The homing Pigeons, unusual combatants in the war

It was not just humans who were combatants during the war, one surprising group called up were the homing or racing pigeons of Europe and Australia. In reality homing pigeons have been taken into battle for many years, for example news of Napoleon’s defeat reached England by carrier pigeon well before the horsemen arrived. In 1815, the combined forces of Britain and Prussia had defeated Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Waterloo. It was, said the Duke of Wellington, a damn close run thing. But even before the dust had settled on the battlefield, a carrier pigeon belonging to the House of Rothschild was on its way across the Channel to London. Nathan Rothschild, informed ahead of other traders that the country was not to be over-run by the French, consequently made a killing by buying British government bonds. [1]

Pigeons were most useful in the days before radios and telephones and in WWI were carried in baskets. They were two bird wickerwork pigeon trench baskets with a carry handle and a leather strap on the top. Each end swung open and was held in place by a wooden peg attached to the basket with string. Each side of the basket had a meshed panel to allow the birds air. A galvanised steel feeding/water trough was attached to one long side with two hooks. The inside of the basket was lined with calico, and was divided diagonally with a piece of heavy card, allowing a separate compartment for each bird.[2]

But even in the more modern warfare of World War II, the homing pigeons came into their own with nearly 250,000 birds used in Britain by the Defence Forces as well as local Civil Defence authorities during WWII.

These are some of their stories:-

Britain: These birds were not considered ‘pets’ in England during the war. They were useful to the war effort, as were their previous generations. In WWII special ration books allowed every pigeon fancier to have enough corn each week for 20 birds. Some pigeon racing continued throughout the war as a way of training the birds to fly ever increasing distances but predator birds were culled from coastal regions to allow the birds to safely return to their lofts.[3]

Many RAF aircrews shot down over the sea owed their lives to birds trained and donated by one of the 20,000 pigeon fanciers who belonged to the National Pigeon Service. All RAF bombers and reconnaissance aircraft carried pigeons in special watertight baskets and containers and, if the aircraft had to ditch, the plane’s co-ordinates were sent back with the pigeon to its base and a search and rescue operation was effected. Thousands of lives were saved by these amazing birds that flew often in extreme circumstances. Journalist Godfrey Winn flew to Norway with an RAF crew flying a Hudson and he wrote of the brown picnic basket which he found contained pigeons which the Hudsons always carry for sending out an SOS.[4]

Even the Royal lofts were involved, with one of their birds, Royal Blue, being the first pigeon to bring a message from a force-landed aircraft on the continent. On the 10th October 1940 this young bird was released in Holland. He flew 120 miles in 4 hours 10 minutes reporting the information regarding the situation of the crew. Pigeons carried their messages either in special message containers on their legs or small pouches looped over their backs. Quite often pigeons were dropped by parachute in containers to Resistance workers in France, Belgium and Holland. This was often quite precarious as it was a bumpy landing and, of course, very dangerous for the Resistance workers if they were caught with a British pigeon.[5]

 

The Animals VC

In 1943 the Dickin Medal was instituted by Maria Dickin, founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. Commonly known as the ‘Animal VC’, it was awarded to 53 animals, of which 32 were homing pigeons, including Royal Blue. The Dickin Medal, a large bronze medallion, bears the words ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We Also Serve’ — all within a laurel wreath. The ribbon is striped green, dark brown and pale blue representing water, earth and air to symbolise the naval, military, civil defence and air forces. The medal was awarded to ‘any animal displaying conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty associated with, or under the control of, any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence units during World War 2 and its aftermath’.[6]

One of the most famous recipients was called ‘White Vision’. It received its Dickin Medal for “delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an air crew while serving with the RAF in October 1943”. A Catalina flying boat had to ditch in the Hebrides at 0820 hrs one morning. Sea rescue operations were hindered by very bad weather and air search was impossible because of thick mist. At 1700 hrs that afternoon White Vision arrived at her loft with a message giving the position of the ditched aircraft and as a result the search was resumed, the aircraft sighted and rescue of the crew effected. White Vision had flown 60 miles over heavy seas against a headwind of 25 miles per hour with visibility only a hundred yards at the place of release and three hundred yards at the place of arrival.[7]

One pigeon, GI Joe, saved the lives of thousands of British troops who were preparing to take an Italian town after the US Air Force had bombarded the Germans. However, the British forces found no resistance from the Germans and so entered the town unchallenged. Unfortunately the USAF aircraft were already en route to bomb the town and, with radio contact broken, GI Joe flew over a mile a minute (60 mph) back to the base. He arrived back just in time for the air raid to be called off before the USAF would have bombed the Allied troops.[8]

One pigeon fancier recalled they lived near the 36 barrage balloons protecting the Vickers-Armstrong factory so their birds had to find their way home through the network of  balloon cables. The racing birds often dropped back into the loft between exploding V Bombs and they had to be timed in. In all 600 bombs dropped close by but ‘we all lived happily ever after.’[9]

 

Australia

Australia also had its feathered heroes and a corps of pigeons saved many lives, especially for men serving in Papua, New Guinea and the Islands. Patrols surrounded by the enemy, crews in sinking ships, engineers stranded by mud-slides, medical units desperately short of blood all have reason to thank the men and the birds of the Australian Corps of Signals Pigeon Service who, in December 1942, arrived in Port Moresby as the Japanese beat a bloody retreat along the Kokoda Track.

The rugged terrain of New Guinea and the islands, and warfare in jungles all showed the limitations of modern communications … the extreme humidity of the area was a major issue, radios were very heavy to carry in these areas and, as the 8th Division men had found in Malaya, lines could easily be cut by fifth columnists or heavy bombing

Pigeons were very light to carry; they could be taken into rough conditions needing little more than a cane carrier and food. Another advantage was that ‘You can’t jam a bird’ — the enemy might shoot at it, but in doing so it reveals its position.

Sending messages by pigeon saved on precious airtime and removed the need for decoding. But perhaps most valuable of all, they could carry a hastily sketched map showing enemy positions, other times they carried sketches showing reefs that could be used by landing craft carrying men to a beachhead

In 1942, the threat of enemy invasion of Australia led civilian pigeon-fanciers to voluntarily establish a network that could carry messages in the event that radio contact failed. Later that year the Australian Corps of Signals Pigeon Service was established. It was soon realised that the successful Pigeon Service might also be of use to the Army overseas in the South-West Pacific. The birds could fly over the tropical oceans, mountains and jungle that were proving to be considerable impediments to the Signal Corps’ usual communications methods.

The 8th Australian Pigeon Section was sent to Port Moresby in December 1942 to support operations on the Kokoda Trail. The pigeons were trained to carry a message for up to 120 miles (193 km) at an average speed of 30 miles per hour (48km/hr). They were particularly useful in emergency situations when no other method of communication was available.[10]

In Australia the pigeon man who instigated the service was Bert Cornish. He thought ‘probably one of the most difficult things to overcome was the prejudice within the Army itself.’ Cornish had to find experienced men and fought hard to obtain a body of dedicated men such as pigeon fancier Keith Wrightson who knew what they were doing.[11]

Owners around Australia donated 13500 birds in 1942 alone. Lofts were built, food supplies ensured (grain wasn’t grown in either Papua or New Guinea, so everything had to be shipped from Australia), birds trained. But after arriving in Port Moresby a breeding program was begun to produce birds more easily able to adapt to the climate.

‘Soon the pigeons were very much in demand, the crews of some Army supply boats refused to go to sea without them.’

Two Australian birds were awarded the animals’ VC. One was awarded to an Australian bird whose citation read: Blue bar cock No. 139:D/D:43:T Detachment 10 Pigeon Section (Type B) attached to Detachment 55 Port Craft Company, Madang 12 July 1945. Awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry carrying a message through a severe tropical storm thereby bringing help to an Army boat with a vital cargo, in danger of foundering

The other medal went to a pigeon attached to American forces on Manus Island after a group of about 200 men were pinned down by the Japanese in April 1944. This bird’s citation read: Blue chequer cock No. 879:D/D: 43: Q Loft No. 5 of 1 Australian Pigeon Section, attached to the US forces, Manus Island, Admiralty Islands 5th April 1944. Awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry carrying a message through heavy fire thereby bringing relief to a patrol surrounded and attacked by the enemy without other means of communication.

The Australian War Memorial says of the pigeons from the lofts in the Owen Stanley Range were ‘called upon to operate under conditions which probably no other Army pigeons had to endure. At times the birds had to rise 2000 feet in a distance of three miles, with torrential rain or mist a distinct possibility. Rarely was a message not delivered.’

Strict quarantine laws meant all the birds that operated in New Guinea and the islands were not able to be brought into Australia. There was no available feed grain in those locations and there were many hawks so it was decided that sadly the pigeons had to be put down and none were retired to Australia after the end of the war.

[1] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/255b75e0-c77d-11e2-be27-00144feab7de.html#axzz3FaudfPfV

[2] http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RELAWM04398/

[3] Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then, London, Arrow Books, 1977-3rd edition, p. 225.

[4] Godfrey Winn, Day Trip to Norway in ‘On going to the wars’, London, Collins, 1941, p. 16.

[5] http://www.rpra.org/pigeon-history/pigeons-in-war/

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dickin_Medal

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Vision

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe_%28pigeon%29

[9] Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then, London, Arrow Books, 1977-3rd edition, p. 225.

[10] https://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2008/03/12/animals-in-war/

[11] http://www.anzacday.org.au/history/ww2/anecdotes/pigeons.html

by Caroline Gaden ©

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