When you think of pigeons, you probably think of pesky flocks hanging around hot dog carts. But did you know carrier pigeons (aka homing pigeons) were once heroes of war? That’s right. Pigeons had important and dangerous jobs throughout military history, including World Wars One and Two. So let’s show a little respect!
What did pigeons do in war?
Before the use of radio, pigeons acted as animal cell service providers. Julius Caesar sent messages by pigeon, as did Parisians in the Franco-Prussian War (1870). They have been delivering messages since the 6th Century BC, if not earlier.
Pigeons were especially useful during conflict, as they allowed military units to communicate remotely from field to headquarters. During the World Wars, a soldier would place a message in a small canister tied to a pigeon’s leg. The pigeon would fly to its destination coop where it would trip a wire alerting the Signal Corp.
How Did The Birds Know Where To Go?
Military pigeons participated in rigorous training, but the science behind the method is still hotly debated.
One theory is that pigeons recognize landmarks from above. But this doesn’t explain how a pigeon would fly from London to Paris, without ever seeing the route before.
For a time, many believed that pigeons use the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass to determine direction, although this was recently disproved. A more recent theory suggests pigeons can hear “infrared sound”, ultra-low frequencies that signify one location in relation to another. This theory explains why on certain days, especially with inclement weather, a pigeon might fly off course.
The most accepted theory is that pigeons identify “home” by using their sense of smell to create a mental map. They recognize the smell of home from far away and “follow their nose” like Toucan Sam.
Either way, in terms of military use, pigeons were kept at a home base roost and then transported in boxes or cages with deployed army units. When released from the units’ random location, the pigeons would be able to identify the their home base from afar, and return home with a message.
When delivering messages across enemy lines, heading home became a dangerous commute.
Why Was It Dangerous?
The enemy would try to intercept the messages without any interest in keeping the pigeons alive. Enemy soldiers would send hawks after the pigeons and shoot them down in mid-air when given the chance.
Pigeons were often celebrated and awarded medals of honour for their crucial role. 32 pigeons recieved the Dickin Medal, instituted in 1943, to honour animals who showed “gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in military conflict”. Never mind that the animals never really had a choice in the matter.
Pigeons of Distinction
The following is a selection of pigeons who received the Dickin Medal for their service in World War 2.
Paddy hailed from Northern Ireland and trained as a racing bird under the Royal Air Force. He was an extraordinary flyer who could reach 90 km per hour. He was sent on a special D-Day mission with American Forces. In terrible weather conditions, Paddy evaded German falcons to deliver information back to the Allies’ home base.
William of Orange
This pigeon worked for the British MI14 and saved over 2000 lives in the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944.
German troops had the Allied forces surrounded, and were disrupting their radio signals. Pigeons became their only option for communication. William flew over 400 km from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom and delivered one of few crucial messages. Although German forces won the battle, William’s message saved many lives.
An RAF Bomber crashed into the North Sea on February 23, 1942. The four passengers were freezing and struggling to survive in their watery surroundings. They released Winky without a message as a last resort.
Winky flew over 200km to his owner who alerted the Royal Air Force. Although Winky carried no message, the RAF was able to approximate the bombers’ location based on the known flight path and time of Winky’s arrival.
Mary of Exeter
This pigeon was known for her endurance despite sustaining several injuries over the course of her career.
Mary received 22 stitches after an attack by German hawks, and still managed to deliver her message. On a separate occasion Mary was shot in the wing with several bullet pieces were lodged in her body. This still didn’t keep her down. During her final mission, Mary was hit in the neck by shrapnel. Amazingly she survived to receive the Dickin Medal sporting a supportive leather collar.
G.I. Joe saved the Italian town Calvi Vecchia from a bombing in 1943. The Allies were planning to bomb the town, when the Germans’ vacated unexpectedly. Locals’ attempts to inform the British forces by radio failed and the attack was looming. Enter G.I. Joe. He flew 32 km in 20 minutes with a message to the American Forces who managed to cancel the attack. This noble pigeon saved an estimated 1000 lives.