“Pigeon research will not stand still; if we do not experiment, other powers will.”

May 21, 2004

(Or: Silly & Fun Friday News)

One of the most beautiful things about living in a democracy is that even the most closely held state secrets are eventually declassified. Sure it might take 50-60 years, but it’s still laudable that democratic governments voluntarily relinquish their secrets.

So in that vein, behold the following very funny declassified projects from the 1940’s and 50’s-era British Secret Service. (NB: The documents were released by the UK National Archives on April 1st, 2004 but they were accompanied by official statements that they were most certainly not April Fools’ pranks:

Tom O’Leary, head of education and interpretation at the National Archives, told the paper: “It does seem like an April Fool but it most certainly is not. The Civil Service does not do jokes.”

Whether this is dry British wit or not, I can’t tell.)

1) Cold war bomb warmed by chickens

Plans to fill a nuclear landmine with chickens to regulate its temperature were seriously considered during the Cold War.

Civil servants at the National Archives say it is a coincidence the secret plan is being revealed on 1 April.

The Army planned to detonate the seven-tonne device on the German plains in the event of having to retreat.

Operation Blue Peacock forms part of an exhibition for the National Archives, in Kew, London, on Friday.

Professor Peter Hennessy, curator of the Secret State exhibition, told the Times: “It is not an April Fool. These documents come straight from the archives at Aldermaston. Why and how would we forge them?”

The bomb was designed to stop the Red Army advancing across West Germany during the height of the Cold War.

But nuclear physicists at the Aldermaston nuclear research station in Berkshire were worried about how to keep the landmine at the correct temperature when buried underground.

In a 1957 document they proposed live chickens would generate enough heat to ensure the bomb worked when buried for a week.

The birds would be put inside the casing of the bomb, given seed to keep them alive and stopped from pecking at the wiring.

The landmine would be remotely detonated.

Tom O’Leary, head of education and interpretation at the National Archives, told the paper: “It does seem like an April Fool but it most certainly is not. The Civil Service does not do jokes.”

2) UK pondered suicide pigeon attacks

British spy chiefs secretly considered training pigeons to fly into enemy targets carrying explosives or biological weapons, it has been revealed.

British intelligence set up a “pigeon committee” at the end of World War II to ensure expertise gained in the use of the birds to carry messages was not lost.

Documents now released to the National Archives reveal that the War Office intelligence section, MI14, warned: “Pigeon research will not stand still; if we do not experiment, other powers will.”

Among MI14’s proposals was the training of pigeons carrying explosives to fly into enemy searchlights.

Meanwhile, pigeon enthusiast Wing Commander WDL Rayner suggested a “bacteriological warfare agent” could be combined with the explosive.

‘Revolutionary’ tactics

“A thousand pigeons each with a two ounce explosive capsule, landed at intervals on a specific target, might be a seriously inconvenient surprise,” Mr Rayner wrote.

He believed his “revolutionary” ideas could change the way wars were fought, and had the tentative backing of wartime MI6 chief Sir Stewart Menzies.
However the internal security service MI5 branded Rayner a “menace in pigeon affairs”.

MI5’s Lieutenant Colonel Tommy Robertson wrote: “I thought that some time ago it had been made clear that Rayner should finish writing his manual and then have nothing further to do with this committee officially.”

Rayner’s plan for a 400-pigeon loft where tests would be carried out was abandoned due to wrangling among the intelligence agencies over funding.

Members of the public can view the 280 newly-released files at the National Archives, Kew, west London.

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