BIRDS OF WAR
Despite the marvels of radio the uncanny homing instinct of the carrier pigeon is still of vital use in war
WILLIAM B. CRIST
A FEW hours after Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany a strange order was sent out over the British Broadcasting Commission. The War Office ordered the imznediate release of all homing pigeons in the British Isles.
Behind this order was the fear that German agents had probably “planted” homing pigeons in the United Kingdom and would use them to fly information out of the country. It was reasoned that if the birds were released from their lofts all those whose homes were across the Channel would return there. For despite radio, wireless and all the marvels of znodern communication the homing pigeozz remains a valuable, and sometimes indispensable, part of war communication.
The pigeon has gone to war itz a big way in the
present conflict. Formerly the birds were used mainly by armies but today these winged messengers ride the skies with the airmen and sail the ocean lanes with the Navy.
It is a matter of record that of all pigeons known to have been released by the Allied forces more than 90% reached their home lofts successfully. The RCAF has announced that of all the locations and rescues in this war up to the summer of 1943, 14% was credited to the use of pigeozis.
Some of them returned full of shrapnel; others were forced to walk most of the way after being injured so seriously they were unable to fly, and it is on record that ozze pigeon flew znore than 7,200 miles (from France to Indo-China) to get its message through. Incidentally, the first word of the Dieppe Raid arrived
in Britain in the tiny compartment attached to homing pigeon’s leg.
The basic fact behind the extensive use of pigeons in modern warfare is that it is no longer feasible send all messages by radio, for the enemy has learned to use detectors. A message sent over the air might reveal one’s position—no matter how secret code. Then, too, the most expertly made electrical mechanical contrivances can break down or destroyed at critical moments. So the pigeon has come back into its own.
One of the first Canadian Services to realize importance of the war pigeon was the Royal Canadian Air Force. Recently the RCAF called for recruits for the carrier pigeon section of the signals division. Seventy experienced loftmen—as pigeon handlers called—were sought for service at air stations Canada s east and west coasts, and about 100 znen answered I he call for this branch of the service.
Because the distances are so great and the population so sparse in comparison with Great Britain, setup in Canada differs from that of the Mother Country. There pigeozz fanciers work as an auxiliary to the RAF and are paid a nominal sum for the yearly use of their birds. When an aircraft goes out patrol, fanciers in the area are asked to supply so many birds. When these are released by the plane’s crew, they return to their home lofts and the civilian owners see that the air command gets the messages the birds carry.
In Canada, however, the birds are actually part the RCAF1 and are kept in lofts near the air station which they serve.
An interest in homing and racing pigeons is not exactly new to the RCAF. The largest loft of the original eight, first established back in 1929, was located at Rockcliffe, near Ottawa. There some 2,000 birds were trained for use with aircraft. Such pigeons served chiefly with the forestry patrols operated by the RCAF in the Canadian northland. They were fouzid useful, too, in carrying messages to the RCMP during its fight to crush the rumrunning trade.
Appropriations for the pigeon service were reduced, however, in 1931 and when war broke opt in 1939— indeed until quite recently—the pigeon service boasted only two small lofts, one serving each of the east and west coasts.
Dozens of pigeon fanciers across the Dominion volunteered their services and their birds when war was declared but such offers were declined by defense officials. The birds were not needed—or so it was said.
But when enezny submarines began sinking ships in areas formerly thought safe, the coast operations of the RCAF increased tremendously. With so many planes in the air the demands on the pigeon service could not be met and the old setup was scrapped.
Lofts At Every Station
SUCCESS OF the new plan, which established lofts of 50 to 200 birds near every operational base, depends to a great extent on the loftman. A good loftman must be patient and gentle. If he is easily excited or fails to handle the birds properly he can ruin the entire “aircrew.”
Squadron Leader E. L. Miners, Ottawa, heads this new division of the RCAF. Chief instructor is the man who has been supervising the loft at Dartmouth, N.S., —Flight Sergeant F. W. Threlfall.
“Things have changed since the last war when pigeons were required to travel at high speeds for 25 to 100 miles,” says Flt.-Sgt. Threlfall. “Now, because of the ranges of modern aircraft, we train our birds to do 200 and 300 miles. Many of our pigeons can,
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if necessary, do 600 miles in a day.” A pigeon’s love for its home is primarily what prompts the bird to undertake what often . are hazardous flights through fog, storm and snow to reach its mate. Because of this, says Flt.-Sgt. Threlfall, if the home surroundings are good the birds are that much better.
“The pigeon,” says Threlfall, “has remarkable sight, attention and memory and its intelligence and characteristics are transmitted toitsyoung. Becauseof its abilities it acquires a homing instinct after as few as two or three exercise flights from the loft.”
Threlfall is a bit sceptical of the theory held by some authorities that the pigeon’s ears are the key to its uncanny homing instinct. “I know at least one fancier who taped up the ears of one of his birds,” he says, “and it didn’t seem to handicap the bird’s sense of direction. It got home just the same.” Actually, the uncanny navigational ability of the homing pigeon has never been successfully explained.
Flt.-Sgt. Threlfall started to raise pigeons as a boy of nine in Birkenhead, England. Later, during the first few of the 15 years he’s been in Canada, he bred racing pigeons in Ontario and displayed his birds at the Ottawa Exhibition. Joining the RCAF in 1929 he took his birds with him and five of them are still in service at the Dartmouth base. It is no exaggeration to say that Threlfall knows his pigeons.
Among the other birds at Dartmouth is “Rex,” the sole survivor of a group presented to the Air Force by the late King George V, himself a pigeon fancier. “Rex” is 17 years old now and spends his time training the younger birds for active service. At first this is a “follow-the-leader” game and “Rex” is a good instructor. Taken away from the loft in a basket, the young pigeons are released two miles from their home and directed back to base by an older bird who shows them the way. Gradually this distance is increased to four, eight, 25 and then 100 miles.
Because the entrance to their loft is specially constructed the pigeons can enter when they arrive back from a flight, but they cannot get out again unless released by the loftman. Following the initial flights, the birds have to be released one at a time, instead of in a group, because in a crowd a young bird will not use its own resources to find its way home. He merely follows the leader. Next step in the training is to take the pigeons up in an aircraft and release them from varying heights. Usual altitude is about 1,500 feet, though the RCAF has carried some birds as high as 10,000 feet. Pigeons have been known to make flights from as high as 30,000 feet—more than five miles above the earth!
The wicker basket in which the birds are carried is usually divided into two, four or more compartments, depending on the number of birds. These baskets are so constructed that a member of the plane’s crew can reach inside and attach a message to the leg of a pigeon without releasing the bird until it is ready for flight. The message holder is usually aluminum and the message itself is written on rice paper. A shortage of aluminum, however, has made it necessary for the RCAF to adopt a new style holder made of plastics.
Little used in Canada, but better known overseas, is the single bird metal container. This has a buoyancy compartment, which keeps the container afloat when thrown into water. Such a container has been known to save lives by acting as a life preserver for crewmen forced down at sea.
Pigeons Go to Sea
The Royal Canadian Navy is another branch of Canada’s armed services that employs the use of pigeons in communications. In charge of the pigeon branch of the Navy is Petty Officer Frederick H. Woodfield who, a year ago, wrote a long letter to his commanding officer. The letter was about pigeons and how they could serve the Navy. It aroused not only his commanding officer’s interest but also his doubt, for Woodfield said he didn’t think the Navy would have to invest any money in pigeons.
“What I had in mind,” Petty Officer Woodfield explains, “was that if I knew my pigeon fanciers—and I thought I did—I would be able to obtain the finest types of birds without spending a nickel.”
And Woodfield’s faith in pigeon fanciers was not destroyed, for they donated their finest birds to’the Navy —donated them as eagerly as they volunteered their own services. Letters were sent to fanciers in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg.
“I simply stated my case,” says Petty Officer Woodfield. “I told them I wanted young pigeons. I asked them to breed pigeons for me and to send them to me while they were young— fine, thoroughbred birds. I explained that by making pigeons available to the RCN they were investing in the war effort—in their own protection—• just as if they were buying Victory Bonds.”
Woodfield received his first pigeons last August—birds especially bred for service with the Canadian Navy. Every fancier he contacted responded enthusiastically as soon as new “squeaks” were bred—(squeaks are to pigeons what chicks are to hens).
Assisting Woodfield in the Navy’s pigeon service are Signalman Alfred P. Karrer, Edmonton; Able Seaman M. B. Jacks, Brandon; Stoker C. L. Knowles, Victoria; Leading Seaman J. D. McPherson, Victoria and Stoker H. T. Peden, Edmonton.
“Flying over water,” says Woodfield, “is against a pigeon’s nature. They are a land bird and I know of one pigeon taken to sea for a training flight that took off from a signalman’s hand, circled the ship and then tried to land again on the signalman’s hand. Discovering it couldn’t do this, it went up high and headed for home.”
Some birds are thought to have taken seasick—they wouldn’t eat and just drooped the whole time they were at sea. Other problems include training the birds to fly over open water through fog, storm and all kinds of miserable weather.
“Our main purpose,” says Woodfield, “is to breed and properly train enough birds to stock all the ships we have. And we’ll need plenty of them—in fact we are still open to offers from any fanciers who would like to ship young birds to HMC dockyard at Esquimalt, B.C.”
One of the pigeon hazards at Woodfield’s base are hawks, and once a bird arrived home with its breast split open and all its tail feathers gone. Prompt treatment healed the wound; new tail
feathers grew and the pigeon is now back in service again.
“Until we’ve bred and trained all the birds we need we have to be careful with those we have,” explains Woodfield. “We’ve flown them over 60 miles of open sea and they’ve made it in two hours—flying strictly by instinct. We had a couple of the birds fly over 60 miles of sea through a heavy snowstorm and they made it in four hours. After each such flight they are well rested.”
According to Woodfield, the day is not far off when pigeons will be used by all ships of the RCN to carry emergency messages. They will be able to fly incredible distances once they are properly trained, he says.
In the United States the Army Signal Corps has pioneered the development of “night flier's.” Like most birds, pigeons normally fly only in daylight. When they are unable to reach home before dark they settle down for the night, continuing the flight the next day. However, armies fight by night as well as by day, and some time ago experiments with night-flying birds began.
Trainers marked those birds that stayed out latest at dusk and bred them to develop a new strain. The young birds were then kept in the loft all day and released only at dusk. As their education progressed, they were kept out later each night until they were flying home in complete darkness. Blue lights on the loft roofs helped the training. This method was later reversed and the birds were taken out at dawn and allowed to fly into full daylight. Today these birds are capable of maintaining a 24-hour messenger service.
Changing the location of the home loft has always been one of the major problems in training homing pigeons. Knowing this it is easy to appreciate what trainers have done in getting homers to return to lofts which are constantly being shifted about the battlefield. Limited success in this field has been reported.
One of the most astonishing developments in this war has been the breeding of a “round-trip” pigeon that can fly a message to a given point, wait for a reply, and return to the home loft. How the birds have been traiixed to do this, and why they do it, is one of the most closely guarded secrets of the U.S. Signal Corps. It is against all the rules of homing pigeon behavior, though many an Army commander has longed for such a bird.
However, just to prove again that there is nothing new under the sun, don’t forget that Noah sent out a dove —first cousin to a pigeon—that made a round trip back to the Ark, carrying an olive branch in his beak.
All these developments are just one more chapter in the lengthy saga of the homing pigeon, whose predilection for beating it home at the drop of a hat has been capitalized on since the days of the Pharoahs.
Sea captains who plied the trade routes of the ancient world carried homing pigeons on their vessels and released them when nearing their home ports.
Both the Greeks and the Romans used homing pigeons. The Greek poet Anacreon relates in his “Ode To A Carrier Pigeon” how the birds were used to carry the names of the winners of the Olympic Gamesto the provinces. And Decimus Brutus, when besieged by Antony at Modena, sent a plea to Octavius for reinforcements by the same means.
During the Crusades, the redoubtable Richard the Lion Hearted at Acre found that the beleaguered Saracens were using pigeons to fly messages beyond the city’s walls. An old hand at falconry, Richard merely released his fierce birds and sent them into action against the pigeons—thus antedating the dive-bomber by some hundreds of years.
Less heroic uses of these birds have also been made. Pigeons have been used by gamblers to announce the winners of lotteries and horse races. The best known speculator to use pigeons in his business was the fabulous Baron de Rothschild. The Baron’s birds were entrusted to a confederate who attached himself to Napoleon’s Army. When the outcome of a day’s battle became clear the birds were dispatched to Rothschild’s lofts, thus enabling the Baron to manipulate his stocks in accordance with the information brought to him from the battlefield. The early news agencies depended upon pigeons, too, in publishing
the news ahead of their competitors.
During the Siege of Paris, 1870-71, when the city was ringed by the steel of Bismarck’s invading armies, communication with the outside world had been cut off. Someone, however, had had the presence of mind to bring in homing pigeons from the provinces, and to plant Paris pigeons in strategic locations in the countx-yside. Two Frenchmen, named Barreswill and Dagx-on, then brought forth their process which made it possible to photograph a number of messages on a film two inches by one and a half inches. These were tied to the outlander pigeons which, upon release, headed foxhome and delivered the mail. The messages were x-ead by means of a projecting lantern. Once the birds reached their home roosts, it was necessary to return them to the sender in order to ensure further service. The exchange of carriers was accomplished by means of balloons, which made 74 successful trips before the city fell. How many trips the pigeons made is xxot known, but according to a report written a few years later, enough xnail was moved to “make up a library of 500 volumes.”