Today (July 12) in London History – Against All the Odds

On July 12th, 1941 a carrier pigeon brought important information about the Nazi enemy in Belgium back to Military Intelligence in London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Don’t even try to guess what’s coming at you today, July 12th. Be a wasted effort. You could guess away for a million years and you wouldn’t get this one. 

So, yes, the wild card of wild cards.

I can give you a date: July 12th, 1941. And sure, you’re going to guess the war – but you’re going to draw a blank on the specificity. 

Ok, let me take you by the hand. Something comes to London on July 12th, 1941. Out of the blue. 

Literally. And it’s a… bird. A pigeon. A racing pigeon. A carrier pigeon. A homing pigeon. Attached to its right leg is a tiny container. About the size of your little finger from the middle joint to the tip. In the container, a gossamer-thin rolled-up piece of paper, about the size of a handkerchief. On it, in the smallest, most compressed together writing you’ll ever see, about 5,000 words of messages and 14 tiny sketch maps and diagrammes. 

The pigeon was fitted up with its payload this morning, July 12th, in Belgium. It was released into the air and has flown back to its home loft in England on the same day. 

The bird’s owner detached the container and sent it unopened through his instructed channels, and within 24 hours the message, which had been transcribed in the minutest handwriting in secret in some Resistance hide-out in Europe, was available to Military Intelligence in London.

Over the course of the war over 1,000 carrier pigeons delivered messages from occupied Europe made it back to England. Forty percent of them contained information rated as “extremely valuable.”

What sort of information was in the capsule? Well, targeting information of course. Where the Allies should bomb in order to hit the German war machine and not Belgian citizens. But also information that established the bona fides of the message and its author. That had to be coded in such a way that were the Germans to bring the bird down they wouldn’t be able to identify and locate the brave Belgian or French resistance operative. In fact, the author of the July 12th message was a bearded padre who’d shaken hands with Admiral Keyes on the morning of May 27th, 1940 at about 7.30 am and Admiral Keyes had the key so to speak to the author of the piece, his whereabouts, his bona fides. Would clear him. Would say, yes, he’s one of the good guys. He’s on our side. You can trust what’s in that message. There were also precise instructions about when and where to drop the next consignment of carrier pigeons in the neighbourhood. 

Life expectancy, you ask? And so you should ask. The bearded padre – the author of the message I’m looking at – was later caught by the Germans and shot. And as for the birds, the chances of the pigeon’s owner seeing his bird return safely through any number of hazards were ten to one against. 

Let’s run down the list of those dangers. First of all, think about the British pilot who flew across the channel to make the parachute drop of three or four caged carrier pigeons. He had to be swift but not too swift. Had to identify his drop zone very quickly. Couldn’t tarry. Couldn’t call attention to himself by circling round and round, as if he were looking for something. Which he was of course – namely the precise spot, the field above which the birds were to be dropped. If he were identified as British, Anti-aircraft fire, small arms fire, the unwanted and almost certainly fatal attentions of a Messerschmidt sent up to intercept him – those were just some of the hazards he was facing.

And then making the drop – who saw it? If it was a pair of German eyes, that was trouble. As was a Belgian who was frightened of the Nazis and wanted to curry favour with them. Or indeed, a Belgian who’d gone over, was a full-fledged Nazi supporter. They could be a reception committee for whoever went to get the birds. Torture – to get whatever information they could out of the French or Belgian resistance operative would follow. And then a summary execution.

Or the Germans could collect the pigeons themselves, substitute their own birds, the resistance operative gets there, finds what he thinks is the birds dropped by the British pilot, takes them to the safe house, fits them out with the messages to be flown by the feathered friend back to Britain and sure enough, its being a German carrier pigeon the enemy bird takes the precious message directly to the wrong hands. The contents of the message are valuable pieces to the puzzle helping the Germans to see the outline of, to understand the resistance movement going on underneath their very noses. Helping them to narrow down geographically and get a read on who in any given area might be a resistance operative. Basically helping them to close in on and identify our brave friends in the French and Belgian resistance.

So it was anything but a cakewalk, to use that American term. But those pigeons and those brave and exceptionally skilled pilots and those brave French and Belgian resistance cells they were all we had in 1941. It’s a great story. Picture that pigeon coming home, somewhere on the outskirts of London on July 12th, 1941. Having flown hundreds of miles. With that precious little container attached to his lower leg. Picture him. And honour him. And the people who worked with him. They were all on the right side. They did good work.

And a Today in London recommendation.

Well, yesterday, I recommended London Walks guide Rick Jones’ Shakespeare’s London Walk. I see that today – following on from the assassination of former Japanese president Shinzo Abe, Rick iis recommending the current Japan exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. I’m going to second that recommendation here in the London Walks podcast. A recommendation from that ace guide and arts connoisseur – Rick’s the former chief music critic for the Evening Standard – well, that’s a recommendation that should be heeded. In Rick’s case, you can consider me Admiral Keyes, I’ll vouch for Rick. I know him. Know him well. Rick Jones is on the up and up – a Rick Jones recommendation is invariably of the 24-carat variety. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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