The war in Europe takes to the skies—on the wings of birds.
Courier pigeons are the stuff of World War I set pieces, but they were still useful two decades later. As BBC security correspondent Corera (Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage, 2016, etc.) writes, “in 2011, Chinese state media announced that a special unit of the People’s Liberation Army was training pigeons to conduct ‘special military missions.’" In this lively story, the author focuses closely on a British operation called Operation Columba, which seeded mostly rural areas of occupied Western Europe with more than 16,000 homing pigeons. Some of the birds returned to British hands with accounts of life under Nazi rule, while others brought more substantial news of gun positions, troop movements, and the like. One principal was a chaplain to Belgium’s King Leopold, organizing a cell of pigeon fanciers dubbed Leopold Vindictive that caused the Nazis fits. Corera is a touch too generous with the details of just how the birds did their work; one page he devotes to a pigeon’s transit could be distilled to a couple of sentences. Still, there’s undeniable drama in these pages, not just for the birds, the targets for German snipers’ rifles and hungry hawks alike, but also for the groups of Resistance fighters who took part in Columba and, through the diligence of Belgian collaborators and Nazi officials (among them was a lawyer who “had been instrumental in taking National Socialist ideology and expressing it in the form of laws and decrees”), sometimes paid with their lives. Among the highlights of the narrative are Winston Churchill’s personal intervention in the program and the author’s good-natured, sometimes-wry approach to the material: “If the Nazis came through your door,” he writes, “you might be able to explain away a pigeon but not a radio transmitter." Throughout, he offers reminders of how dangerous the enterprise was and how difficult the odds were: Of those 16,000 birds, only 10 percent survived.
A capable, readable look at a little-known corner of history.