Pigeons played a relatively unknown part in the Second World War’s incredible history. Today, most people consider them rats with wings and disease carriers. But these birds had a set of natural abilities because of which they were used as messengers by allied troops as well as the German enemy. And they became critical to the outcome of war.
Their natural athleticism makes them ideal messengers. A pigeon’s heart can beat 600 times a minute. They are designed for enormously long distance and are truly the long distance athletes of the bird world. Most of their weight is taken up by their flight muscles attached to the breast bone. Pigeons can beat their wings up to ten times per second. This gives them explosive speed that can be maintained for hours. With winds behind them, pigeons can fly up to 60 miles per hour. But most importantly pigeons have a talent that makes them incredibly reliable couriers. You can take them anywhere and they will navigate back to their home.
Pigeons played such an important role during the war that an animal medal was created known as the dicken medal. Its equivalent to the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross. Ducks won 18 dickens medals, horses won three but 32 dicken medals were won by pigeons alone.
World War II was not the first time when pigeon’s abilities were recognized. Genghis Khan used pigeons to communicate across the seas and Julius Ceaser sent news of his military conquest by the speedy messenger pigeons. During World WarI, military pigeons were used on a massive scale. The First World War was mainly fought on landline telephones or telegraph. They were easily cut and broken. Wireless and radio was very primitive. The pigeons however could be taken forward in a trench and released. Over two hundred thousand pigeons were used successfully to bring important information back from the front line. But at the end of the war, both UK and the US decide to shut their pigeon services in order to save money. The Germans however aren’t so foolish and they realized that pigeons were useful and kept them going all through the 20’s and the 30’s.
Story of Winkie – The Brave Pigeon
A British bomber crashed in the North Sea after. One of the bomber engines failed and as it headed towards the sea, the crew’s radio operator just has time to send a SOS message. In the radio room at their base, in Scotland, they received the SOS but nothing more. The impact had destroyed the radio equipment. They couldn’t locate the crash site. They didn’t even know if the people in the plane were still alive. But somehow the crew did survive and Winkie was thrown free from the wreckage and set out, about 120 miles is the distance from the wreckage and her loft. A rescue boat was dispatched but had little chances of finding the crew. The search area covered a hundred thousand miles of sea. The crew had only one chance for survival. Winkie had to provide the crew with information to narrow down the search area, but the odds were stacked against her. Winkie made it, arriving at her loft just after dawn, the following morning. Winkie was greeted by the sergeant at her loft but noted that her condition was far from good, covered in oil and fuel and looking very fatigue. The sergeant called the rescue headquarters. They analyzef the time it must have taken for the pigeon to fly and due to the condition of the bird, they sent air sea rescue teams and thanks to the extraordinary pigeon Winkie, the found the downed crew and rescued them. Winkie was the first pigeon to win the animal Victoria Cross, the Dicken Medal.
When the United stated joined the War, they brought with them thousands of armored vehicles, weapons and troops. They also brought pigeons which were trained to fly back to their airbases. One of these pigeons G.I.JOE was responsible for one of the outstanding rescue missions in the entire war. In one short flight, his message saves the lives of almost 1000 allied troops.
Story of G.I.JOE
G.I. Joe, Pigeon No USA 43 SC 6390, Date of award: August 1946 The story from Italy, where the United States army forces were going to carry out a bombing raid and in fact they were just about to bomb a town in northern Italy which was occupied by the British soldiers. But the British soldiers had arrived early and the Germans had already surrendered without a fight. The British tried to radio the US Airbase to cancel the raid but they realized that all their radios had failed. There were almost a thousand soldiers there. They were not able to get the message to stop the bomber raid coming in and could have died in the American raid. The town was about 20 miles from the airbase and the raid was to commence in the next 20 minutes. They had only one hope of getting the message to the US base and that was G.I.JOE. They got the message there on time; G.I.JOE had to fly the whole way at a speed of 60 miles per hour, a pigeon’s top speed. If he had failed, the American bombers would unwillingly have killed about a thousand British soldiers. G.I.JOE managed to fly those 20 miles in 20 minutes. The bombing aircrafts were literally on the runway, ready for takeoff for their bombing missions. The raid was aborted and over thousand lives were saved by the actions of G.I.JOE. His body still occupies a place of honor at the US Army museum, New Jersey.
The Falcons of Germany – Pigeon Killers
The Germans realized how important the pigeons had become to the allied troops. They unleashed a natural pigeon killing machine, The Peregrine Falcon. A full scale war of the birds was unleashed. No better weapon was available to destroy the pigeons than the Peregrine Falcon. The Germans breaded them as a part of major defense system targeting allied pigeons returning to Britain. Germans flew them from nests from the occupied territories in Belgium, France and Holland. Many British and American pigeons were brought down by the ruthless killer. At speed up to 200 miles per hour, they could spot a pigeon a mile away. The pigeon is only about one third the size of the falcon. All those abilities indicated that the Falcon usually comes out victorious but not always.
The Story of Mary the Exeter
In 1942, after weeks of intensive training, Mary the Exeter was sent on a mission into France. On her return, Mary was wounded in a Falcon attack. Somehow she survived and managed to deliver her message. Mary became the star of the National pigeon service. Mary was given 22 stitches on her chest and sent back to the frontline. Over and over she braved the falcons and they just couldn’t stop her getting through. She came back again and again with injuries, recovered and went back again.
As the war progressed, German Falcons killed many brave pigeons. And the Falcons threat didn’t end there. In the British coastline there were wild falcons doing the job just as well.
The Pigeon Espionage
Britain took drastic measures and killed the Falcons that were in their coastline which turned out to be fatal. German spy’s had penetrated Britain and were using their own pigeons back in the German towns and the British had decimated their only line of defense. So the British started restocking their Falcon colonies again. Not only were they breeding them again but they were also training them to become ruthless killers. The British Falcons were being especially trained to resist their natural instincts. The aim of the training was to get back the pigeons and not eat them. This training paid off and the Falcons were bringing enemy pigeons and more importantly, their messages back to the base. Getting hold of these messages was to lead one of the most intriguing phases in the war of the birds. This attracted the attention of the secret service. The key was to understand the types of capsules the Germans were using. The German pigeon service released two pigeons in the North Sea and the British actually caught them and the British had two German pigeons as the prisoners of war. Now the British started using their own pigeons, replacing the German pigeons but using the German capsules and stamping German pigeons war on their arms making them the undercover pigeons. Those birds were then dropped into occupied territories. Being poor flies they did not have the stamina to fly back long route home so they w instinctively sought to join local pigeons, thereby infiltrating the German pigeon service. The Germans would send those undercover British pigeons on missions into England. Once released, they would not return to Germany with their messages but to their original British lofts. So vital information felled into allied hands.
Declassified documents detailing lists of the secret service department showed that a division of British intelligence was setup to deal with pigeon matters. It was called M.I.14. The intelligence agency recruited the very best pigeons from the top breeders. The incredible navigational skills of the pigeons were a vital component in their ability to act as intelligence gatherers. It allowed Winkie, Marie of Exeter and G.I.JOE to deliver important messages that saved many lives.
Now science has an answer for all this and suggests that the humble pigeon is one of the most sophisticated navigators in the animal kingdom. No matter where they are released from, they always manage to fly back home. The last few years the GPS has become small enough to be put on a pigeon. The GPS device allows scientists to record very accurately the position of the bird and when the pigeon comes home, they can download the information onto a computer and they can analyze it. The GPS data revealed that pigeons don’t actually fly back home on a straight line. The pigeons used landmarks they recognize like roads and buildings. With extremely good memories, they memorize their routes as they fly.
But Winkie and Mary of Exeter flew up an ocean with no recognizable landmarks. Further research has shown that pigeons use a combination of techniques to find their way. They use the sun as compass to navigate their way back home. But sun shines only during the day. Research has shown that pigeons have built in magnetic compass to find their way. So from unfamiliar places and long distances, the pigeons can use the earth’s magnetic field to return to their homes. Modern experiments with birds navigating in different lightning condition suggest that they may be seeing the earth’s magnetic field through their eyes. That’s possible because the things that allow them to see are also sensitive to magnetism.
The pigeon is the one that was able to get the message through when all technologies failed during the war. The brave pigeons whose stories; Winkie, G.I.JOE and Mary of Exeter are amongst the 32 World War II pigeons who were awarded with the Dicken Medal, a lasting tribute to their memory.