Eyes in the Sky – pigeons who earned their wings
Homing pigeons were used by both the Axis and the Allies as vehicles for transporting messages back home in World War Two.
This has obvious wartime consequences, as both sides used the pigeons to relay information that the other side would not be able to intercept. Recently released documents from MI5 have shown that Hitler was very interested in the possibility of using pigeons as a wartime asset, and named SS Henchman Heinrich Himmler as President of the German National Pigeon Society, commissioning all German Pigeons to spy for the Nazis.
After numerous Britons noticed pigeons flying towards the general direction of France early in 1942, the Army Pigeon Special Service developed a program to end the exodus. Realizing that fire must be met with fire, the British Anti-Pigeon forces developed and trained Peregrine Falcons to take down pigeons as they flew away from the British coast.
While never shown for certain, it was speculated that German pigeons were dropped off on the British coastline via parachutes, U-boats, powerboats, and/or as personal baggage. The pigeons were then housed by spies, and sent back to Germany along with sensitive messages.
While some were only known by numbers, some war pigeons had some pretty formidable names — Lady Astor, Pepperhead, Holy Ghost. One of the war’s most celebrated pigeons was named GI Joe.
The bird performed a heroic message-delivering service on October 18, 1943, when an American infantry division ordered heavy aerial bombardment on a German-occupied town in Italy. The Germans, though, had retreated and the British 56th Infantry Brigade moved into town prior to the bombardment orders. Because radio attempts had failed to reach the Americans, GI Joe was sent to deliver the message to abort the bombing just as the bombers were about to lift off.
In World War II, the U.S. Army used 54,000 carrier pigeons with a 90% delivery success rate. Pigeons were also airdropped to troops and civilians for tactical purposes. Alongside the new pigeon-vest technology, the U.S. Army also developed “a special cage and parachute” to drop pigeons from an aircraft to troops isolated on the war front for communication purposes. This cage device was also used to drop pigeons into German-occupied zones so the resistance could send information about Germany’s movements. In fact, thousands of pigeons were dropped over the countryside during the D-Day landings and Normandy invasion as a way for French civilians to provide intel about German defenses and troop movements.
At least one pigeon was taken as a prisoner of war, though only temporarily. In the winter of 1944, a war pigeon named Lucia di Lammermoor was released carrying important information. She got delayed in flight, but later returned with a different message from the Germans, to the effect of: “To the American Troops: Herewith we return a pigeon to you. We have enough to eat.”
The Dickin Medal was awarded to 32 pigeons in World War II, including GI Joe.