Pigeons in wartime

For April the focus of our virtual calendar celebrates and remembers the work of the lowly pigeon, nominated by Susan Carter who lives in the North East of England. Susan is a mother of four and a great animal lover and believes the role that pigeons played in both world wars must never be forgotten. We agree.

Homing pigeons have been used to carry messages since ancient times. The instincts which allow them to find their way home are not well understood. Magnetoreception (a sense which allows an organism to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location) may play a part in determining direction, as may a pigeon’s ability to identify landmarks. Keen sight and a superior memory also appear to be factors, although pigeons cannot keep flying to their home base in the dark or in poor visibility such as fog.

Messenger pigeons have numerous advantages in wartime. They are easy to transport, eat very little and can travel quickly. They are not easily distracted from their task (as military dogs might be) and if captured, there is no evidence of their origin or destination. With an average speed of around 90 kilometers per hour over moderate distances, they are faster than a runner, a cyclist or a man on horseback.

In the First World War, pigeons were carried and used successfully in aircraft and ships. However, they were most commonly used by the British Expeditionary Force to send messages from the front line trenches or advancing units. The Carrier Pigeon Service was managed by the Directorate of Army Signals. They were kept in stationary or mobile lofts to which they would return with their messages. Stationary lofts were sometimes established in outbuildings, sheds or even the roofs of houses. In the field, wooden sheds were often specially constructed for this purpose. Mobile lofts (horse-drawn or motorised) were used wherever it was impossible to establish a stationary loft. Once the birds were accustomed to their mobile loft in a given position, the lofts could be moved forward or to the rear. Here we see a carrier pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a tank near Albert, 9 August 1918. It’s a Mark V tank of the 10th Battalion, Tank Corps attached to the III Corps during the Battle of Amiens.

Our main photo features Blue Bar Cock Pigeon No 139 who was awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry as a result of a flight through a severe tropical storm near Madang, New Guinea, on 12 July 1945. This brave bird was located with Detachment 55 Port Craft Company, Madang and carried a message from a foundering boat to Madang, flying 40 miles (64km) in 50 minutes. The message read: “To: Detachment 55 Australian Port Craft Company, MADANG. From: A.B. 1402. Date: 12.7.45. Engine Failed. Wash on to beach at WADAU owing very heavy seas. Send help immediately. Am rapidly filling with sand./ TOO: 0800 – Senders signature – HOLLAND Cpl./ TO Liberation 0805 – No. of copies 2./ TOR at Loft – 0855”. As a result of the successful delivery of the message the boat, valuable stores, ammunition and equipment was salvaged. The bird had previously completed 23 operational flights over a total distance of 1,004 miles.

It has been estimated that more than 100,000 homing pigeons were used to carry messages during the First World War. These pigeons are said to have had a success rate of 95% getting through to their destination. For every 20 birds released with important information, nineteen would get the message through. In WW2 approximately 55,000 pigeons were deployed by the Americans throughout the war. The British, meanwhile, used upwards of 200,000. Thirty-two of those pigeons were presented the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Dickin Medal, the highest honour awarded to animals in combat.

Pigeons in wartime

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