Bringing 95 Vintage Aircraft to Life
Home  -  Articles  -  Pigeons at War the RAF and the National Pigeon Service

Pigeons at War
the RAF and the National Pigeon Service


During the First World War carrier pigeons played a crucial role in delivering messages from the front line. During World War 2 pigeons were again called upon and one of their roles saw them become part of a bomber crew, and many would play a vital role in the rescuing of downed Allied air crew, with a number winning the PDSA Dickin Medal as a result of their actions.

Contents
National Pigeon Service
Pigeons? Check
Royal Blue
Winkie
White Vision
Memorials & Exhibits
Dickin Medal & Winners
Useful Resources

National Pigeon Service

Formed during February 1939 the National Pigeon Service Committee originally had three members, all leading pigeon fanciers, and a secretary, who was also secretary of the International Pigeon Board. This was soon increased by a further four members to bring the total to seven. The NPS was then split up into seven military areas: Western, Southern, Eastern, Southern Eastern, Scottish, Northern and Northern Ireland with one committee member in charge of each area.

Membership was offered to pigeon fanciers who had a minimum of 20 pigeons in their lofts which were trained and bred as homing pigeons and met the standards laid down by the committee. Once membership was approved the pigeon fanciers were expected to provide their services and pigeons as and when needed. November 1939 would see the arrival of the first pigeons to serve operationally with the Royal Air Force. For each service flight the pigeon made 4D (66p today) was paid to the member whose pigeon it was.

So vital were these pigeons that along Britain's coast a programme of culling birds of prey occurred to further aid the chances of the message it was carrying getting through. Posters were also put up to tell people not to shoot these birds.

In total over 200,000 pigeons served with the National Pigeon Service in all military branches and some civil services.

Gustav receives his PDSA Dickin Medal from Mrs AV Alexander, with Wing Commander Lea Rayner and Corporal Randall. 17th November 1944. © PDSA

Pigeons? Check

With the Royal Air Force receiving improved aircraft during the 1930s they were able to conduct operations further than before and for longer. The issue now arose that in case of emergency could a crew get a message back so a search mission could be made to find them? As long as the aircraft was above 5,000 ft any emergency transmission should get through. Below this it was unlikely to and if the aircraft had ditched in the water or force-landed it would most likely put the radio out of action. In the event that the radio did still work there was the issue during war time that a message being transmitted could be picked up by the enemy so radio silence was essential and another method of communication was needed.

The solution for this came in the shape of the RAF's Pigeon Service, each reconnaissance and bomber aircraft would have a pair of homing pigeons aboard in a specially constructed water tight basket. So in the event of a ditching or force landing of an aircraft the crew's location was written down on a piece of paper and put into a canister attached to the pigeon's leg. Different coloured canisters were used depending on the service using the pigeons. The RAF used three variations blue, blue with a white patch and blue with a coloured disk. The pigeon was then released and would return to its loft where the message was given “urgent priority” and sent to the Air Ministry by the Postal Authorities as a telegram. Once received a search and rescue mission would get underway.

Whilst one of the major factors for using homing pigeons was their ability to find their home loft wherever they were, their speed and range were also impressive. With an average speed of 50 mph it made it almost impossible for them to be shot down by ground troops. So the Germans turned to birds of prey to attack and stop the birds getting their message delivered. The range of a homing pigeon was around 300 miles so a bird whose loft was in the East of England could be released in parts of France, Holland, Belgium, the North Sea and the English Channel. At this distance the birds had a success rate of over 86% and in some cases flew further providing their crews with a chance of being rescued and many aircrew would, thanks to these brave birds.

W/O MacKinnon holds his B-24 Liberator's two carrier pigeons, RAF Coastal Command. © ww2images.com

Royal Blue

The first pigeon to deliver a message from a downed aircraft on the continent was one with a royal pedigree. This was Royal Blue who came from the royal lofts. He flew 120 miles in 4 hours and 10 minutes on the 10th October 1940 after the aircraft he was on had been forced to make a landing in occupied Holland. Delivering his message with the aircrew's whereabouts he was awarded the Dickin Medal in March 1945.

Royal Blue receiving his Dickin Medal. © PDSA

Winkie

The first pigeon to receive the Dickin Medal was Winkie, she served with No. 42 Squadron, RAF Leuchars and with a number of sorties already completed it would be for her actions on the 23rd February 1942 that earned her the award.

On this day the Bristol Beaufort she was on was returning from a sortie over Norway where it had been subject to flack and damaged. Whilst trying to return to their home base the plane was to badly damaged and ditched into the North Sea. As a result of the impact Winkie's cage opened and her instincts kicked in and she flew the 120 miles home. When she returned to her loft covered in oil and exhausted she didn't have a message detailing the crew's location. Despite this the Royal Air Force were able to work out where the aircraft could be by the birds time of arrival and other factors which enabled the crew of four to be rescued.

To show their appreciation a dinner was held by No. 42 Squadron with Winkie the guest of honour.

Winkie the pigeon with PDSA founder Maria Dickin. © PDSA

White Vision

One of the very first winners of the Dickin Medal was White Vision, she was serving with No. 190 Squadron, Sullom Voe, Shetland Islands when on the 11th October 1943 the Consolidated PBY Catalina she was in had to ditch in the North Sea. With the radio of the aircraft out of action and other aircraft unable to see the crew due to bad visibility, which was down to 100 yards, a message detailing the crew's location was sealed in her leg canister. White Vision was then released and flying against a formidable headwind she arrived back at her loft.

With the details of the crew's location the search was underway again and after 18 hours in the North Sea all eleven members of the crew were finally rescued.

White Vision. © PDSA

Memorials & Exhibits

There is a dedicated national memorial to the role pigeons played in World War 2 at Beach House Park in Worthing. This takes the form of a garden, complemented by information boards, which has two stones each with an inscription. The left stone has the following carved into it “In memory of warrior birds who gave their lives on active service 1939 – 45 and for the use and pleasure of living birds.” whilst the right stone has “For a bird of the air shall carry the voice and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” carved into it.

In addition to the national memorial there are two Animals in War memorials that commemorate the role of the pigeon. One can be found in Park Lane, London with the other found in Eastriggs, Scotland.

Located around the United Kingdom are a small number of exhibits related to the use of pigeons in war. Bletchley Park is home to the Royal Pigeon Racing Associations display and the Cornwall at War Museum has some dioramas to compliment its display. Whilst the McManus Galleries in Dundee focuses on Winkie the pigeon and the D-Day Story Museum in Portsmouth on Gustav the pigeon.

The vital role the pigeon could play in a crew's rescue was shown in Bomber Crew (2017) where having the bird aboard increased the crew's survival chances. © Bomber Crew Game

Dickin Medal & Winners

Dickin Medal

During the Second World War, as in previous conflicts, a variety of animals were used by all branches of the armed forces. The founder of the PDSA Maria Dickin was inspired by the feats of bravery many of these animals performed. So in 1943 the Dickin Medal was born with the first one awarded on the 2nd December 1943. These would be given to animals serving either in civil defence or the armed forces for “Conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in military conflict”. Today the award is considered a “Victoria Cross” for animals.

The medal itself is bronze and has a ribbon of three colours, sky blue, dark brown and green to signify each service, air force, land and naval. With the words “For gallantry” and “We also serve” inscribed.

Listed below are all 32 pigeons who have been awarded a Dickin Medal.
Reproduced with permission from the PDSA.

White Vision (SURP.41.L.3089)
Date of award - 2nd December 1943
“For delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew while serving with the RAF in October 1943.”

Winkie (NEHU.40.NS.1)
Date of award - 2nd December 1943
“For delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew while serving with the RAF in February, 1942.”

Tyke (also known as George) (Number 1263 MEPS 43)
Date of award - 2nd December 1943
“For delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew, while serving with the RAF in the Mediterranean in June, 1943.”

Beach Comber (NPS.41.NS.4230)
Date of award - 6th March 1944
“For bringing the first news to this country of the landing at Dieppe, under hazardous conditions in September, 1942, while serving with the Canadian Army.”

Gustav (NPS.41.NS.4230)
Date of award - 1st September 1944
“For delivering the first message from the Normandy Beaches from a ship off the beach-head while serving with the RAF on 6th June 1944.”

Paddy (NPS.43.9451)
Date of award - 1st September 1944
“For the best recorded time with a message from the Normandy Operations, while serving with the RAF in June, 1944.”

Kenley Lass (NURP.36.JH.190)
Date of award - March 1945
“For being the first pigeon to be used with success for secret communications from an Agent in enemy-occupied France while serving with the NPS in October 1940.”

Navy Blue (NPS.41.NS.2862)
Date of award - March 1945
“For delivering an important message from a Raiding Party on the West Coast of France, although injured, while serving with the RAF in June, 1944."

Flying Dutchman (NURP.41. A.2164)
Date of award - March 1945
“For successfully delivering messages from Agents in Holland on three occasions. Missing on fourth mission, while serving with the RAF in 1944.”

Dutch Coast (NPS.42.NS.44802)
Date of award - March 1945
“For delivering an SOS from a ditched Air Crew close to the enemy coast 288 miles distance in 7½ hours, under unfavourable conditions, while serving with the RAF in April 1942.”

Commando (NURP.38.EGU.242)
Date of award - March 1945
“For successfully delivering messages from Agents in Occupied France on three occasions: twice under exceptionally adverse conditions, while serving with the NPS in 1942.”

Royal Blue (NURP.40.GVIS.453)
Date of award - March 1945
“For being the first pigeon in this war to deliver a message from a forced landed aircraft on the Continent while serving with the RAF in October, 1940.”

Ruhr Express (NPS.43.29018)
Date of award - May 1945
“For carrying an important message from the Ruhr Pocket in excellent time, while serving with the RAF in April, 1945.”

William of Orange (NPS.42.NS.15125)
Date of award - May 1945
“For delivering a message from the Arnheim Airborne Operation in record time for any single pigeon, while serving with the APS in September 1944.”

Scotch Lass (NPS.42.21610)
Date of award - June 1945
“For bringing 38 microphotographs across the North Sea in good time although injured, while serving with the RAF in Holland in September 1944.”

Billy (NU.41.HQ.4373)
Date of award - August 1945
“For delivering a message from a force-landed bomber, while in a state of complete collapse and under exceptionally bad weather conditions, while serving with the RAF in 1942.”

GI Joe with its Dickin Medal. © PDSA

Broad Arrow (41.BA.2793)
Date of award - October 1945
“For bringing important messages three times from enemy occupied country, viz: May 1943, June 1943 and August 1943, while serving with the Special Service from the Continent.”

Pigeon (NPS.42.NS.2780)
Date of award - October 1945
“For bringing important messages three times from enemy occupied country, viz: July 1942, August 1942 and April 1943, while serving with the Special Service from the Continent.”

Pigeon (NPS.42.NS.7524)
Date of award - October 1945
“For bringing important messages three times from enemy-occupied country, viz: July 1942, May 1943 and July 1943, while serving with the Special Service from the continent.”

Maquis (NPSNS.42.36392)
Date of award - October 1945
“For bringing important messages three times from enemy occupied country, viz: May 1943 (Amiens) February, 1944 (Combined Operations) and June, 1944 (French Maquis) while serving with the Special Service from the Continent.”

Mary (NURP.40.WCE.249)
Date of award - November 1945
"For outstanding endurance on War Service in spite of wounds."

Tommy (NURP.41.DHZ56)
Date of award - February 1946
“For delivering a valuable message from Holland to Lancashire under difficult conditions, while serving with NPS in July 1942.”

All Alone (NURP.39.SDS.39)
Date of award - February 1946
“For delivering an important message in one day over a distance of 400 miles, while serving with the NPS in August, 1943.”

Princess (42WD593)
Date of award - May 1946
“Sent on special mission to Crete, this pigeon returned to her loft (RAF Alexandria) having travelled about 500 miles mostly over sea, with most valuable information. One of the finest performances in the war record of the Pigeon Service.”

Mercury (NURP.37.CEN.335)
Date of award - August 1946
“For carrying out a special task involving a flight of 480 miles from Northern Denmark while serving with the Special Section Army Pigeon Service in July 1942.”

Pigeon (NURP.38.BPC.6.)
Date of award - August 1946
“For three outstanding flights from France while serving with the Special Section, Army Pigeon Service, 11th July 1941, 9th September 1941, and 29th November 1941.”

GI Joe (USA43SC6390)
Date of award - August 1946
“This bird is credited with making the most outstanding flight by a USA Army Pigeon in World War II. Making the 20 mile flight from British 10th Army HQ, in the same number of minutes, it brought a message which arrived just in time to save the lives of at least 100 Allied soldiers from being bombed by their own planes.”

Duke of Normandy (NURP.41.SBC.219)
Date of award - 8th January 1947
“For being the first bird to arrive with a message from Paratroops of 21st Army Group behind enemy lines on D Day 6th June, 1944, while serving with APS.”

Pigeon (NURP.43.CC.1418)
Date of award - 8th January 1947
“For the fastest flight with message from 6th Airborne Div. Normandy, 7th June, 1944, while serving with APS.”

Pigeon - Australian Army Signal Corps (NURP.43.CC.1418)
Date of award - February 1947
“During a heavy tropical storm this bird was released from Army Boat 1402 which had foundered on Wadou Beach in the Huon Gulf. Homing 40 miles to Madang it brought a message which enabled a rescue ship to be sent in time to salvage the craft and its valuable cargo of stores and ammunition.”

Pigeon - Australian Army Signal Corps (DD.43.Q.879)
Date of award - February 1947
“During an attack by Japanese on a US Marine patrol on Manus Island, pigeons were released to warn headquarters of an impending enemy counter-attack. Two were shot down but DD43 despite heavy fire directed at it reached HQ with the result that enemy concentrations were bombed and the patrol extricated.”

Cologne (NURP39.NPS.144)
Date of award - unknown
“For homing from a crashed aircraft over Cologne although seriously wounded, while serving with the RAF in 1943.”

Useful Resources

Listed below are a number of websites providing further information about the use of pigeons during wartime.

Detailed history of the National Pigeon Service
How Homing Pigeons Find Their Way Home
Pigeon Service Manual
Thank you letter from the War Office for providing pigeons
The Amazing Wartime Feats of Carrier Pigeons
The Incredible Carrier Pigeons of the First World War

Back to articles









Tags Spitfire Grumman Messerschmitt Hawker Bristol North American Avro Curtiss Fairey




NEW ON CLASSIC WARBIRDS

Spitfire Floatplane

Messerschmitt Bf 109

Gloster Gauntlet (R)

Gloster Gladiator (R)

Supermarine Spiteful (R)




Feedback





Back to the top