Friday, March 11, 2016

Pigeons and Special Operations Executive (SOE) Operation Fortinbras

(c) Crown copyright images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, UK
Catalog numbers HS6/90 #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #32, #33, #34
AIR2/4129 #73

Operation Fortinbras was an SOE operation in Belgium but it’s documents don’t reveal much about the purpose of the operation.  Below is the operation order and Annexe H which provides instructions for the pigeons.  The translation by linguavox follows.


I.             INTRODUCTION.

(a)                Name of Operation:
The name of this operation is “FORTINBRAS”, and you will be known by this name at the departure station. This name must never be used in the field.

(b)               Code names in the field:
(i)         Your field name will be “BRACELET”, you will use this name in all messages that you send to us, as well as among members of the organization in the field.
(ii)      The code name for the Head of Secret Troops is “OSRIC”.
(iii)    The code name for the Head of Zone I is “UVIRA”.


(a)                Departure:
Your departure will take place, barring unforeseen circumstances, between 2 and 18 January 1944.
The point where you will be airdropped is outlined in Appendix “A”.
See notes regarding parachuting in Appendix “B”.
(b)               Arrival:
You will be airdropped without a reception committee.
Theresites, as the mission leader for this operation, will give you all the necessary instructions for your arrival.
You will strictly follow the orders that he gives you.

(c)                Stay:
(i)         Contacts:
See Appendix “C”.
(ii)      Residence:
As per instructions from your Mission Leader.
(iii)    Documents:
1.  Belgian identity card issued in JUMET on 28.12.37, No. 54016, in the name of GEORGE JOSEPH CORNIL.
2.  Receipt for worker’s card issued in TOULOUSE on 16.12.42, No. 0013.
3.  Work certificate issued in TOULOUSE on 15.4.43, by Mr. GALINIER, “La Peinture Moderne” [“The Modern Painting”]
4.  24 ration stamps for bread.
5.  Ruckkehrschein, permission certificate for a Belgian worker coming back from Germany.
6.  Arbeitskarte: certificate for a Belgian worker in Germany, issued by the Employment Office in Germany.
(iv)    Cover story
This has been passed onto you from a different source. You will be subjected to a “Gestapo” interrogation on your cover story before you depart, in order to uncover any weak points, if there are any. See notes regarding cover story preparation, and on the interrogation in Appendix “D”.

(v)       Clothing
You will receive your clothes and toiletries from the British department; see notes regarding their maintenance, etc., in Appendix “E”.

(vi)    Equipment
You will have an interview with an officer from the equipment department, during which you will choose the equipment that you need for parachuting and for arriving on the ground. See Appendix “F”.

(d)               Return to England
See Appendix “G”.


(a)                Carrier pigeon
You will take a carrier pigeon for personal use, to be released at dawn on the day after you touch down, with a message to us confirming your safe arrival. You may keep the pigeon for a few days, if circumstances allow, in order to send us a more complete message. In this case, you will take care to encrypt the message following our “Double Transposition” code.

Instructions on handling and taking care of the pigeon are in Appendix “H”.

(b)               Wireless
(i)         Communication with England
As soon as you are able to do so safely, you will establish wireless communication with England.
The Head of Zone I (your Mission Leader) will send you plaintext messages, to be communicated to us in your code. He may also send you messages that have already been encrypted in his own code, which you will forward onto us as they are.
The messages that we will send to you or to the Head of Zone I will always be preceded by the appropriate prefix, i.e. your personal prefix or that of the Head of Zone I.

(ii)      Prefixes
You will only use your personal prefix if you are forced to use your “reserve poems”.

Your personal prefixes can be found in Appendix “I”. The prefix for the Head of Zone I will be communicated to you in the field.

(iii)    Security
You will be the sole judge of the length of messages that you are able to accept for transmission, and the days on which you are able to work.
(iv)    Codes
In Appendix “J” you will find your “reserve poems”, which you must retain. We will also send you the new system of prepared indicators in advance, which you will take in microphotograph form. This system offers ease of use at the same time as extra security.

(v)       Plan
Your wireless plan will be sent to you in microphotograph form, to be concealed in your equipment. As a reminder, see Appendix “K”.

(vi)    Call signals
A new, simplified method of call signals has been established. The list of your signals will be sent to you on the same microphotograph as your wireless plan. See Appendix “K”.

(vii)  Broadcasting
Your “broadcasting” instructions will also be sent to you in microphotograph form. See Appendix “L”.

(viii)                 Security Control
If we have reason to suspect that your radio and code have been seized by the enemy, and that they are being operated either by the enemy or by you under their control, we will send you an ordinary message with a seemingly innocent pre-agreed question. If you are free and safe, you will give a response that has also been pre-agreed. If we receive any other response, we will be able to conclude that the enemy is controlling communications from your radio.

You must take great care not to retain a copy of the part of the message containing this question – if you receive it – or of your response.
See the question and response in Appendix “M”.

(c)                Innocent letters

(i)         Code
You have agreed on a code for innocent letters with [ILLEGIBLE HANDWRITING]. As a reminder, see Appendix “N”.

(ii)      Address
You will send your innocent letters to the address indicated in appendix “O”.

(iii)    Signatures
You will sign your innocent letters: JEAN – MARCEL.
If we write to you by the same means, we will sign: HECTOR-MARIE.

(d)               Post
If perhaps you have to send messages via a postal route that will be indicated to you, you will sign your messages with your field name: BRACELET.

(e)                BBC Message
See Appendix “P”.

(f)                  Emergency address
It is important that we are able to contact you, in case we do not receive any news. Therefore, if possible, before you depart you must give us a secure address where, if necessary, we can contact you by post or via a messenger.

*Your emergency address is:

Contact method:
         Question: “Does Jean Legros live in this house?”
         Response: “Come in, sir, we will let you know.”

*You will send us your emergency address by innocent letter as soon as you arrive in the field.

N.B. *Delete as appropriate.        

(g)                Cartographic coordinates
Generally, you will use 1:40,000 ordnance survey maps. However, if you are unable to obtain these maps, you can use Michelin maps, according to the tracking system that you have been taught. You will inform us of the map series that you are referring to at every opportunity.


(a)                Your personal baggage will include some clothes and toiletries, as well as a pair of shoes. They will be packed in a used suitcase which we will provide.
(b)               You will carry a total of 2,400 Belgian francs.
(c)                The remainder of your money, namely 47,600 Belgian francs and 20,000 French francs, are camouflaged in a paint tin.
(d)               Your microphotographs, as well as your Arbeitskarte and Rückkehrschein, are also camouflaged in      a cigarette case.
(e)                You will find your W.O.K. Code printed on silk in      a “GIBBS” toothpaste tube.
(f)                  Your A Mk.II radio, which is camouflaged in a paint tin, [ILLEGIBLE HANDWRITING], as well as the equipment of your Head of Operation and his [ILLEGIBLE] are packed in two parcels which will be parachuted down as soon as you have jumped.
(g)                Theresites
You will also send your Mission Leader for this operation the tin [ILLEGIBLE] Shell containing $50,000 dollars.

*BAGGAGE: I   two suitcases (ARMADILLO and FORTINBRAS)
                  One transmission radio tin (FORTINBRAS)
                  [ILLEGIBLE] five [ILLEGIBLE]
                  One box containing five [ILLEGIBLE]
BAGGAGE: II   one suitcase (Theresites)
                  one camouflaged transmission radio (ARMADILLO)
one un-camouflaged transmission radio
one box containing five [ILLEGIBLE] (Fortinbras)


(a)                Conditions of captivity
The best way to hide a pigeon before releasing it is to proceed as with any other confined animal. In a basket or a hutch, it will not draw any attention to itself.

If it is necessary to keep the pigeon for more than 24 to 48 hours, give it enough space in order to prevent ankylosis in its wings. Put it in a shed, an attic or an external building.
(Beware of cats and rats).

When you know approximately what time you will release the bird, replace it in the basket or hutch so that you can catch it immediately.

(b)               Atmospheric conditions
It goes without saying that the better the conditions, the quicker and more assured the bird’s return journey will be.

(i) Favorable conditions
Clear weather and a tailwind.

(ii) Unfavorable conditions
1.  Fog:The bird loses sense of its return trail.
2.  Darkness:The bird cannot see and will stop flying.
3.  Snow, heavy rain, mist, headwind: Tire the bird and reduce its speed.

(c)                Pigeon endurance

Flying time:
(i) March – May:             The bird will fly for 8 to 10 hours.
(ii) June – Mid-August:          The bird will fly for 14-18 hours.
(iii) Mid-August – October:  Moulting period and flight time is reduced to 6 or7 hours.
(iv) November – February:   Pigeon in a good condition: time limited to daylight hours.
(d)               Release time
Every effort must be made to allow the bird to return home on the same day that it is released. The best time is early in the morning
after the sun has risen, but if the weather is doubtful you must wait for it to improve, without forgetting the following requirements:

(i) The distance needed to fly to reach the dovecote.
(ii) Flight speed: 40 km per hour against the wind, 60 km per hour with the wind.     
(iii) Flight time of the bird (see paragraph (c) above).
(iv) Length of the day, because the birds refuse to fly in the dark.

When calculating the distance of the return journey, add 100 km to the distance to the English coast. Only release during hours of darkness if you have no other alternative.

(e)                Releasing conditions

Release in an area without buildings, large trees or wires.

If two birds are available, send the message as a duplicate and release both – they fly better with company and will be even more reliable.


(a)                Food

Feed twice a day – in the morning at around 9 o’clock and in the afternoon before sunset. Pigeons cannot see and will not eat in the dark.

(i) Quantity
An eggcup, around 30-35 grams per day, per pigeon. You must not overfeed them or they will no longer want to leave.

(ii) Pigeons in baskets or limited spaces
Feed them in the basket, taking care to remove all food that has been left after the meal and wash it, because otherwise it will be spoiled by the excrement and will become unusable.
                  (iii) Free pigeons in a shed or attic
Place the food in a hollow container, such as the lid of a cardboard box, in an area in plain view, taking care to always put it in the same place so the pigeon gets used to seeing it.
If the pigeon is nervous and refuses to eat, leave the food in front of it until it eats, and then remove it as soon as it has finished.

(iv)    Fresh water
The pigeon must always have this, and it must always be put in a hollow dish or pot. The water must be clean and cold. If there is any sugar available, one spoonful per cup of water will act as a tonic on the pigeon and keep it in good condition.

(b)               General health

(i) Excrement
The color will guide you; if it is green or liquid, the pigeon is not in good health and cannot be relied on to fly. The cause is generally fear, or rough handling during the journey. Remedy: peace and quiet and regular food. After 24 to 48 hours, the excrement should be light brown, tinted with white, thus proving its return to normal health.

(ii) Exercise
When the birds are provided, they are in the best possible condition of health, but if they are kept in a confined space they must be released as soon as possible, because otherwise their wings will suffer from ankylosis.

(iii) Duration of captivity
As a general rule, the following instructions will guide you on the periods that pigeons can be kept in captivity:

1.  Pigeon in a barrel:     24 hours.

2.  Pigeon in a large basket or ventilated box: After 48 hours it must be released daily in an attic or a shed, so that it can exercise its wings.

3.  Pigeons confined to a shed or attic: Must not be allowed to see outside, otherwise they might get to know their surroundings and refuse to leave. If it is possible to give the pigeons daily exercise, they can be kept for 7 to 10 days.