Remembrance 2019: Pigeons in War

Here in the UK and in many countries around the world, November is the month of remembrance, where we take time to honour and remember the sacrifices of the millions of people who have lost their lives in war.

Less well recognised are the millions of animals who gave their service as carriers, messengers, guards and companions; many losing their lives as a result. Especially forgotten are the lives of the hundreds of thousands of pigeons who served as messengers and their descendants, the street pigeons scratching a living on the street trying to avoid casual abuse or the ‘pest’ controllers. In this article, I hope to raise awareness of the service of these incredible birds, pay tribute to their bravery and determination and perhaps inspire a deeper respect for these wonderful creatures.

Early Use of Pigeons as Messengers

Pigeons were first domesticated thousands of years ago; raised by man as a source of food. During this time, we can only presume it came to man’s attention by accident that pigeons have a good memory for finding their way home. A good memory for directions is essential for the Rock Dove – ancestor of feral and domestic pigeons – a necessity likely borne out of their chosen habit of communal nesting on rocky coastal cliffs, where they must forage at some distance to find food. Wild Rock Doves however, generally forage within no more than 3-5 miles from their home, so the long distance homing abilities we have come to expect from today’s racing pigeons are as a direct result of man’s intervention: training and developing these innate abilities as a test of just how far their natural compass and endurance can take them. This is a process that has been many centuries in the making – the ancient Egyptians used pigeons to announce the coronation of a new Pharoah; the ancient Greeks the results of battles or of the Olympic Games and in the 12th century, the Persians had a regular pigeon service running between Baghdad and Syria. It is not difficult to see how the pigeon’s speed, endurance and homing abilities quickly became recognised as a valuable and important asset for war.

Pigeons in World War 1

The sheer scale of the war in Europe during 1914-1919 demanded efficient and reliable communications during a time when radio was very much in its infancy. An estimated 100,000 pigeons were used in WW1 and in the British forces by all three services: Army, Navy and the newly formed Air Force. On land, pigeons were transported in mobile pigeon lofts made from converted horse-drawn London buses, or carried with tank crews to relay information about troop and artillery movement. At sea they could relay messages about naval engagements back to headquarters on land and in the air, pigeons were carried with seaplane crews so that they could be released with coordinates informing rescuers of the crews location, should they have to ditch at sea.

War pigeons were also used by many other nations engaged the conflict. The most famous war pigeon hero of this time was the US war pigeon Cher Ami (‘Dear Friend’) a blue chequered hen who saved the ‘Lost Battalion’ of over 500 men from the 77th Division, trapped and incurring friendly fire in the Argonne. She successfully returned to her loft in time to stop the battalion from being bombed despite her injuries, which resulted in her losing a leg. She was awarded the french Croix de Guerre for her bravery.

Pigeons in World War 2

Following the successful use of pigeons in WW1, pigeons were once again used and more extensively in WW2. Approximately 250,000 pigeons were donated to the war effort by pigeon fanciers, or bred from donated birds by the National Pigeon Service. Pigeons were employed for a range of special tasks including aerial reconnaissance with small cameras (by 1940’s standards!) strapped to their bodies, taking photos from the air. They were also carried aboard aircraft to be released in the event of having to ditch at sea, with a number of aircrew saved in this way. Across occupied Europe, pigeons were carried by paratroopers in a ‘pigeon bra‘ to report successful landing, whilst others were airdropped in special containers with food in the hope that local people would use them to send intelligence back to Britain under ‘Operation Columba‘. Bletchley Park, home to the famous Enigma code breakers even had its own pigeon loft with birds bringing back Enigma-coded messages for the code breakers to crack.

In the USA under ‘Project Pigeon‘, scientists experimented with using pigeons as the guidance system in an early form of guided missile but the project was cancelled before the war ended, as it was not regarded as likely to bear fruit in time for active operational use.

The WW2 period saw the establishment of the Dickin Medal, a unique award created by Maria Dickin, who created the charity the Peoples Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). To date the Dickin Medal has been awarded to 32 pigeons for their war service including: Winkie, who saved an aircrew ditched at sea; Royal Blue, bred at the Royal Lofts in Sandringham and Mary of Exeter who survived injury in multiple missions, and a bombing close to her home loft.

Life as a War Pigeon

Although the WW1/2 war pigeons had a good rate of success, their activities were extremely dangerous. The pigeons often had to fly at night and had to be specially trained to do so as pigeons do not normally fly in the dark and cannot see well at night. As they were often deployed from Britain to continental Europe, their flights took them over great distances (possibly hundreds of miles) of unfamiliar territory and across the sea which could be subject to rough weather including heavy rain, strong winds and fog. An exhausted pigeon flying from occupied France needed the greatest endurance in order not to perish at sea when crossing the English Channel back to Britain.

Weather and tiredness were not the only dangers. The pigeons would face gunfire from the enemy, and German-trained hawks stationed along the coast, waiting to strike pigeons already quite tired. Even some of the most famous and decorated war pigeons did not complete their service without sustaining injuries.

For Love of Family & Flock

With many dangers along the way, you might wonder why the pigeons chose to complete their journeys, despite all they faced. After all, there were safer options such as to join local flocks in the country where they were dropped, and not to try to return at all.

To truly appreciate the pigeons’ heroic efforts, it is important to understand what lies behind their incredible endurance and determination to return home. It is not food, or the promise of a warm loft but this: love. Pigeons mate for life and form strong bonds with their partners, sharing equal parenting responsibility. It was an essential part of being a successful war pigeon (and a racing pigeon today) to have a mate back home, to give the war pigeons the strongest motivation to return home, despite all the dangers they faced. As pigeons are social birds part of a flock, it is also possible that their sense of community and belonging to a group of familiar faces that also contributed to their determination.

Honoring the War Pigeons’ Service

As pigeons have no longer been used for war service in Britain since the 1950’s, many have forgotten or are not aware of the vital part that pigeons played in the World Wars. Today, their descendants the feral pigeons live a meagre existence under great persecution and receive little or no regard for the incredible efforts of their forbears. Monuments to war pigeons are few and far between, some notable exceptions being the WW1 monuments ‘Monument Au Pigeon Soldat‘ in Brussels, and the ‘Monument Au Pigeon Voyageurs‘ in Lille, France. The Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park, London features a small flock in relief, along with other animals of war.

So this Remembrance Sunday, please spare a thought for the thousands of pigeons who served. Human lives were saved whilst many pigeons perished in our cause. They did not choose.

Lest we forget.

The Crazy Pigeon Lady, Nov 2019