World War II. Millions dead, wounded, and displaced. The Holocaust. The Atomic Bomb. Parts of the world’s map redrawn in ways which still have a tremendous impact on the world’s economy and politics. Across bodies of water and on land formations around the globe, from tiny islands to giant continents, pigeons made communication possible during World War II.
Radio technology had improved enormously since World War I but pigeons were still needed and in fact, the use of pigeons actually increased as the war went on. Italy, Australia, the United States, Germany, Britain, New Zealand, and Japan all had pigeon services. Every branch of those countries militaries used pigeons and in many instances, the pigeons were the only means of communication Britain had an extension of its pigeon service called the Middle East Pigeon Service. Headquartered at Cairo, it had stations operating in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jerusalem. The British also used pigeons in the Mediterranean, Africa, Burma, and India and the United States used pigeons in the Pacific theater.
Pigeons played a huge role in Allied operations to force the Axis powers out of Africa, Sicily, and Italy. 800 American pigeons landed at Safi, French Morocco in November 1942. Lieutenant Tracey Prater, commander of the North African Signal Pigeon Platoon immediately realized that 800 pigeons would not meet the needs of the Allied forces. He set up a breeding base at Casablanca. Within several months, thousands of pigeons were bred, trained and assigned to combat mobile lofts. During the 46 day Tunisian Campaign in the spring of 1943, when the Germans and Italians were finally driven out of Africa, pigeons delivered 215 urgent and secret messages. On March 18, 1943 a pigeon named Yank delivered a message which Gordon Hayes, who served as a pigeoneer in Africa and Italy, writes in The Pigeons That Went to War, was widely believed to have “saved the life or thwarted the capture of General George S. Patton when communications between him and the 18th British Group were disrupted.” Once the Allies had occupied Tunisia, Bizerte became the home of a breeding base. Thousands of little yellow baby pigeons grew into pigeons trained for the invasion of Italy. When the Allied invasion began, 200,000 troops and 3000 pigeons were deployed.
Just as they did on the battlefield, pigeons excelled in the world of espionage. Operation Gibbon was a Secret Operations Executive mission to establish a secret pigeon service in Nazi occupied Belgium. The British needed a way to get intelligence out of Belgium. Pigeons did the job. Resistance workers in occupied Europe received drops of pigeons from Allied aircraft and sent them out of their countries with intelligence. The British created Operation Columba to collect intelligence from people living under the German occupation who were not spies. Pigeons with questionnaires were dropped in small containers attached to small parachutes. People answered the questions and sent their answers back to Britain with the pigeons. Agents dropped behind enemy lines often preferred to communicate with pigeons rather than radios. If agents were captured by the Germans, they wouldn’t have the radio with them as obvious evidence that they were a spy. The first S.I.S. agent dropped into France in 1940 landed with a knife and a pigeon. Pigeons’ abilities as navigators and long distance fliers made them such excellent spies that something called “pigeon paranoia” existed in Britain. People believed that German agents had stashes of pigeons all over the country and were using them to send intelligence back to Germany.
Hundreds of thousands of pigeons were by our side during our greatest folly of the 20th century. World War II. Millions dead, wounded, and displaced. The Holocaust. The Atomic Bomb. The map of the world redrawn. But pigeons were not only by our side in baskets, wooden cages, and four bird carriers. They were next to men’s hearts, strapped across their chests in pigeon slings or drum containers as these men ran towards exploding artillery shells and enemy gunfire. A pigeon felt a man’s thumping heart and the heaving of his chest as he took breath after breath, with each breath possibly being that man’s last breath. Confined, the pigeon’s fate depended on that man’s choices, the choices of the commanding officer, and the choices of leaders in far away places. In The Pigeons That Went to War, pigeonneer Gordon H. Hayes describes fighting through the Italian Alps in the winter of 1944-45. He and his fellow pigeoneers saw men frozen in the snow, their pigeon strapped to their chest, frozen with them. Think about being a pigeon strapped to a dead man. It is winter. You can’t move at all.