By Susie Kearley – Pigeons aren’t everyone’s favorite bird. Some people consider them to be pests or even vermin, but for others, pigeons are amazing creatures. Homing pigeons can fly hundreds of miles across seas and unfamiliar landscapes to find their way home. Thousands of pigeons in World War II risked their lives delivering messages, and some won medals for their heroics.
There’s a pigeon exhibition at Bletchley Park, a former WWII code-breaking center in England, that will make you see these birds in a whole new light. It tells the story of the pigeons, the biggest heroes among them, and the ones that came home injured every time but got stitched up by vets and went back out again. Some of the pigeons saved the lives of thousands of men by delivering their messages.
There were 250,000 pigeons in the National Pigeon Service during World War II. Pigeons were dispatched from the front line carrying important messages, and when they arrived home, a bell rang alerting a soldier who would retrieve the message and send it on to its destination by telegraph or private phone line. The pigeons were enemy targets, so many were killed in the line of duty. It was a risky job.
Some pigeons in World War II became well-known among the servicemen for their remarkable feats. Pigeon, ‘The Mocker’, completed 52 missions without a scratch before he was wounded. Pigeon, ‘Cher Ami’, was injured, losing her foot and one eye, but she still delivered her message and a group of American soldiers was rescued.
One of the most famous war pigeons was ‘GI Joe’ from the United States Army Pigeon Service. He saved around 1000 British soldiers by delivering an important message, which prevented a village in Italy from being bombed. In 1946, GI Joe was awarded a medal for gallantry and was credited for the most outstanding flight made by a United States Army homing pigeon in World War II.
“The Pigeons in the World War II exhibition used to belong to a man named Dan Humphreys who traveled around England with it. When he passed away, it was offered to Bletchley Park for a season. The visitors enjoyed it so much, they decided to leave it there permanently,” said Colin Hill from the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, curator of the exhibition at Bletchley Park. He’s a pigeon fanatic, who’s been keeping pigeons for 65 years!
Pigeons don’t automatically come to mind when people think about World War II.
“Many people don’t believe that the pigeons helped us win the war. They look at you like you’re a bit loopy, but when people look at the exhibits and realize what the pigeons did do during the war, they are humbled. The birds delivered important messages from the front line, or from aircraft in trouble, to military personnel back home. Our exhibition has made people realize the value of pigeons in World War II, so they show an interest in individual pigeons and what they did,” said Hill.
When the first bird traveling with an aircrew made it back to base after its plane crashed into the sea, they realized the value of having pigeons on planes. Rescue missions were sent out to pick up the crew from the freezing waters. The pigeons in World War II saved a lot of crew. But it’s also worth remembering that for every bomber plane that went down and didn’t get saved, two pigeons perished too.
“Prince Charles visited Bletchley Park and came to see the pigeon exhibition. I overheard someone saying the pigeons didn’t really do all that stuff. So I set the record straight and explained to the Prince about the pigeons in World War II and the special parachutes that were developed to drop pigeons from aircraft to troops in isolated locations on the frontline. It gave them a method of communication that could potentially save their lives,” said Hill.
Metals weren’t just for human valor during World War II, they were also awarded for heroic animal efforts. Thirty-two medals were awarded to heroic pigeons in World War II. Thirty were also given to heroic dogs and one was given to a cat that saved a ship’s captain from drowning when the ship went down.
“It fascinates me to think that pigeons in World War II flew all those miles just to bring a message home. King George VI gave a pigeon to the National Pigeon Service, which was set up during the war. His pigeon was put on a plane which was shot down on its way to Holland — two messages were put on the pigeons sending for help. The King’s bird got back to England and delivered the message, having flown 120 miles. It was a marvelous achievement for such a young pigeon, just seven months old, in the middle of a cold winter,” said Hill.
“They’re amazing birds with an average speed of 50 mph and they’ve been known to fly at 100 mph with the wind up their bottoms! We’ve had our club pigeons fly 260 miles averaging 60 mph and we’d expect them to be able to do 40 mph in all conditions. Modern-day pigeons have it easy though. We only fly them in the daytime during nice weather. During the war, they had to fly in the dark, during all weather conditions, and through a hail of bullets!” said Hill.
Homing pigeons were used during the World War II because of their natural instinct to fly home. Today they are often called racing pigeons. There are many types of pigeons, including fancy breeds, but homing pigeons are popular with many pigeon keepers, that time their flight and selectively breed them for speed and the instinct to return home.
Pigeons require a safe, dry, ventilated pigeon loft, with food, water, and grit such as crushed oyster shell and crushed granite to support their digestion. If you start keeping pigeons, you should give them plenty of time to adjust to their new environment before you start training them to fly home.
It’s a good idea to get pigeons when they’re young, because they’re less likely fly home to their previous owner, and probably haven’t been trained to do so. Learn more about training racing pigeons and other pigeon facts.