It is well known that many animals were involved in wars, mostly because they were considered suited for sacrifice, a sacrifice needed for the salvation of human lives. In this background, thousands of horses and mules died in all sorts of situations: due to incredible effort combined with starvation or in direct combat. Even dogs were deployed in wars, during WW1 as messengers and during WW2 as live bombs, used by the Soviets in the anti-tank warfare.
But our story is related to another kind of animals, probably less known and also hard to spot: pigeons.
Pigeons, connecting people
Pigeons played a vital role during the world wars. They are easy to train, agile, fast, perfect for military messengers and courier missions. Therefore, pigeons were used especially for communication. They carried messages between the lines, being trained to return to a predestined spot, where specialized soldiers (for example the British Signal Corps unit) received the capsule containing the message.
We must consider that before radio communications, pigeons were a common method for transmitting messages, not only in a military context. Cyrus, the King of Persia, used pigeons in the 6th century BC to send a message in all the areas of his empire. Also, Julius Caesar used carrier pigeons, as reported in many documents and texts from Ancient Rome.
During the Franco-Prussian War, the inhabitants of Paris used pigeons in order to send messages outside the besieged city. The fun fact is that the Prussian army confronted the situation by deploying hawks to hunt the carrier pigeons. The carrier pigeon traveled also long distances, considering that many of them were transported by balloons between London and Paris, managing to deliver more than one million messages during the city siege that lasted four months.
It was clear that the pigeons were suited for this kind of missions so, when the First World War started, they were immediately deployed in action, often managing to achieve very important results, like in the case of ”Cher Ami”.
The Pigeon Hero
Cher Ami was a carrier pigeon awarded with the French ”Croix de Guerre with Palm” for his heroic service. She managed to deliver several vital messages during the Battle of Verdun, and on her final mission, during October 1918, she managed to deliver the message despite that she was wounded (she was shot). Cher Ami saved the life of 194 US soldiers by delivering that message during her final mission.
A Sky Full of Pigeons
The trained pigeons played an important role also in the Navy, is considered essential for maintaining the communications between navy and aviation. So important that when the US carrier USS Langley was built on 20 March 1922, the ship was equipped with a pigeon house.
The involvement of homing pigeons during WW2 is somehow related to the British troops, considering that they used around 250,000 pigeons during the war. They provided communications between the lines, but they also delivered messages to specific individuals, like Joseph Raskin, who was a Belgian spy.
The UK Air Ministry was the one in charge for the actions related to the little flying carriers. They established a dedicated pigeon section, which functioned during WW2 and also after the war, but only for a while. The pigeon section from the Air Ministry was under the command of Lea Rayner, who was convinced that the pigeons could be trained to carry even small explosives or other sorts of weapons (even bioweapons) to designated targets. His idea did not pass the commission, so in 1948 the service of the UK homing pigeons was considered over. Anyway, the Swiss army ended his homing pigeon program only in 1996.
A number of 32 pigeons received the Dickin Medal, which is the highest possible decoration for valor to be awarded to animals. Among the recipients of the Dickin Medal, we remember the US Army pigeon “G.I. Joe” and the Irish pigeon “Paddy”.
Usually, the carrier pigeons were equipped with a small capsule attached to their leg or back. The capsule contained a paper with the message. It was vital to keep everything in light form, in order to do not affect the pigeon’s flight with a heavy load. The pigeons deployed in reconnaissance missions were equipped with tiny photo cameras programmed to trigger above the enemy positions.
In the 21st Century, the carrier pigeons gained a different role. Many pigeons were caught transporting prohibited goods (drugs, cell phones or money) into Brazilian prisons. Other cases are related to the pigeon’s involvement in the communications between Islamic State militants.