Page last updated at 22:59 GMT, Saturday, 30 August 2008 23:59 UK

MI5's D-Day pigeon plot revealed

D-Day landings
Britain wanted to fuel false rumours of an invasion

British spy chiefs drew up secret plans to use pigeons to spread false rumours about the impending D-Day landings.

The plot in 1943 to drop the birds into German-occupied France is revealed in newly declassified MI5 files released by the National Archives.

Germany had been intercepting pigeons carrying Allied notes, the files say, so MI5 moved to drop false information.

It planned to put extra pigeons over the west coast of France to give the impression the invasion would be there.

The revelations come in newly-released files on World War II called “Channels for deception”.

'Quite delighted'

One letter to a Capt Guy Liddell said: “On average about 10% only of the birds dropped on the Continent return to their lofts in this country - it must be assumed that a great number fall into German hands.

“During the past few weeks I also understand there has been a great concentration on the Brest and Brittany areas.

“It might therefore be possible to deduce that we have considerable interest in this region.”

It must have seemed like a really good idea at the time but possibly not the next day
Professor Christopher Andrew
MI5's official historian

The deception operations surrounding the Normandy landings are considered by some historians to be the most important of World War II.

Codenamed Operation Fortitude, they were overseen by the London Controlling Section (LCS), a special unit formed in 1942 within the Joint Planning Staff at the War Cabinet offices.

LCS controlling officer Col John Bevan was said to be “quite delighted” with the pigeon plot, according to the files.

The first mention in the documents of using pigeons to thwart the enemy comes from MI5’s Lt Col Tommy Robertson.

He said: “The pigeon is sent in a cardboard container - which can quickly be buried or burnt – with a little bag of corn and a questionnaire.

“These birds are dropped over a chosen area in the hope at least some of them will fall into the hands of... supporters of the Allied cause.

“It occurs to me that this is a possible means of putting deception over to the enemy by the careful framing of the questionnaires as presumably the Germans must, if they capture some of these birds, take notice of the type of question asked.”

MI5 letter
Letters can be viewed at the National Archives in Kew, west London
The documents make it clear arrangements were made to go ahead with the plan, but it is unclear if it was carried out.

The official historian of MI5, Cambridge Professor Christopher Andrew, told BBC News: “Because pigeons are used to pass on messages, it’s understandable someone thought of this.

“It must have seemed like a really good idea at the time but possibly not the next day.”

The use of pigeons in intelligence has its origins in World War I when the British dropped pigeons inside baskets attached to parachutes and balloons to gather intelligence.

The D-Day invasion of German-occupied France took place on June 6, 1944 and marked the start of a major Allied counter offensive in Europe.

Members of the public can view the 152 newly-released files at the National Archives in Kew, west London.


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