The Battle of Cassino, January-May 1944
Third Phase 11 - 18 May 1944: A British stretcher party carry a casualty out of Cassino after its capture. In the background is Hangman's Hill. Photo by Sergeant W. E. McConnville, No. 2 Army Film and Photographic Unit. Imperial War Museum, © IWM (NA 15003)
War Pigeons: Cassino, Italy, 1944: Miss Peggy, Master Brian, Just Jerry
This story of three pigeons comes from The Pigeons That Went to War by Gordon H. Hayes. Hayes served as a pigeoneer in Africa and Italy.
“Another famous flight, one that scored success without a casualty, was that of three pigeons from our mobile loft below Cassino manned by Pvt. Francis McGrath. McGrath was a rare breed of man. He was on my team as we froze in the snows at Futa Pass, and later, as we drove into what seemed to us then, the Valley of Death, Bologna. McGrath was a small man but he made up for this deficiency in sheer guts. He always had on hand a good supply of hand grenades and knew how to use them. What follows is the story of his three pigeons---Miss Peggy, (AU-42-OCH 895) red check hen, Mater Brian (AU-42-5024-ACE) blue check cock, and Just Jerry (AU-42 * 2141) silver cock.
A company of Gurkhas (extremely tough soldiers from Nepal) had fought its way to the top of the Hangman’s Hill on the night of our first assault on Cassino. They were joined later by more Gurkhas and some British troops. For nine days they stayed hiding between the rocks to escape the continuous German fire, mortar, and machine gun. For nine days American airmen dropped food and water to these trapped men, much of it falling unfortunately into German hands. The question was, how could these men be saved? Three volunteers were called to penetrate the German lines. They were an Englishman, Scotsman, and a Welshman. Each took a different route leading to Hangman’s Hill with a haversack containing an American pigeon. Their instructions were that if they were unable to reach their objective, they would each release their respective pigeons with a prepared message.
The Scotsman could not reach his destination and was pinned down by machine-gun fire. His bird, Master Brian, carried a prepared message. Two hours later, Miss Peggy, the Englishman’s bird, returned stating he had reached his objective. Twenty minutes later, Just Jerry, the Welshman’s bird, came back too, notifying us he had reached his objective. After the arrival of these messages, a time had been set for a ‘lane’ of projectiles and smoke bombs to be laid down at night when the isolated Gurkhas should start evacuating. They passed through that lane of protective shellfire, unbeknown to the Germans, and all the time the three pigeons were resting safely in their loft. The situation was won, the men were saved, thanks to the pigeon angels, their saviors.”
The Campaign in Italy, September-December 1943: The Allied Advance to the Gustav Line
Naples, September - October 1943: An American Ranger patrol advances up a hill under smoke in the mountains outside Naples. Photo by Sergeant Frederick Wackett, No. 2 Army Film and Photographic Unit. © IWM (NA 6999)