assessment of the species.

British troops releasing a pigeon.

Even the Germans used carrier pigeons, and Walker sensed that Britain was falling behind in the “Pigeon Race”.  The German Pigeon Federation was run by the Gestapo and Himmler, himself a pigeon fancier.  In 1937, before the war, the Germans brought 1400 pigeons to England to stage a Great Pigeon Race back to Germany.  Walker suspected this race was actually a cover to train the birds to cross the English Channel successfully and return to the homeland, as they may be needed to do exactly that in the impending war.

Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto

Walker and MI5 were convinced that German spies would infiltrate the English countryside, arriving with sacs of trained homing pigeons.  These birds could take vital information back to Germany more discreetly than even the wireless radios.  Walker felt he may be able to detect these spy birds among the ubiquitous native pigeons by their purposeful, straight line flight to the east, or perhaps by their cooing with a German accent.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

Secret messages were tagged to the birds by various means.  A tiny hole could be burned into the quill of a flight feather and tiny rolled rice paper inserted.  Or a Morse Code message itself could be written on the quill with indelible ink.  Captured enemy pigeons were treated as prisoners of war.  In 1942 a falconry unit was established on the Isle of Scilly to intercept the German birds crossing the channel.  Unfortunately the falcons could not tell friend from foe and as a result many British pigeons perished.

Oriental Turtle Dove, Streptopelia orientalis

The Allied success on D-Day depended in large part upon the Germans believing that the Normandy exercise was merely a feint, and that the real invasion was yet to come at Pas de Calais, southern France, or even in Norway.  An elaborate deception scheme in the spring of 1944 called “Operation Fortitude” involved fake tanks and airplanes throughout England, fictitious units trading misleading messages, and double agents sending inaccurate reports back to Germany.

Common Ground Dove, Columbina passerina

As a bizarre part of the operation, pigeons were dropped by parachute in corn-containing cardboard boxes throughout France, hoping the Germans would capture the birds and read the fake messages heralding an invasion at Pas de Calais.

White-winged Dove, Zenaida asiatica

During the D-Day landing itself a Royal Air Force pigeon by the  unlikely name of Gustav brought back news of the early hours of the invasion.  Released at Normandy, Gustav battled strong headwinds and enemy fire to come home to roost in its loft at Portsmouth.  It made the journey in a record 5 hours and 16 minutes, bringing back the message of initial success of the invasion.  Gustav was rewarded the Dickin Medal for his performance, but later died when his handler stepped on him while cleaning the roost.

Monument at Omaha Beach

We sometimes forget that an Allied victory on D-Day was not assured.  Eisenhower prayed that Rommel and Hitler would be duped by Operation Fortitude and keep their powerful army dispersed in France.  As Ike told his departing troops, “the eyes of the world are upon you.  The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”  Both sides realized that final victory or defeat for the entire war could be determined in the initial hours on these beaches.  Thank God, the deception worked and the Allies were successful, but only with great loss of life and countless acts of heroism.  I’ll never forget our visit to this hallowed battlefield several years ago and strolling among the endless rows of white crosses.  This was a great victory of brave humans–the pigeons, although very interesting, played only a small role.