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Army Pigeon Service

Discussion in 'War44 General Forums' started by Jim, Sep 6, 2010.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    At the billet the birds of the Army Pigeon Service have their individual well appointed quarters. Here they are rested after a “lesson” and their flights; it is also here where the young are reared.

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    Only a baby, but in the course of a few months this young pigeon, seen being cared for by a Corporal of the Army Pigeon Service, will have learnt its job.

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    As in the last war it was the same during WWII, the Army Pigeon, Service provided its usefulness. The Royal Corps of Signals had its own pigeon unit each under the control of a Pigeon Officer, usually one accustomed to handling pigeons in civilian life. Most of the birds had been loaned by pigeon fanciers for the duration of the War. Carrier pigeons were used by Signals units in cases where the utmost degree of secrecy must be observed, and also in emergencies when radio communication was impossible and other means of signalling had broken down. They would fly round storms or over heavy concentrations of gas, they never stopped for' a meal, though if very thirsty they would have come down to take a drink of water they have spotted from the air. A good homer flew at the speed of 40 mph, though exceptionally a bird could cover 60 miles in an hour’s flight. Pigeons were used during the siege of Paris in 1870, and during the Great War both French and British maintained an excellent pigeon service on the Western Front; the first birds were sent across the Channel from England in March 1916…

    Off they go! Taken some distance from their billets, the pigeons are released from the basket; and at once they set out on the homeward journey. A good homer could cover 40 miles in an hour.

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    Messages were carried in little metal cylinders which (as seen in this photograph) were attached to the pigeon's leg.

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  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Carrier Pigeons Are Saving Men’s Lives

    Not the least of the many remarkable facts given in this article told in 1943 by J M Michaelson is that there were probably not less than a quarter of a million carrier pigeons serving with the airmen and soldiers. Many had been wounded, many killed; but these gallant birds were maintaining a fine record of devoted service.

    Three lines in the newspapers recently announced the arrival of a draft of pigeons at an African base for the Middle East pigeon service. They have gone to reinforce the Army Carrier Pigeon Post which has done great work with the Eighth Army in North Africa. Specially trained men of the Royal Corps of Signals have worked with mobile lofts, and the birds have flown as truly and faithfully in the desert as in the more temperate climate of their English birthplace. Many have fallen victims to shells and bullets in the air and on the ground, and it is no doubt to replace these as well as to meet the needs of an expanding army that the reinforcements have gone out. All the ingenuity of inventors has not made the carrier pigeon, one of the oldest methods of speedy long distance communication obsolete. Telegraph and telephone wires can be cut, wireless transmitters can be damaged and in any case, do not ensure secrecy But the carrier pigeon will take a message quickly and secretly over a distance up to several hundred miles with almost unerring certainty. It was found that only five per cent of the many thousands of messages sent by pigeon in the First Great War failed to arrive. The greatest enemy of the carrier pigeon is really bad weather. The homing instinct is so powerful that birds will struggle home against wind and rain, even if they fall dead in the loft. But sometimes they are beaten, and even in peacetime pigeon races a percentage of birds were lost through bad conditions. The most recent development of the Carrier Pigeon Post Service is with parachute troops. The pigeons, in special containers that prevent them being harmed, are dropped with the men, and can be immediately released with news of the landing or other operations. Here again they have the great advantage of secrecy, as wireless might reveal to the enemy the position of troops whose landing was still unknown to him.

    Special container in which he carries a pigeon for taking messages forms part of this parachute trooper's equipment.

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    The other enemies of the pigeon are hawks of various kinds, not very serious, and men with guns on the ground, whether enemy or friendly. The “friendly” man with a gun is usually a careless sportsman or a man with "trigger itch" who must shoot at anything that moves. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the greatest care should be taken in shooting at pigeons to make sure first that they are not carriers. They are easy to distinguish. The wood pigeon is grey with a white ring round its neck The carrier is light brown, blue or red and white. The carrier flies on a straight course and does not even deviate at a man with a gun, whereas every experienced shot knows that a wood pigeon will swerve away at anything strange on the ground. The carrier rarely alights to rest or feed It is also a smaller bird. There is really no excuse for mistaking the bird that is carrying a vital message for the pest of the countryside. But the error is made only too frequently, and casualties from guns in our own country are far heavier than from enemy action. Every person who goes shooting should know that thousands of carrier pigeons are flying over Britain every day. They are training, carrying messages between the various headquarters or from aircraft or raiding parties round the coast. It is a crime to shoot a carrier and, I suppose, the average man when he finds he has made a "mistake" almost instinctively buries the evidence of his "crime." But by doing this he may imperil operations and lives. Anyone who shoots a carrier by accident or finds dead or injured should take it to the police immediately. If it was an accident, no more will be said and, in any case, the police will be more concerned with seeing the message is delivered than with anything else. Undoubtedly airmen have lost their lives through carrier pigeons being shot down and the message never delivered. When a pigeon has to fly over a battlefield there is always the chance of it being hit by bullets or splinters. But it takes a lot to kill a pigeon, and many struggle home with serious wounds. A curious fact is that they seem to take little notice of gunfire or as in the Great War of 1914-1918, clouds of gas …

    The first news of the Dieppe raid last August was brought to Britain by a carrier pigeon. For reasons of secrecy, it was inadvisable to use wireless, and two pigeons were set free on Dieppe beach, each with the first news of the operations. One pigeon was almost immediately shot down, but the other, Beachcomber, flew through the hail of fire and reached H.Q. It averaged 50 mph. Beachcomber was bred by Mr. E. King of Ipswich. There have been many instances of birds being badly wounded and living to fly home. Most famous of First Great War pigeons, Mocker, lost an eye by a shell fragment in the Battle of the Argonne in 1918, but delivered the message and lived for another 20 years! An R.A.F. pigeon named Sam was "mentioned in dispatches" for courage when wounded in a Halifax bomber over Berlin. A shell fragment penetrated the metal container and tore the bird's beak, but Sam behaved well while being given first aid and will be on operations again soon. Coastal Command aircraft have all carried pigeons since the outbreak of war.

    Sam, carrier pigeon attached to a Halifax bomber was wounded in an R.A.F. raid over Berlin A piece of A.A. metal pierced his canister and tore his beak. He is seen here shown with the damaged canister.

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    The success of the pigeon service led later to birds being carried on all bombers, and thousands are now engaged on this active service. Many pigeons, of course, make operational flights without even spreading their wings. They are not released except in emergency. Some have made up to 80 flights in aircraft, and are still fit and working. Others have been unlucky and killed or wounded severely by shell fragments while in the plane. A typical incident showing the work of the birds with aircraft resulted in a bird called Winkie being awarded a bronze plaque. A Beaufort was forced down in the sea. As the crew scrambled into the dinghy, the wireless operator picked up the cage containing two pigeons. Somehow in the confusion one got away before a message had been attached. The other was released a few minutes later with a message giving the position. The bird carrying the message did not reach home. Perhaps it was shot down; perhaps it succumbed to the weather. But the first bird reached its loft. When its owner, summoned by the tinkling of the bell rung automatically as a pigeon alights, found there was no message, he telephoned the number of the pigeon to the nearest R.A.F. station. They quickly identified the aircraft which had carried it, already overdue. Some clever calculating of the aircraft's probable course and the time of arrival of the pigeon resulted in an approximate area being marked on the map. Reconnaissance aircraft very soon spotted the dinghy; and less than 24 hours after the accident the crew were safely ashore. Many thousands of pigeons were "demobbed" after the First Great War, but the R.A.F. maintained a nucleus of birds through the years of peace, and they did good work; in bringing aid to disabled planes. How many pigeons are now in service can only be guessed, but the number available is probably not less than 250,000. Early in 1939, when the threat of war began to loom, the 50,000 British pigeon fanciers (including H.M. the King, who has fine lofts at Sandringham) offered their birds to the War and Air Ministries through the National Homing Union. Young pigeons are hatched in the spring, but require careful and expert training before they are reliable "homers." The present extensive pigeon service would have been quite impossible without the help of thousands of enthusiastic amateurs.
     
  3. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Astonishing developments were taking place in the Army Pigeon Service. Robert De Witt tells how battle training and the provision of parachutes for the nimble carrier pigeon were increasing the usefulness of these birds, indispensable when wireless or other method of communication was lacking or could not be employed.

    The report below was first published in 1943.


    A small group of British soldiers is Isolated behind the enemy lines. Completely cut off from their main unit, a shell has smashed their portable wireless set; so no one knows of their plight. If food and supplies can be got through to them, they can hold out and act as a vicious thorn in the side of the stubbornly retreating enemy; otherwise, the men are finished. How to send a message giving their location is perplexing them. A." runner" would have little chance.

    Overhead, an Army Cooperation plane appears. They signal to it, and in response a black object falls out. After falling a few feet the object is seen as a miniature parachute. Down it comes, with its little container. In a few minutes the soldiers have reached the container, opened it and found a pigeon, a little surprised, perhaps, but quite ready to do its duty and fly home. In a few seconds a message giving their exact position and stating what is required has been written on the thin paper inside the small red container clipped to one of the pigeon’s legs.

    One of the men throws the bird into the air, and after a preliminary circle it begins to fly straight to its home at the base. It can travel at sixty miles an hour, and within the hour those vital supplies may be on their way to the isolated men.

    That is a typical incident of developments in the Army Pigeon Service. In spite of wireless and many other types of signalling, there are still occasions in modern war when only a carrier pigeon can get a message through. It is impossible, of course, for every small unit to carry pigeons into battle, therefore the Pigeon Service has worked out with Army Cooperation aircraft this method of dropping the birds where they may be required.

    These pigeons were part of a crew flying on a Berlin raid in a Lancaster bomber.

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    The diminutive parachute and the container have been specially designed for the job. The container, is made of corrugated cardboard, in the shape of a barrel, and is complete with a door; the birds food, the Army. Pigeon Service calls the outfit “bed and breakfast” is in a trough hooked on the door, of its temporary home.

    Another type of container is intended specially for use over or near water. It is waterproofed, and divided diagonally so that two pigeons can be "packed." If it is dropped in water, it floats, and the pigeons can be taken out after some time without any danger of their having had a wetting. Pigeons cannot fly if their wings have become wet, a difficulty sometimes experienced when a plane lands in the sea and the crew want to use their birds,

    The Army Pigeon Service has made great advances in these matters since the start of the war, when thousands of birds were mobilised from the lofts of amateur pigeon fanciers who volunteered to cooperate. Some of these advances remain secret, but it can be revealed that pigeons are now training under battle conditions in much the same way as the men who will use them. They are accustomed to the sound of aircraft and explosive by having planes dive at them and, by fire crackers exploded near.

    Advances have been made in training pigeons to fly after the sun has set. The instinct to alight and roost with the failing light is stronger even than the homing instinct, and it has always been taken for granted that pigeons would stop flying at sundown. But even before the war experiments were conducted at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in breeding and training pigeons that would fly by night. The experiments were along the lines both of selection in breeding and "conditioning" the young pigeons. For instance, their cages were darkened during the day and only lighted at feeding time in the morning and evening. They were let out for short periods at dusk, and when they arrived on the alighting board alight was automatically switched on. The length of flights made in conditions of light that would have sent the average pigeon to roost was gradually increased, and when secrecy descended on the experiments successful night flights of some miles had been reported. They represented a tremendous triumph of patience. The value of pigeons able to carry messages by night is very great.

    The stamina and skill of carrier pigeons need no emphasis to the thousands of fanciers in Britain. But, this war has provided some outstanding examples. One of the pigeons attached to a headquarters in England struggled home more than 55 miles after having been hit in the air. The agonising journey, made with a gaping wound in its side, took the bird six hours instead of the usual 70 minutes or so. Only death will make a trained carrier give up. Pigeons which have been hurt or have made exhausting journeys are given special medical treatment, convalescence and "sick leave." Some time ago one named Faithful was just getting fit again when an urgent call came for a reliable pigeon to accompany a plane on a difficult mission. Faithful was sent. The plane came down with its wireless broken. Dispatched with a message, Faithful flew 150 miles in good time.

    Capturing a pigeon that has landed on a cruiser.

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    Pigeons seem to enjoy flying in aircraft, but when there is trouble they are as liable to "shock" and fatigue as human beings. They are then, taken off operations and given a rest. One given leave recently, named Bronzey, had been on 199 R.A.F. operations before the Halifax it was in caught fire, and Bronzey, although unhurt, showed symptoms of shock.

    Known officially as Squadron-Leader, Snow White, a carrier pigeon belonging to an Australian Lancaster squadron has more war flights to her credit than 90 per cent of the R.A.F. bomber crews: Her luck in over 100 operations has been so remarkable that there is always a rush to get her after briefing.

    Her airman keeper says "Snow White has bags of air sense, and always knows when an operation is pending long before we do she gets quite excited in her cage." During a recent night raid on Berlin, Snow White laid an egg, “an occurrence which happens fairly often over enemy territory.”

    When a carrier pigeon was released in Scotland to fly to London it flew instead to Holland and was captured there by the Dutch patriots, says Vrij Nederland, Dutch newspaper published in London. It was released by them and it returned to its owner in Scotland, who discovered an unintelligible message fastened to its leg. The message was passed on to the authorities and turned out to be a code message to the Dutch Government in England. First news of the Dieppe raid, in August 1944, reached Britain by pigeon, security demanded wireless silence during some phases of that expedition. In any large scale operations against the Continent carrier pigeons would be likely to play an important part, taking news from small units to headquarters. Many of these pigeons work from the lofts of their owners, amateur fanciers who breed and train for the services. The owners have to keep a twenty-four hour watch on their lofts, when a pigeon is out on a mission. They get two pence each time one of their pigeons flies for the Army.
     
  4. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Canadian Airman With Boxes Containing Carrier Pigeons

    A Canadian airman with boxes containing carrier pigeons used by downed bomber crews to send emergency signals for rescuers to come to their aid. Using the pigeons in such incidents helped the rescuers go straight to the airmens downed location.

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  5. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Men from the German signals battalion of a motorised division during the invasion of France, complete with pigeons!

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