© 2009 454 & 459 RAAF Squadrons

Tribute to war-time pigeons

In the early 1940's radio transmissions were not always reliable and as pigeons had been used during World War I by both the Navy and Army to return messages when communication lines were down, it was decided to use them in aircraft as emergency communications devices.  So successful were these winged messengers that a separate pigeon service was established in 1918, but this was discontinued at the war's end.  At the beginning of WW2 , the British National Pigeon Service supplied birds to the RAF until the services re-established their own bird-breeding program.  In Coastal and bomber Commands, two birds were carried in long oblong boxes (with drinkers and food) for use if radios failed and an urgent message needed to be sent.  Messages used colour coded containers to ensure prompt delivery, but the introduction of better quality radios saw the pigeon service cease after 1943, although some members of 454 Squadron recall their use on Aegean sorties well into 1944. 

“Air Crew Pigeons” on Operational Duties with 454, Middle East 1943.

454 members  have recorded some interesting comments about “aircrew pigeons” on operation during 1943.

It was general practise to take a pair of crated pigeons on long range low level daylight penetrations of the defended ring of the Aegean Islands.  Gordon Hissey, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner with Jack Coates; and later Mike Moore, who confirmed Gordon's oral report describing how a 454 RAAF Baltimore III's “pigeon pair” was taken aloft (no pun intended) for emergency release, if the aircraft was judged unlikely to survive fighter attack and/or coded crucial radio reports could not be sent and/or rescue services were urgently needed.  In any event, after a N.T.R (nothing to report) search, the pigeons were usually released about 20 miles from base for “homing” experience.  Since it was very “dicey” to throw unprotected birds into the turbulent slipstream (unfeathered birds, like pranged aircrew, would have to swim or walk home!) each bird was inserted legs first into its separate paper cone and the paper lid or flap was closed.  The container looked very much like the small paper cone  of “boiled lollies: the kids bought in pre WW2 days.  Then each package was tossed down into the slipstream through the bottom rear hatch.  As the protective paper package unravelled, each bird, now free of the worst turbulence, could fly, fully feathered and begin to exploit its inbuilt “pigeon radar”.

Of course, Ray Akhurst's (RAFVR) experience on 23.7.43 in A-Able (Baltimore III) demonstrated how planned pigeon rescue procedures could not always be exploited in operational emergencies.  Weaving his way at 130 mph “on the clock” through the Crete valleys on one engine, and then southwards over the Med, for Gambut strip, in Cyrenaica, despite Akhurst's considerable skills, the Baltimore had to be ditched beyond the breaker line.  Ray reported: “When we hit the drink in A-Able we had only one idea – to swim to shore”.  Our two birds of the day were overlooked.  The plane floated ashore; empty fuel tanks (providing flotation).  Next day the “bare-arsed” salvage crew released the dazed birds which were still in their crate in the aircraft, and “they homed safely”.  Whether or not the pair was then posted back to the Nile Delta as O.T.E (Operationally Tour Expired) is not recorded.  NOTE: This item was drafted on 23.7.93, exactly 50 years after Ray Akhurst's splash-down.

Gordon Hissey wrote he would have sent his note  about the pigeons to Pigeon Post but his pair had “flown the coop”.

Tony White (WAG) wrote  “454 Squadron was certainly using the (pigeons) by the end of 1943.  I remember tossing a couple over the Aegean Sea between attacks by Me 109's.  I thought at the time they deserved a chance.  As I was sent straight to Benghasi Hospital, I never heard  whether they made it back to base”.  (Tony, whose first op. was in the first  1000 bomber raid on Cologne, was wounded in the Aegean action).

Peter Lawton (Jack Ennis, Nav/B) reported their WAG'S used some unusual language when trying to load a pigeon crate through the Baltimore lower under hatch, and that during a very rough low level exit through the Kythera Straits out of the Aegean (presumably to avoid the Luftwaffes Duty Pilots) the pigeon crate on one occasion was in free flight around the Baltimore's interior, since it was not strapped in, as were the crew members.

 Some questions still remain unanswered. 

Article written by George Gray – 454-459 Squadrons Association Bulletin.


From a BBC WEBSITE - UK News Release dated -- Saturday, 1 March, 2003 –

More than 300 birds will be released on Saturday as part of an event to honour the role of carrier pigeons in the Second World War.

The Pigeon Secrets on a Wing and a Prayer ceremony is being held at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, home of the famous code breakers.

During the war, pigeons were recruited from civilian lofts for work with the Army, Navy and Air Force.

About 200,000 pigeons were supplied by private breeders to the National Pigeon Service and 50,000 were bred by the United States Army.

Between 1939 and 1945, code breakers at Bletchley Park used advanced mathematical formulas to crack German communications.

The pigeons were awarded the animal version of the Victoria Cross

'Dickin Medal'

They relied on birds to relay messages to the military and even though many were wounded, most pigeons found their way back to the park.

Some were rewarded for outstanding service and received the Dickin Medal, the animal version of the Victoria Cross.

At Saturday's event, message holders that were fitted to the legs of pigeons will be displayed to the public.

A pigeon memorial and original pigeon box is also going on show and Peter Bryant, chairman of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, will give a talk.

454 Pigeons