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War Pigeon

 07 Nov 2019  Blog

Animals played a remarkable role in helping the Allies secure victory in World War I and World War II - and none more so than the humble pigeon!

While horses were used for transportation and dogs carried smaller supplies around the trenches on the Western Front during the 1914-18 conflict, war pigeons provided a means of communication which was crucial to the war effort. They travelled where vehicles and people were unable to venture.

war pigeon

© Public Domain


World War I

In the First World War, more than 16 million animals served the military, including the 250,000 pigeons who served both the British and Allied nations and also the German forces. Homing pigeons were trained to fly with important messages tied to their legs, long before the days of modern telecommunications.

Deployed by the Government Pigeon Service, they were used by the Royal Navy, the RAF, the Tank Corps and the Army to deliver short messages from the conflict zones to the military planners back at base. They had a 95% success rate of getting through with their messages.

During the Great War, the Tank Corps relied on pigeons to relay information during military advances. The pigeons would be transported inside the tanks and released, carrying their vital messages through portholes in the side, to relay tactical information on the whereabouts of the troops.

The Royal Engineers Signals Service, operating on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, also relied on carrier pigeons. One famous carrier pigeon (photographed for the press in December 1917, due to the number of missions he flew on) was named "Dreadnought".

Pictured by the military photographer, Second Lieutenant David McLellan, who carried out much war photography of people and animals, Dreadnought's photo is now part of the Ministry of Information's First World War Official Collection.

The Royal Naval Service had its own carrier pigeons, operating from vessels in the North Sea. Pigeons taking messages back to Britain often flew through heavy artillery fire, risking injury and death, but one brave pigeon saved four lives to carry a message detailing four airmen, whose plane had gone down in the sea.

The bird battled against gale-force winds to get the communication to HQ. While the airmen were all saved as a result, the pigeon sadly died from exhaustion after he arrived.

It was reported that another pigeon was shot in the left eye while carrying a message from a British seaplane that came under fire in the North Sea. Despite the horrific injury, the bird not only survived, he also delivered the message to his destination - an aerodrome back on dry land.

Another pigeon working for the Royal Flying Corps was hailed a hero after he flew 22 miles in 22 minutes, carrying word of two wrecked seaplanes, thus enabling the pilots to be safely rescued.


US Army pigeons

Carrier pigeons were so important during the Great War that the US Army set up its own pigeon farms in Europe. Remarkable video footage of homing pigeons in France in 1918 captured the day-to-day life of the hundreds of pigeons, who were part of the Allied forces.

Cared for by the troops, the birds lived in roomy aviaries that were built on the back of lorries so they could be moved - their well-being was paramount to the war effort. When not on active duty, they were released from their aviaries for exercise and flew around the skies in a flock.


World War II

During World War II, carrier pigeons were used by the Army, the Civil Defence Services and the RAF. The aircrew would always carry homing pigeons on their planes, so that if they crash-landed in the sea, the birds would fly back to base and report the stricken planes' location.

Homing pigeons are remarkable birds - flights as long as 1,100 miles have been recorded. The average flying speed of a homing pigeon is around 60 mph, although they can manage short bursts of speed of up to 100 mph over shorter distances.

The birds were used to carry various important messages during the second world war. A well-known pigeon, called Gustave, became the subject of a newsreel film when he carried back the first dispatches for Reuters news agency on D-Day. Another pigeon, called the Duke of Normandy, brought back the first D-Day message from the British airborne forces.


Dickin Medal

The PDSA Dickin Medal was awarded after World War II to animals who had shown exceptional bravery. It is the animals' equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Of the 53 medals awarded, 32 went to pigeons. One famous pigeon recipient was called White Vision. She received a Dickin Medal after delivering an important message under "exceptionally difficult conditions", leading to the rescue of an RAF aircrew in October 1943.

A Catalina plane had crash-landed in the Hebrides at 8.20am, in very bad weather, when visibility was almost zero because of a thick mist, hampering the rescue operation. Both sea and air searches were unsuccessful due to the weather, but at 5pm in the afternoon, White Vision arrived at her pigeon loft, carrying a vital message that contained the exact position of the stricken aircraft.

The search began again in earnest. The amazing White Vision flew more than 60 miles, over stormy seas, against a 25-mph headwind and with very poor visibility, yet she battled on, returning safely and enabling the crew to be saved.

Without the amazing efforts of the war pigeons, many more lives would have been lost in both the first and second world wars.


We will remember them

On 11th November, the Henry Cowls team will be observing the 2-minute silence as a mark of our respect for the war heroes. We will always remember them.

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