Seventy years ago a carrier pigeon performed the act of “heroism” that saw it awarded the animal’s equivalent of the the highest award, the Victoria Cross – the Dickin Medal.
It was the first of dozens of animals honoured by the veterinary charity P.D.S.A during WW2.
On 23 February 1942, a badly damaged RAF bomber ditched into the cold North Sea. The crew were returning from a mission over Norway, but their Beaufort Bomber had been hit several times and crashed into the sea more than 100 miles from home.
Struggling in freezing waters – unable to radio an accurate position back to base – the men faced a cold and lonely death.
But as the aircraft sank, the crew had managed to salvage their secret weapon – a carrier pigeon. The blue chequered hen named Winkie, was set free in the hope it could fly home to its base near Dundee in Scotland, and so alert the airbase colleagues to their predicament.
During World War 2, carrier pigeons were routinely carried by RAF bombers for this very real danger, though in an era prior to GPS and Satellite Beacons, rescue was far from certain.
But Winkie did make it home, after flying 120 miles, and was discovered, exhausted and covered in oil from taking rests at sea. The pigeon did not carry any message, but the RAF were able to determine the probable location of the downed aircraft. A rescue mission was launched and in a short time the crew were located and they were recovered by the Air Sea Rescue Service.
Winkie became the toast of the base. A year later the Dickin Medal was created and Winkie became its first recipient. The message on the medal states “We Also Serve.
Note: Between 1942 and 1949 64 Dickin Medals have been awarded, 32 of which were presented to pigeons., others were given to horses and war dogs.
It is very hard for us with our mobile phones and instant emails to imagine what communications were like in the 1940s and wartime.
Here at the Comox Air Museum we are fortunate to have one of the pigeon boxes which was used by RCAF 407 Squadron based in England during World War 2:
Carrier pigeons have been uses for centuries and were used in both WW1 and WW2. The Royal Air Force trained 250.000 during WW2, which later created the National Pigeon Service. The birds could reach 70/80 mph and cover several hundred miles. On many occasions the pigeons were dropped in small containers and a mini parachute into German occupied Europe; the pigeons were recovered by members of the resistance an important message would be inserted into the capsule on the birds leg, released , the bird would return to its military base.
In the UK, homing pigeons are still a very big hobby with dozens of clubs around the country. Competitions are held with the birds being sent to a release spot in the UK or even in Europe, and the birds fly back to their home loft.