Monday, October 8, 2018

Operation Gibbon: Ceysen's first pigeon message

Jean Ceysen’s first pigeon message, January 10, 1943

The Allies liberated Belgium in 1944 on the 3rd of September.  During the German occupation, pigeons participated in a secret pigeon network.  Every month from January 1943 through March 1944, British planes dropped 25 pigeons by parachute into Belgium.  The pigeons flew to Britain with reports on conditions in Belgium.  Packed into message capsules and strapped to the pigeons’ legs, these reports helped British intelligence create propaganda materials, such as films and leaflets.  British planes dropped the propaganda and the pigeons into Belgium by parachute.  This was Operation Gibbon. 

After he parachuted into Belgium with two other Special Operation Executive agents, the lead agent for Operation Gibbon, Jean Joseph Leonard Ceysens, would need to make contact with individuals identified by British intelligence who could do the work required to establish and operate the pigeon service.  These individuals included members of the propaganda committee, a photographer to photograph Ceysen’s reports, a reception committee to retrieve the 25 pigeons dropped every month during the night by RAF planes, and a pigeon keeper who would care for and hide the pigeons.  Ceysens would also need to find trustworthy individuals who could act as liaisons between the propaganda committee, the photographer, the pigeon keeper, and the reception committee, doing his best to make sure that everyone involved knew as little as possible and therefore didn’t have a big picture of the operation.

The flying distance between Brussels and London is approximately 200 miles.  Because pigeons delivered these messages which informed important decisions made by British intelligence, they saved agents from travelling through checkpoints and risking interrogation, torture, and execution. 

During his research on the World War II pigeons, Bernard O’Connor, author of Bletchley Park and the Pigeon Spies, found the first pigeon message written by Ceysens.  The Cegesoma Archives , Belgium holds the document, catalog number AA 1333 Ceysens.  A full citation for Bletchley Park and the Pigeon Spiesand some of O’Connor’s other works follows the pigeon message.  The Operation Order for Gibbon appears below so as to provide some context and background for the pigeon message.  The National Archives, Kew holds this document, catalog number HS6/92 105, 106, 107.

OPERATION ORDER                                              GIBBON
(a) Departure
Your departure will take place, barring unforeseen circumstances, between 13 and
31 December. See
 Annexe ′′A′′ for notes on the airdrop.
(b) Arrlval
You will be airdropped into the region between
Brussels and Nivelles. The exact point will be determined later and you will be notified for approval.
You will have a chance to study the topography and geography of the surrounding countryside.
There will be no reception committee, but you will probably be airdropped at the same time as another agent. You will separate when you leave the drop point.
(c) Stay in Belgium
(i)  Address

 See your mission order on this subject. Your residence will probably be in Brussels.

 (ii) Documents and cover story will be provided to you by the propaganda department. Alternative Belgian and French identity cards are attached here for you to sign. They are hidden in your baggage.
(iii) Clothes
You have received all your effects and small equipment. See Annexe “B”.
(iv) Equipment
You will examine and choose the equipment you need. See Annexe “C”.
(d) Return to England
You will be given a return itinerary by the department of propaganda.

 (a) Personal pigeon
You will take a carrier pigeon for release at dawn after you have been airdropped, with a message announcing your arrival. You may keep the pigeon for several days if the circumstances are favourable so that you can send us a more comprehensive message. In that case you will take care to encode the message according to your SWITCH system. This will probably not be possible if you release the pigeon upon arrival, but if the opportunity presents itself it would be far better. For instructions on care and use see Annexe “D”.
(b) Pigeon Service
You need to establish a Pigeon Service between Belgium and England.
.    (i)  Your mission order tells you how to seek the necessary collaboration to establish the departure point for this service in Belgium.
.    (ii)  You have received special instructions on the technical conditions for operating this service.
(iii) Every month, 25 carrier pigeons will be airdropped to you to ensure the service for the following weeks. The pigeons will be dropped in appropriate cardboard containers together with the amount of food necessary for the time the birds can be kept in Belgium.
(iv) The airdrop operations will take place on one of the sites indicated in Annexe “E”. These sites have been chosen as suitable from our perspective. You must reconnoiter these two points and make sure which of the two you prefer to use. If neither of them can be used for any reason, you must reconnoiter other sites in the surrounding area taking into account the technical conditions that you know. As a reminder, these conditions include:
1. Proximity to an important topographical landmark, like a railway or water course and a characteristic feature for air drops, like a wood with a particular shape and which is easy to recognise from maps;
2.            A location sufficiently hidden away from major roads, urban areas or other places where the reception committee would run the risk of being observed;
3.            Ease of approach and dispersal for reception committee personnel; and
4.            if possible, proximity to a farmhouse or barn, for example, where, with the owner’s complicity it would be possible to postpone dispatch of the pigeons for a day or two. This would be in the case if immediate transport might be dangerous or difficult. It would be very useful to look for a hiding place of this sort near the drop area we propose.
(v)  Airdrop periods for the three months after your departure are given in Annexe “F”. Please engrave these dates and times in your memory. For subsequent periods we will send you the dates and times in a coded letter which we will send with the consignments of pigeons.
(vi)  Your reception committee must be ready to operate on the site chosen from the start of the period indicated.
(vii) On the day we think fit, thefollowing BBC message will be broadcast in Belgium at 17.30 B.S.T:
In French: "Voici un message pour Carol.
 Maman se porte bien maintenant etvous embrasse."
In Flemish: "Bericht voor Carol.
Moeder is nu wel en omhelsd U."
Final confirmation that the operation will be attempted that evening will be given in the broadcast at 21.00 B.S.T. by repeating the same message. If this confirmation is not given, you will conclude that the conditions became unfavourable at the last moment. This method will be followed until the operation has been successful.
The above instructions replace those in Chapter V, 3, in your mission order.
(viii) Your reception committee can be very small because the consignment you receive will be small and light. Consequently, you only need to confide in the strict minimum of personnel necessary to help you place the reception lights. They will be arranged as shown in Annexe "G".
(ix) Any changes to the agreements concerning the airdrop operations and the related BBC messages will be notified to you by letter in an airdropped consignment. In cases where this is not possible we will use the other channels of communication agreed between us.
(c) Innocent letters
You have agreed on an innocent letter code with Lieutenant Benn. See Annexe "H". The innocent letters you send to us will be addressed to:
             Agree with Duncan.

You will sign your innocent letters as follows:

If we write to you by the same means, we will sign:

(d) BBC messages

See Annexe II in your mission order.

(e) Hiding place

In case of danger, you must have a “hiding place” where you can hide away for a time.  The hiding place must be far enough away from your area of operation to reduce the risk of detection.  It is useful for us to know where it is so we can get help to you if necessary.  (Let us know as soon as possible after arriving if you can’t give the details to us now.

                   To be communicated after arrival

(f) Map reference points

Normally you will use Michelin maps following the referencing method you have been shown.  However, if you can obtain E.M. maps at 1/40,000th, which are much more precise, you will find them useful.  In that case each time you will have to indicate which series of maps you are referring to.


(a)        You will take 25,000 (pencil) 30,000 Belgian francs and 7500 French francs for your needs.  6000 francs are given to you in small denominations (50-100-1000 frs.)  The amount will be camouflaged in a box of talcum powder.
(b)        The identity cards referred to in Chapter I ( c ) (ii) have been camouflaged in a box of talcum powder.
(c)         A list of encrypted names will also be camouflaged in a box of talcum powder.
(d)         The money and the following equipment will be camouflaged in a portable gramophone and in a child’s toy, probably a small boat.
                    1 Leica camera
                    1 packet of photographic paper
                    2 packets of propaganda leaflets
                    1 set of printing plates
                    100x1000 Belgian franc bank notes
                    1 roll around 150 m. x 16 m.m. film

(e)        The above objects and your personal luggage will be wrapped in a “Large A”-type parachute container.

Jean Ceysen’s first pigeon message, translated by Bernard O'Connor

(Explanations have been added and appear in brackets.)

The parachuting of Dominique and I was not without hindrance. We stayed long enough in the “action station” while the plane was circling around point A. Dominique had nothing to eat and was quite nervous. He jumped first as he wished. I was obliged to follow so rapidly that my packet, falling, took from me the small cylindrical box which I carried on my chest [possibly a pigeon], as well as the little equipment attached to my left thigh. (Farewell whiskey and 48 hours of refreshment). The landing was 50m from a farm in a field of very muddy beets. Once on the ground my companion was dragged against a barbed wire fence that bordered the ground. He had the lower part of his face cut - slightly - with various bruises and swollen lips. Nothing serious, though painful, but enough to discourage him from working or taking an initiative that night. (Always send in two agents.) I naturally accompanied him to the town. God those suitcases were heavy!

About the suitcases; here is a story for the schools: CN has just arrested two Englishmen in the street, they were recognized because they did not have suitcases. As a result of the attack on Dieppe, coffee, for example, which was worth 800 francs, fell to 90 francs per kilo. However, today it is 1,400 francs, (Everyone is very optimistic).
It is difficult and often impossible to take the London broadcast. This situation exists especially since the Dieppe raid. For the messages that must reach me, I would like to receive them also by the French broadcasts of 7.15 h, and eventually a confirmation at 9.15 h. From February onwards I will listen to these broadcasts. The speaker should give the messages at the beginning, repeat them at the end and especially speak slowly. No one sees the usefulness of the little musical tune which announces "radio-Belgium".

This gives the Boches [slang for German soldiers] time to put their scrambling to the point. In my opinion, 9 pm, is a bad time for Belgian broadcasts, because we prefer to listen to the BBC in English which is very easy to get.
For my return: If all goes well I plan to leave after the reception of the material in February. I am much more known here than I thought and many know that I was in Gr. Br. Unless I hear from you, I will leave by the SASUOE [his code for Suisse/Switzerland.] However, I would love to come back by plane. There are vast and deserted plateaus in the Ardennes. In this case, other services would give me documents to carry.

The film I had was very useful and made a huge pleasure as well as brochures. Send me other films. You cannot imagine the pleasure that seeing films of this kind has made at the present time. Mine has already been shown in our main cities.

17.1.43.[January 17, 1943] I still hope to find my third branch and to have these documents sent out in January.
I did not manage to get OKOYDXO [code for DENERET] to take care of the third branch. He says he is too old and since controllers regularly check his belongings, he finds it too dangerous. I think he's afraid. He could not help me find people who loved the same sport as him. Also I was not ready at your first message of 14, crt; besides that night there was a strong storm here.

Mrs. CXIAKN [code for CAUVIN’s mother] is very seriously ill - angina - and I could not see her. Happily her smart and intelligent daughter-in-law did not make contact with the others. I obviously did not add it into the organisation because the police come to the occupant every week and she is frequently questioned. Her radio set was confiscated and her property sequestered. She still has permission to live in the house. Her whole family is watched over because of a stupid transmission from her husband.

From the list you gave me, SRESHRA [SULTENS] and VOSEBIRS [VANBEERS] were taken hostage in Huy. VIMBRUNECJEXL [VANOMMESLAGHE] is too changing of humour, so I have not enrolled him.
I have talked to about sixty persons such as bankers, business directors, teachers, tramway receivers, coffee boys, etc. all of them deplore the great number of attacks committed since the New Year. Life becomes more and more difficult and the Boches [slang for German soldiers] more and more brutal. Almost every day they raid the streets and search Germans as well as Belgians. Even the pocket knives are confiscated. I have seen people who had to take off their shoes.

In my mission, it was agreed that on the 2 & 16 of each month there would be a message for me. There were 6 in total. By not receiving them I made, as you might think, a very villainous figure because I had notified some collaborators of these broadcasts. Would you like to send them from 2 March? The first two sufficient: I have dined with ... on behalf of the office.

Do you want to let ALIDRAFORADLTRT [FERNARD DELZAERT] know that he should not come to join his old friends here.  Because of him they had difficulties with the authorities. They are all healthy.

I would very much like you to ask the secretary of the CPNVXXUKUEUEIT [CAPT REERMAEKERS] not to forget to write to my wife and my family as promised me.

4.2.43 [February 4, 1943] Mrs. CXIAKN [code for CAUVIN’s mother] is getting better.

From German source:
1) There are 290 deserters of the Wehrmacht in Brussels.
2) Several Wehrmacht officers have been withdrawn from their radio sets, but continue to listen to BBC programs among friends.
3) According to several officers, the Germans would not defend Italy in case of defeat in Africa, but would retreat to the Brenner Pass.
6.2.43. [February 6, 1943]  Finally, I’ve found the third branch. Would like to receive 4 pistols for my committee next month, preferably of F.N. The biggest pleasure you can make me and this would be as necessary, is to send 12 bike tires (660 x 50 and 700 x 25). It does not matter if the brand is English.

The wounded man arrived at the Hospital Centre.
1 An infected open fracture, L/3 lower right thigh.
2. A double spiroid fracture of the left humerus, fracture closed but with eclament of the disphyse.
3 A relatively good general condition despite anaemia at 2,800,000 and a temperature of 38 degrees C.
A Kirschner stirrup was placed to try to reduce the thigh but there was considerable muscular intrusion. The general state rapidly declining one decides to attempt an osteosynthesis.
The rachianesthesis will dominate the presence of blood in abundant quantities in the cephalorachidian fluid. (A later X-ray did not show any bony lesions of the spine.) They were obliged to engrave the wound with ether, which obliged them to practice an amputation in the centre of fracture. The infection returning about 20 cm along the vasculo-nervous sheaths.
His general condition improves very fast and the arm is placed along the body with a continuous traction which was very badly supported. Actually, the left arm is in excellent position, the wound follows the daily sensations of mobilisation. The radial nerve is intact.
The right thigh is almost cleaned. An attempt to suture the stump is very soon envisaged, the trauma of the column is still not explained. The blood shows 4,300,000 red blood cells.

[Report on DUVAL’s accident during parachute drop]

How did it happen (by DUVAL)
Finding myself number 1 in the "action station,” I waited for the green signal, when all of a sudden the package suspended above the hole detaches, remains a fraction of a second obstructing the opening and then disappears pulling me after it with a violent shock. Henri witnessed this false maneuver, understood that I would not escape, nevertheless he followed me immediately. He pretends that shortly before the package was detached, one of the aides standing behind me, had, at a jolt of the plane, grabbed a hand to the packet. Probably it was that involuntary but fatal act that caused the accident. It is also possible that the package was badly fixed.
I just felt a violent shock and I found myself hanging, my left arm dangling and my right leg hanging. The landing worsened the fractures. I sent my comrades in search of help. Around 6 o'clock in the morning I told him to leave me and take the documents. I was helped and collected towards 8 o'clock. I was far enough from two agreed places. I asked for help from ESENYGLSO [Brussels] where I was embarked on. During all this time I remained without care and almost smiling. It was this period which caused the amputation.
I am pleased to inform you that I have been able to contact valuable collaborators and that my job is done normally.
Having, by chance, been able to contact Carol, I can assure you that it has been of a particularly precious help to me.
Given my physical condition I ask to fly with Carol who will help me. I can leave towards the end SKCXYXXX [February] or [March]. I hope firmly that you will not make me wait here any longer.
Would you let me know as well as Carol if you are coming to take us?

The four preceding pages are, therefore, the report prepared by the service organiser for sending in February. I give it to you to follow procedure only. Duval has actually recovered from his accident, it [his leg] is evidently amputated, but he progresses well.

Thanks to Bernard O'Connor for contributing Ceysen's first pigeon message from Operation Gibbon. 

Bernard O'Connor lives near RAF Tempsford, Bedfordshire, the World War II home of the RAF's Special Duties Squadrons which, on moonlit nights on either side of the full moon, parachuted supplies to the resistance groups in occupied Europe, dropped (and landed and picked up) secret agents) as well as carrier pigeons with questionnaires for people to complete and send back to Britain. He has researched and published numerous books about its history; the role of the Special Operations Executive (SOE); the Secret Intelligence Service (MI5, MI6, MI9, MI14); the Abwehr (German Intelligence Service); the women agents infiltrated behind enemy lines; the SOE's sabotage school and its 'graduates'' sabotage operations and three books on pigeon spies.

RAF Tempsford: Churchill’s MOST SECRET Airfield, Amberley Publishing, (2010)
The Women of RAF Tempsford: Heroines of Wartime Resistance, Amberley Publishing, (2011)
Churchill and Stalin’s Secret Agents: Operation Pickaxe at RAF Tempsford, Fonthill Media, (2011)
The Tempsford Academy: Churchill and Roosevelt’s Secret Airfield, Fonthill Media, (2012)
Agent Rose: The true Story of Eileen Nearne, Britain’s Forgotten Wartime Heroine, Amberley Publishing, (2013)
Churchill’s Angels: How Britain’s Women Secret Agents Changed the Course of the Second World War, Amberley Publishing, (2014)
The Courier: Reminiscences of a Female Secret Agent in Wartime France, (Historical faction)
Designer: The True Story of Jacqueline Nearne,, (2012)
Return to Belgium,
Return to Holland,, (2012)
Bedford Spy School,
Old Bedfordians’ Secret Operations during World War Two,
Henri Dericourt: Triple Agent (edited), (2012)
Churchill’s School for Saboteurs: Brickendonbury, STS 17, Amberley Publishing, (2013)
Churchill’s Most Secret Airfield, Amberley Publishing, (2013)
Sabotage in Norway,
Sabotage in Denmark,
Sabotage in Belgium,
Sabotage in Holland,
Sabotage in France,
Blackmail Sabotage,
Sabotage in Greece,
Agent Fifi and the Honeytrap Spies, Amberley Publishing, (2015)
Agents Françaises,
The Spies who returned to the Cold: Iceland’s wartime spies,
Operation LENA and Hitler’s Plans to blow up Britain, Amberley Publishing (2017)
Bletchley Park and the Pigeon Spies, (2018)
Bletchley Park and the Belgian Pigeon Service,, (2018)
The BBC and the Pigeon Spies, (2018)
SOE Heroines: French Section and Free French women agents, Amberley Publishing, (2018)
Operation EBENSBURG: SOE’s Austrian ‘Bonzos’ and the saving of Europe’s cultural heritage,,( 2018)
The BBC and the Pigeon Spies,, (2018)

Friday, October 5, 2018

World War II Pigeoneers' Stories

This photo is held by The Imperial War Museum

The US Army in Britain, 1942-1945

Corporal Florian S. Nowak and Private First Class Ralph Pellegrin of the 280th US Army Signal Pigeon Company examining a German carrier pigeon captured in Belgium. Photograph taken in their unit base in an unknown location in England, 30 March 1945. Captured pigeons were send there for breeding and all birds in the US Army service were trained by the Company.
Corporal Nowak was a native of Cleveland, Ohio (4110 East 143rd Street) and Private Pellegrin came from 124 Johnston Avenue, Plainfield, New Jersey. © IWM (EA 61372)

   Sergeant Gordon H. Hayes served as a pigeoneer in North Africa and Italy, 1942-45, as part of the 209thSignal Pigeon Company.  He writes in The Pigeons That Went to War of the important messages delivered by  pigeons such as Rain-in-the-Face, Miss Peggy, Speckel Head, Corn Willy, The Doll Baby, Lady Linda, Boston Lady, Annie, Trailblazer, Anzio Sal, Mater Brian, The Pretty Lady, Miss Brooklyn, Bad Eye, Just Jerry, Miss Kentucky, Little Wonder, Yank, Dogface, Little Girl, Hawk Bait, Wisconsin Boy, Black Magic, Monkeyface, Captain Fulton, Tru Blu, and Lady Astor.  Here is his story about Rain-in-the-Face.
   “I carried with me ten of my best pigeons on my new assignment.  My orders were to establish my combat lofts on the coast of Massa-Carrara, in the province of Toscana….Our birds were now being used by British and American intelligence units operating in this area.  One cold afternoon, a British major came to our lofts, and asked us for our most reliable pigeon, for a very important mission.  He asked us if the pigeon could go without food or water for two days.  He wanted the bird strapped to an agent’s body.  We had such a bird.  Our bird for this critical mission was one called Rain-in-the-Face.
   The black check, splash cock, # S.C. 54 USA 7563, was hatched at the Bizerte breeding base.  As a squeaker, he was picked to go into my mobile loft.  He ferried 52 messages, informing headquarters of enemy positions and movements.  He had done well in fog, rain, and snow in the formidable Futa Pass, and was also active on the Cassino front.  A steady performer, he was always chosen for tough missions.  Big and strong, beautifully feathered, with bright red eyes, he was every inch a champion.
   In December, 1944, he was to carry his last message out of my loft at Massa-Carrara.  Placed in a pigeon sling, he was taken by an intelligence agent through the mountains into enemy territory.  Strapped to the spy’s body for two days, he endured a rough deal with grace.  Pvt. Joe Pomianowski and I took turns waiting for his return.  Rain-in-the-Face hit the loft the fourth day.  Unable to walk, he flapped his wings trying to enter the trap.  I went over, picked him up-a mass of dried blood.  One leg was gone.  Yet he had made it!  A bigger surprise:  the leg bearing the message remained intact!
   Nothing could be done to save Rain-in-the-Face, however hard we tried or sad we felt.  I comforted myself in the faith that he had given his life in a soldierly fashion.  We buried him with honor at the base of a cedar tree.  Later I learned that the message and map contained information on German gun positions.  Thanks to our pigeon martyr, Rain-in-the-Face, those guns were silenced forever.  For this reason this brave bird is permanently etched in my memory.”
   Lieutenant Colonel Jerome J. Pratt served as a pigeoneer in England, France, and Germany, 1944-45, as part of the 285thSignal Pigeon Company assigned directly under Headquarters, 12thArmy Group.  In Courageous Couriers, Memoirs of a Pigeon Soldier, he writes: 
   “Our assignment to Headquarters, 12thArmy Group, gave us the responsibility of training replacement pigeons for all the United States and France forces under the Group.  As an additional duty, I became the pigeon advisor for the Chief Signal Officer, European Theater of Operations, and Signal Officer 12th Army Group.  Also pigeon liaison representative to the British Air Ministry and the French Army.  This gave me the opportunity to travel all over Europe to observe the employment of pigeons….
   To keep up with advancing units, a pigeon detachment used two lofts in what we called leap-frogging.  A loft would be settled near the division message center at the command post.  As soon as an advance command post was selected the other loft would move up and start to settle their birds at that location.  When the advance loft became operational, the one to the rear moves forward to the next advance command post, and so on.  From this procedure you can see it was necessary for the pigeoneers to be up front of the main body of troops at times….
   The most needed and desired time for pigeon communication was at river crossings when the battalion headquarters were separated from their regiments without wire communications and maintaining radio silence between the command posts.  Usually the continuous barrage of artillery fire over the river coming from both sides would delay a foot messenger unit until after dark.    When pigeons were available they could be released during the day and get the message through several hours and sometimes a full day earlier.  Infantry soldiers carried the pigeons across the rivers in anything they could sling around their bodies, such as ammunition bags, musette bags, and even a sugar sack.”