Tommy: The Accidental Spy

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Excerpted with permission from HEROES: Incredible True Stories of Courageous Animals by David Long, illustrated by Kerry Hyndman. Copyright (c) 2018 by David Long and Kerry Hyndman. Published by Faber & Faber. Available wherever books are sold.

Tommy was never meant to be a military pigeon but, became one after being blown off course during a race in 1942.

Tommy’s owner had entered him for a race in Lancashire, and when the bird didn’t return the owner probably assumed he was lost for good. In fact, Tommy had been blown across the North Sea, coming to rest in the Netherlands, which by this time had been occupied by its enemies for nearly two years.

New laws meant that keeping pigeons was illegal, and the authorities were killing all the racing pigeons to prevent anyone using them to carry secret messages out of the country. Luckily, the pigeon who found Tommy, a postman, had friends in the Dutch Resistance, a group of brave civilians working under cover to make life as hard as possible for the troops who had invaded their country. The work was highly skilled and very dangerous, and all of them knew that if they were caught using pigeons to send messages they would be tortured and imprisoned, or even killed.

Tommy was handed over to one of the resistance fighters, a young man called Dick Drijver. Dick already had some experience of working with carrier pigeons, and despite the new laws he had hidden away a couple of his own birds, called Tijger and Amsterdammer. Guessing that Tommy was a British bird, he realized he might have found a way to get a message to the military in London.

Dick didn’t know precisely where Tommy had come from, or who owned him, but this didn’t matter. If he had come from England he would fly back to England once he had regained his strength. All Dick had to do was to hope that Tommy completed the journey and that his owner would know what to do with the message.

The message he planned to send concerned the location of a factory near Amsterdam where weapons were being manufactured. The Resistance wanted Britain’s Royal Air Force to bomb it, thereby weakening the enemy’s hold over the Dutch people. As soon as Tommy was fit enough to fly again the message was inserted into a tiny canister fixed to his leg, and with six hundred and fifty kilometers ahead of him he was launched on a journey back to the north of England.

A pigeon only weighs a few hundred grams, but they can fly so fast and for so long that Tommy reached home the following day. His owner, William Brockbank, couldn’t believe it. Tommy had been missing for weeks, and now all of a sudden here he was back in his loft.

Mr. Brockbank was also surprised to see his bird had a little canister on his leg with a note inside it. He couldn’t understand the message (which was in code) but guessed it must be important and something to do with the war. It was passed on to the police immediately, and a few hours later it was decoded and handed over to the Royal Air Force.

At the time, everyone involved was sworn to secrecy, because if the story got out it would endanger the lives of Dick and his friends in the Dutch Resistance. After the war Tommy was declared a hero, however, and in February 1946 Dick Drijver travelled to London to be reunited with his feathered friend. The two were presented with a medal by the head of the Dutch secret service, and to his great delight Dick received a gift of a pair of English pigeons to keep alongside Tijger and Amsterdammer.