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Pigeon

Feral Pigeon, Colomba livia domestica,
Tavistock in front of St Eustachius church.
This species was used as carrier pigeons.

 

Pigeon2

Artistic impression of carrier pigeons from trenches
in World War I with poppies and sphagnum moss
by Mo Goodall

 

pigeon3

A British army bus-mounted mobile pigeon loft on active service during the First World War © Smithsonian Magazine

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Wartime Avian Heroes

During the First World War (1914-1918) homing pigeons, Colombia livia, were often the only reliable means of communication for the troops to send messages back from the Western Front. The pigeons had been co-opted by the War Office, from civilian pigeon fanciers, to form the Army Pigeon Service. The war department produced information leaflets to help the military to train and care for their pigeons. King George V, a pigeon fancier, also donated his own racing pigeons from the royal lofts at Sandringham, so that he could be informed of progress of the war.

In 1915 there were 15 pigeon stations, each with four birds and a handler on the Western Front. By the end of the war there were 400 handlers and 22,000 pigeons in 150 mobile lofts. These mobile lofts were sometimes adapted from London buses, which could be relocated as the battle locations changed.

The carrier pigeons would be taken from their mobile lofts, in baskets or carriers, to the trenches with the soldiers, to be released if required as messengers. It is their homing instinct to return to their home loft, and their ability to fly at speeds of at least 60 mph which made them such efficient messengers. The birds could even find their way back home if the loft had been relocated. Pigeons were also carried in tanks, minesweeping boats, submarines and seaplanes. They could be released to carry a swift message home, often more efficiently than the unreliable telegraph systems. It is thought they relied on their excellent vision and other senses like smell and sensitivity to the earth's magnetic field to locate the home loft.

The birds carried the messages in metal canisters attached to their legs. They had to fly through enemy fire, poison gas, and avoid enemy trained hawks to get their messages home. When they returned to their lofts, behind the front line, they tripped a wire which sounded a bell to announce their return. Their messages were then passed on to military control. At least 100,000 pigeons are thought to have been killed during military service in WW1. German marksmen were employed to shoot them down or hawks trained to catch them, but they still had a 95% chance of getting back.

In the Second World War 250,000 carrier pigeons were used as messengers, although there were also more efficient telecommunications systems. RAF bomber crews often carried a pair of pigeons, so that they could be released with crash site details if the aircraft was shot down. Pigeons were also used in occupied Europe as messengers from resistance movements. Some of these messages saved many lives and the idea of the named pigeon as hero was conceived.

The Dicken medal was originated in 1943 by Maria Dicken, founder of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, the PDSA, to honour the work of animals in WW2. It was awarded to 54 animal heroes between 1943 and 1949, which included 32 pigeons. Those who received awards usually had names and were associated with particularly important military events. The first three awards were in December 1943 to pigeons called Winkie, White Vision and Tyke, serving with the RAF, who all contributed to the recovery of crew from ditched aircraft.

Royal Blue, originally from the royal lofts at Sandringham and owned by George VI was the first pigeon in 1940 to deliver a message from a force landed aircraft. He was awarded the Dicken medal for bravery in 1945.These pigeons were awarded the medals for 'bravery', but of course the avian heroes had no concept of 'heroism', and were just efficiently responding to their homing instincts.

 

Pigeon4

World War II Dickin medal for carrier pigeon Royal Blue from George VI's Sandringham lofts

 

One Devonian recipient of the Dicken medal was a homing pigeon named 'Mary of Exeter'. A memorial plaque to her can be found in Exeter's Northernhay Gardens. Mary's owner was a cobbler and pigeon fancier called Charlie Brewer, who became a loft keeper and intelligence agent during WW2.

Mary was enlisted with the National Pigeon Service due to her rapid flying speed and she served for five years during WW2. She was wounded three times during her flying missions in enemy attacks, but recovered each time to continue service. Her loft in Exeter was also damaged during Luftwaffe bombing attacks in 1942, but Mary survived. Charlie Brewer made her a special leather collar after her neck muscles were damaged by shrapnel in her final flying mission, and she lived for another ten years in retirement. Her tiny grave at Ilford Animal Cemetery in London is marked by a simple headstone.

In 2004 a memorial to commemorate all the animals, including pigeons, which gave service in the wars was erected in Hyde Park. There are also memorials in Lille, and in Brussels to pigeons and their fanciers who died in WW1.

Not all the pigeons made it home and in 1982 the remains of a military carrier pigeon, heading for Bletchley Park, were found in the chimney of a house in Surrey. The coded message inside the carrying-canister was still intact, and there has been great debate on whether the code can be deciphered.

Feral pigeons are now unwelcome guests in town centres like Tavistock, where they are blamed for damage to civic buildings. However, think of the brave service their ancestors gave to the military effort and the lives they saved in both world wars.

 

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