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Remembered Today:

Homing pigeons: only used for 'local' traffic in WW1


NigelS

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The use of homing pigeons for communication on WW1 battlefields is well known, but were they also used for cross-channel communications, or was the organisation such that wireless/telephone/telegraphic methods could be used for urgent messages, with anything else sent by the slower sea route? similarly, were aircraft used for sending cross-channel communications or was this considered as a waste of resources which could be put to better use?

The reason for asking is that a recent 'Flog-it' featured a painting of a champion racing pigeon that was said to have been commandered, along with others, for use in WWII, with a comment being made along the lines that when these birds returned to the loft the messages, being secret, had to be collected by an officer. (I would imagine, possibly wrongly, that with better radio communication by then, that these would have been more likely to have been messages from the resistance, SOE or similar pre D-day rather than from army units post that)

NigelS

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Pigeons were definitely used cross-channel in WW1. Offhand I don't have details. There was quite an inter-personality squabble in Military Intelligence for a lot of the war, so one part tried to stop the other knowig what they were doing.

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Hello Nigel

Clearly pigeons could have been used cross-channel (although I am not sure how their homing skills would cope with 20 miles or more of water to cross) but there were indeed telephone/telegraph connections between the War Office and GHQ (and the base ports) in France. These provided a much faster and more reliable service than pigeon post for urgent messages although the question of possible wireless interception would have been relevant.

I don't know if press correspondents and other civilians in the war zone made any use of pigeon post to get information back to London. This would have evaded the censorship, which might have jeopardised their accredited status if they were caught. If material from the front was published in the London papers which had not gone through the Army's "proper channels" I can imagine quite a few searching questions being asked of the press pack at GHQ!

And, as David says, military intelligence chaps tended to be a law unto themselves, and very secretive about their methods and what they found out.

Ron

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Hello Nigel

Clearly pigeons could have been used cross-channel (although I am not sure how their homing skills would cope with 20 miles or more of water to cross) but there were indeed telephone/telegraph connections between the War Office and GHQ (and the base ports) in France. These provided a much faster and more reliable service than pigeon post for urgent messages although the question of possible wireless interception would have been relevant.

Pigeons are not immune to interception by hawks, trigger happy farmers  (and sometime moggies if they take a rest or land in the wrong place) and to getting lost. Sending anything secret by pigeon would bear the double risk of the message never arriving and possibly being picked up by someone who shouldn't see it. The latter can be dealt with by encoding the message but this equally applies to wireless or telegraph which as you say would be faster and more certain anyway. I'm pretty sure that a combination of motorcycle courier and fast destroyer would outpace a pigeon for ultra secret and vital messages but again why not get the RFC/RAF/RNAS to fly it back?

I think I'll believe the cross channel carrier pigeon in WW1 when I see some proof

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Radio is always liable to interference and technical problems and this was much commoner in the early days. I believe pigeons were used for ship to shore and if that is true then they ought to have coped with the Channel. All that to one side, telegraph and telephone was well established across channel and I cannot see when a pigeon would have been preferred. Diplomatic and military couriers shuttled between GHQ and Paris in France and London. Train and destroyer could do the journey in hours with a great more certainty than a pigeon. 

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Not the theatre which the question referred to, but, nevertheless, illustrative of the use (and risks) of carrier pigeons in the Great War

Pigeons supplied by the Eastern Mediterranean Special Intelligence Bureau were delivered by trawler to the Nili spy ring based at Zichron Yaacov (just south of Haifa). These birds were supposed to fly back to the EMSIB at Port Said (between 100-200 miles). The spy ring was broken (with fatal consequences for many of its members) when one of the birds came down in a Turkish army camp near Caesarea in September 1917

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 I believe pigeons were used for ship to shore 

How did that work? It would only be effective if the ship did not move very far from the pigeon loft ashore (this is not in the nature of ships). The pigeons would have to remain in the loft for a week or two before being delivered to the ship otherwise they would not home in on the loft when released.

Pigeons are best used where there is no other easy means of [secret] communication (ie a spy ring as you give an example) or a forward position (or a tank). There are plenty of examples of pigeons accompanying agents when dropped and replenishment pigeons being air dropped to them (this latter was not very satisfactory and many of the birds ended up as some French or Belgian peasant farmer's dinner having arrived in the wrong place). As you have illustrated pigeons are a very uncertain way of communicating.

Using pigeons for cross channel communications might seem more likely in WW2 but years ago I met a nice lady who had spent quite a bit of WW2 in occupied France, her comments about using pigeons were uncharacteristically unprintable. The Germans made keeping pigeons an offence any where near the channel coast. You could hide a radio , a pigeon is quite difficult to conceal.

"Allo allo, this is Nighthawk speaking, the pigeons you delivered were delicious - we served them in the cafe, Lt Gruber was particularly pleased, can we order a dozen more?"

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And remember what happened to Speckled Jim!

Ron

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How did that work? ........................

Dunno, I am not a fancier. I am quoting from hazy memory which is why I said " I believe " and did not state it as a categorical fact. Pigeons raced from the continent until recently,when it was stopped for bird flu,  and the south of England to Scotland on a regular basis so the Channel ought to be no obstacle. As for ship to shore, a pigeon flies at up to 60 mph. 

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If it helps, here is an H.M. NAVAL PIGEON SERVICE form on tissue paper sent at 4.30 on July 1st 1916 to Gibraltar from a position 90 miles West of Gib. Apart from the weather report in the top right hand corner, can anyone de-cipher the message?

David.

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60 mph would be no problem to a good racer. i can`t see how pigeons would be of use in a local battlefield area as they are a homeing creature and always seek the nurturing loft. there are some sad ways of 'teaching' the birds to return quickly [as in a race]. one is to take the parents away from their young so as the parents will get back at all cost fast. much quicker than train and destroyer, france to london ?? two hours max ?? providing no hawks. ..... .

mike.

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60 mph would be no problem to a good racer. i can`t see how pigeons would be of use in a local battlefield area as they are a homeing creature and always seek the nurturing loft. there are some sad ways of 'teaching' the birds to return quickly [as in a race]. one is to take the parents away from their young so as the parents will get back at all cost fast. much quicker than train and destroyer, france to london ?? two hours max ?? providing no hawks. ..... .

mike.

Both British and French armies used mobile pigeon lofts. As I said in my earlier post they needed to  be in one location for a couple of weeks. Birds were distributed to units by dispatch riders on motorbikes (the British had a back pack that held two pigeons) or sometimes by air drop in special containers with parachutes.

There is a story of a Canadian unit air dropped six birds who ate five and used the last one to request more! I cannot vouch for its verity. German airman used the presence of a mobile loft as an indicator to the whereabouts of a headquarters. It seems the French tried to deal with this by camouflaging their mobile lofts - to the extent that the homing birds could not locate them.

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great photos! i would have thought that it would take more than weeks to have them return "home" . but i am no pigeon fancier and know no better on the subject in topic. i do have a friend who races pigeons and some of the times he records are really fast over hundreds of kilometres. its a very expensive hobby [with big prizes if your`e lucky].

mike.

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Pigeons weren't always fast, there is one instance of British tank crew whose tank broke down way out amongst hostile fire. They sent a pigeon requesting covering fire to enable them to evacuate the tank. Several hours passed with no response and eventually they managed to fight their way clear without assistance. After  a significant time spent dodging from shell hole to shell hole etc they regained the British lines and from there made they way back to their headquarters. The pigeon arrived half an hour after they did.

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On January 8, 1915, orders were issued to the First Canadian Contingent on Salisbury Plain that no pigeons should not be trapped or shot because the Admiralty was using them to carry messages.

Moonraker

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I believe pigeons were used for ship to shore and if that is true then they ought to have coped with the Channel.

Armed fishing vessels guarding fishing fleets far offshore in North Sea waters carried pigeons. I have translated passages from the KTB of a U-boat that reported seeing pigeons released as soon as it showed itself, more launched part-way through an action that lasted for over an hour, and a final flight released as the crew of the fishing boat abandoned ship.

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Pigeons weren't always fast, there is one instance of British tank crew whose tank broke down way out amongst hostile fire. They sent a pigeon requesting covering fire to enable them to evacuate the tank. Several hours passed with no response and eventually they managed to fight their way clear without assistance. After  a significant time spent dodging from shell hole to shell hole etc they regained the British lines and from there made they way back to their headquarters. The pigeon arrived half an hour after they did.

I suspect the pigeon flew very fast for the nearest cover and sat there until it was safe to come out. Then it flew very fast to get home in time for tea. 

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I always wondered how "homing" could be applied to a mobile loft, but apparently it took about three weeks or so to acclimatise the birds to a new location.

On the question of speed, an official instruction was issued that male and female birds were not to be released at the same time, as they tended not to go straight home, "pigeon nature being very similar to human nature in that respect"!

Men were also advised not to treat the birds as pets and feed them extra titbits etc, as this tended to induce them to stay put when they should have been flying home. The use of messenger dogs was relatively unsuccessful for similar reasons.

Pigeons seemed not to be too worried about the noise etc, as they couldd fly above the real danger zone for guns and shells, and apparently they were virtually immune to most of the gas as their eyes and breathing systems have significant differences from humand in that respect.

(The above is all gleaned from "The Signal Service (France)" by Major R E Priestley.)

Ron

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Just a little comment: I was browsing in a second hand bookshop this morning and saw a photo of a WW1 messenger pigeon which had been crossing the North Sea. It had an injured left eye from being shot at.

I didn't buy the book - it had a lot of photographs but no information about each one - just a very loose description such as something like "soldiers at the front" so I can't say pigeons regularly crossed the North Sea.

CGM

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Theres a medal awarded to a pigeon on Antiques Roadshow tomorrow night!

They also crossed pigeons with parrots, so if they got lost they could.............

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Thanks for the replies. It appears that, although possible, the use of pigeons for cross-channel communication during WW1 seems to have been unlikely as there were more efficient methods available, although proof either that they were or were not hasn't been forthcoming. Looking through The Times archive does reveal some interesting snippets about pigeons during the war years:

Under the Defence of the Realm Act it had become illegal to shoot carrier and homing pigeons in passage (although pigeons may not have been being used for cross-channel flights they would certainly have been trained here, and must have still been being used locally within the UK) with requests that wounded, exhausted or dead birds that were found should be either handed in or reported to the authorities; the shooting offence was considered a serious one, and a report of one prosecution gives that a fine of £5 was imposed. To complicate matters, during the war years, serious problems with woodpigeons damaging crops (estimated at £20-30K per year) were reported and to this end to avoid carrier pigeons being inadvertantly shot: 'Organizers of pigeon shoots are requested to notify to the Officer commanding, The Pigeon Service, General Headquarters, Home Forces, The horse Guards, Whitehall SW1, the dates on which such pigeon shoots are to take place in order that, so far as possible, Government pigeons may not be sent on training flights on those dates over the districts in question.' Tips on how to tell the difference between woodpigeons and carrier pigeons in flight were also given. Later things appeared to get a little more organised, with announcements being made of specific days of the week, on an area basis, being set aside for the shoots (presumably so the military birds could be kept safely in on those days)

Restrictions were introduced on the flying of domestic homing/racing pigeons (there are mentions of there being both long and short distance types) and also permits were required to keep them, with attention being given particularly to 'Aliens' (cases are reported of a German waiter who, when prosecuted claimed that his were being 'fattened for the pot'; an Austrian breeder without a permit being heavily fined; A British naturalized Pork Butcher of 'German origin' being imprisoned for a month, and of a former ex-naval Petty officer being held on remand while awaiting prosecution under the Official Secrets Act when pigeons, which he hadn't a permit for, were found during a search of his property.)

On the outbreak of war, because of fears about their use for espionage, it had been suggested that all domestically owned birds should be destroyed, but it was quickly realised that this was not a good idea as they could be put to far better use for message carrying. Pigeon enthusiasts rallied to assist the war effort and, mostly voluntarily, donated in the order of 20,000 birds (valued at £20-30K) each year.

There are, as has already been mentioned, reports of use by the navy and also the RFC/RAF. One of the earliest use by the navy is given as being by minesweepers to rapidly report problems to the shore and this was said to have prevented several losses. One comment that did surprise me, as I can't figure out how a bird could return to a home that had moved was: "pigeons will 'home' from waterplanes to a travelling boat at sea." There are several examples reported of the crew of planes that had come down at sea releasing pigeons with messages giving their location to enable a rescue (the birds released by one crew who went down off Dundee arrived back at their loft having flown the 22miles in just 22 minutes, to allow a timely rescue). One incident (given as reported in the Cologne Gazette by Reuters) involved an aircrew shot down by a German Torpedo boat indicates that pigeon messaging could lead to problems: the observer attempted to get a pigeon off with a message reading 'shot down at 6.42, picked up by the Huns' but failed, with it falling into the hands of the torpedo boat crew who rescued them; the unfortunate observer (given as Alexander Boyd) was subsequently charged with insulting the German defence forces and, presumably in addition to becoming a PoW, was imprisoned for a year.

There are also some mentions of the Germans use of pigeons: a report of a pigeon sent by a German submarine to Zeebrugge with a message giving that no British warships had been sighted within a 100 miles of the Belgian coast, being caught by a Dutch fishing vessel; details of a German mobile pigeon loft (complete with 35 residents) which had been captured intact near Arras, and donated by Major AH Osman CO of the Carrier Pigeon Service in France, going on display at the Zoological Gardens 'near the Bears' Terrace (no details of which Zoological Gardens this might have been); A report of a letter in German being found under the wing of a pigeon shot down by a guard at a PoW compound at Dorchester

As well as use for battlefield communications mention is also made of pigeons being dropped behind enemy line to enable intelligence to be returned by friendly locals; the comment is made that the messages received back were often not of use and, I would have thought that, as well as endangering the planes carrying out the drops, their use by the enemy as a counter-intelligence tool would have been a distinct possibility.

NigelS

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The Antiques Roadshow showed the pigeon medal with a citation that said it crossed the North Sea in a blizzard and still made it home (more than exhausted). A downed bomber crew had released it.

Pigeons were indeed dropped behind the lines during W1. The info they sent back was, contrary to what has been said, often very useful indeed in building up a picture of enemy supply lines, troop movements, etc.

The big problem was to stop people putting down their names and addresses! despite it being clearly said on the questionnaire that they should not do this, as the pigeon might be shot down and then the person would himself get a bullet.

The Germans were worried enough about the use of pigeons to give two weeks leave for shooting one, and when, for example, thy invaded Luxembourg the first directive put out was that all pigeons were to be confined to their lofts and anyone releasing one would go into prison for the duration.

Amazingly, they did try to do a census of pigeons towards the end of 1914, but the results are unknown. Sadly, the HQ of the pigeon association was destroyed by an allied bomb in 1918 and their are no records of the time.

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The info they sent back was, contrary to what has been said, often very useful indeed...

Apologies, my bad phrasing emphasised the negative aspects, not the positive which there certainly were.

The Germans were worried enough about the use of pigeons to give two weeks leave for shooting one, and when, for example, thy invaded Luxembourg the first directive put out was that all pigeons were to be confined to their lofts and anyone releasing one would go into prison for the duration.

It also appears that they realised that the same applied to their pigeons falling into enemy hands, and, as with weapons attempted, to destroy them: the captured loft previously mentioned had been set fire to by its attendants, and when it was displayed at Regent's Park (a later article revealed the location) it it is said to have had both scorch marks and bullet holes. The Canadian captors were able to extinguish the flames and save the birds but the unfortunate attendants were said to have been 'despatched'. The German loft is described in The Times and appears to have been quite 'Hi-tech':

The British Armies in France, at the suggestion of the War Office, recently presented to the Zoological Gardens A German mobile carrier pigeon loft with 35 pigeons, captured by the Canadians at Folies, France, on August 9. The loft is a light wooden van, ventilated by wire windows and provided with the usual compartments and nesting-boxes. It is the home of the birds in which they mate and breed, and since their arrival at Regent's Park several young ones have hatched. When a pigeon that has been liberated returns, he alights on the van, calling to, or being called by, his mate inside, and presently finds his way to a ledge under a window protected by hinged wires that open only inwards. Pushing through these his weight presses on the lightly balanced interior platform, completing an electric circuit and so ringing a bell, which warns the attendant in his dug-out of the arrival of a messenger

As the article mentions that breeding pairs were kept I wondered whether this was unique to the German mobile lofts, or did the same apply with allied mobile lofts?

NigelS

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