The Role of Pigeons in Armed ConflictKeith
The Role of Pigeons in Armed Conflict.
At the start of World War 2 thousands of Britain’s pigeon fanciers donated their pigeons to the war effort to act as airborne message carriers. During the period of the war nearly a quarter of a million birds were used by the army, the RAF and the Civil Defence Services and also the police and fire service, Home Guard and even Bletchley Park. Pigeon racing was halted and birds of prey along the coasts of Britain were culled so that British pigeons could arrive home safely with their vital information.
Homing pigeons were used not only in Western Europe by British forces but also by American, Canadian, and German forces in other parts of the world during the war – Italy, Greece, North Africa, India and the Middle and Far East. 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 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 annihalated the british troops.
All RAF bombers and reconnaissance planes carried pigeons and, if the aircraft had to ditch, the plane’s co-ordinates were sent back with the pigeon to its RAF base so a rescue operation could be effected. Thousands of servicemen’s lives were saved by these humble birds that flew often in extreme circumstances.
During World War II homing pigeons were seconded into the National Pigeon Service from Britain’s fanciers including one from the Royal Lofts. In fact one pigeon, Royal Blue, was 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. In 1943 the Dickin Medal was instituted by Maria Dickin, founder of the PDSA. Commonly known as the Animal VC, it was awarded to 53 animals, of which 32 were homing pigeons, including Royal Blue.
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 very dangerous for the Resistance workers if they were caught with a British pigeon.
Aircrew carried their pigeons in special watertight baskets and containers, in case the aircraft had to ditch into the sea.
Pigeon lofts were built at RAF and army bases but the mobile lofts had to be constructed so that they could move easily over land.
A great film – ’War of the Birds’ by Atlantic Productions for Animal Planet (2005) – detailing the contribution made by pigeons to the war effort, can be seen here.
The Dickin Medal was awarded for any animal displaying conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during World War II and its aftermath. Of the 53 Dickin Medals presented, 32 went to pigeons.
The founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, Mrs Maria Dickin, instituted the award, popularly referred to as the ‘Animal VC’, and was made only upon official recommendation and was exclusive to the animal kingdom.
One of the most famous pigeons 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”. This hardly tells the story! 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.