Pigeons in war

Written by PAM PREEDY, historian & author.

The messenger birds.

Pigeons have been used to send messages since around 1200 BC.  By the 1800s AD the French had an official pigeon postal service, and in Britain pigeon fancying and racing has long been a popular hobby.  What many people don’t know is that pigeons were a tremendous asset during the World Wars.

In World War I carrier pigeons transported messages back to their home soops behind the lines.  Got the British this would be in a stationary or mobile loft, which might have been an adapted London double decker bus.  A solider from the Signal Corps would retrieve the message from its canister and send it on to its destination by telegraph, field phone or personal messenger.  Some of these messages saved lives of mariners and aviators.

In August 1917, Skipper Thomas Crisp was attacked by a German U-boat.  He sent pigeon number 198 for help.  Crisp was killed, but the pigeon, despite being wounded in one wing, was able to deliver the message in time to help the crew. 

The Pigeon Spies

Some RAF airmen even carried pigeons with them.  There is one story of four airmen who came down in the sea.  They released a pigeon, which struggled against a gale but arrived in time to save them.  Sadly it died of exhaustion on arrival.

During World War II, pigeons were even used for spy missions.  Two pigeons were dropped over France in baskets with food and instructions.  It was hoped that someone in France would send them back to Britain with valuable strategic information.  One was picked up by the Dabaille family, who gathered a huge amount of information which they attached to the pigeon and released.

It successfully reached Britain.  Members of the family continued spying, but as no more pigeons arrived there was, unfortunately, no way to get any information back.

Formation of the National Pigeon Service

Lessons learnt in World War I led to the formation of the National Pigeon Service (NPS).  The Army, RAF, and Royal Navy all had sections in the NPS using over 250,000 pigeons.  There was however a high death rate, and only one in ten pigeons made it back alive.  Apart from natural causes and exhaustion, pigeons were targets of snipers, hungry locals, and birds of prey.

William of Orange
PDSA Dickins Medal

Thirty-two pigeons were awarded the Dickins Medal for their amazing feats.  The first medal was awarded to Winkie.  In February 1942 a badly damaged RAF bomber returning from Norway ditched into the North Sea.  In freezing conditions and with no communications, they released Winkie.  he flew the 120 miles home and was found by his owners exhausted and covered in oil.  There was no message but, by calculating the plane’s ditching and the arrival of the bord, together with other factors, a rescue mission was launched and the men were found within 15 minutes!

William of Orange, was the winner of the 21st Dickin Medal whose message saved 2,000 men at the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944.

An American pigeon, called GI Joe, saved more than 1,000 lives when it got a message through that a village about to be bombed ha actually been recaptured by British forces.  He flew 20 miles in 20 minutes arriving just in time to cancel the raid as the bombers were preparing to take off. 

What incredible birds!

Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum have ‘Pigeons in War’ sections which provide more information and Secret Pigeon Service by Gordon Corera is a fascinating book.

Further your research

Top Tips for Managing Your Carrier Pigeons – Imperial War Museum
Paddy the Pigeon – Imperial War Museum
The Dickins Medal – Wikipedia

Originally published in Life in Bromley magazine (Issue 14, April 2023)
Images sourced via Wikimedia Commons

Share this:
error: Content is protected !!