How humble pigeons helped change wars

VITAL: An Australian pigeon dispatch rider leaves the signals headquarters. Pigeons played an important role in the larger war effort, with up to 95 per cent successfully getting their message through - and saving many lives.

VITAL: An Australian pigeon dispatch rider leaves the signals headquarters. Pigeons played an important role in the larger war effort, with up to 95 per cent successfully getting their message through - and saving many lives.

More than 100,000 pigeons served with British forces in World War I. Pigeons played a vital role, as they proved to be an extremely reliable way of sending messages.

CONNECTION: Two signallers work to lay a reel of cable to a forward post. Surface lines were used in places where buried cables had been cut.

CONNECTION: Two signallers work to lay a reel of cable to a forward post. Surface lines were used in places where buried cables had been cut.

Up to 95 per cent successfully got their message through. They were used by both sides to send messages from the frontlines, and from those on patrol back to HQ.  

During World War II – after two pigeons with messages attached to their legs were shot down by German troops – a third pigeon named Cher Ami was released with a message on its leg. It got through to headquarters despite having being shot. Consequently, the lives of 200 soldiers from the American 77th division were saved.  

This infantry division was known as the “Lost Battalion”, having been trapped behind German lines, and were being bombarded by their own side who did not know their location. 

Another pigeon known as GI Joe saved the inhabitants of the village of Calvi Vecchia in Italy, as well as the British troops who had occupied the village in October 1943. Air support had been requested to attack the area, which was thought to be strongly held by German forces. The message that British forces had already captured the village arrived just in time, averting a bombing raid.

Under certain conditions, pigeons have the ability to quickly reorientate to a new loft location. On the Western Front, they were kept in mobile lofts so they could be moved to be close to HQ as it shifted around. Pigeons were then taken with troops into action for the purpose of conveying messages back to HQ.

In World War II, the Germans commandeered up to a million pigeons from Belgium lofts for use by their troops.

Pigeons also served on warships, in tanks and in aircraft. One pigeon flew 190 miles – more than 300 kilometres – from a total wreck out at sea on a dark and stormy night. The pigeon kept flying through the night, arriving back on land with the message the next morning. Pigeons are known to fly at night, particularly when there’s a full moon.

The French Resistance movement also used homing pigeons behind Allied lines to send vital messages. This prompted Germany to post marksmen and falconers along the coast of the channel, to intercept pigeons on the flight back to England.

Australian troops also used homing pigeons in Papua New Guinea to convey messages to HQ.

These pigeons were raised in Australian lofts, including one in Horsham owned by the Dougherty family. The loft was in Wilson Street, opposite the current Bunnings store. Horsham Homing Club member Jack Tydeman served in the pigeon corps during World War II. 

A store owner after the war, Mr Tydeman later served as president of the Horsham Homing Club and was mentor for the junior club in the 1960s.

Horsham Homing Club would like to recognise Horsham RSL for sourcing material for this article. The club, established in 1917, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Currently comprised of 25 members, it conducts pigeon races from South Australia, NSW and other Victorian towns back to lofts in Horsham and surrounds.

Brian Watts is secretary of Horsham Homing Club.

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