Historians believe pigeons were first used for communication when Cyrus, the King of Persia, used pigeons to send messages throughout his empire in the 6th Century B.C. 2000 years ago, pigeons were used for communication by the armies of the Roman Empire. In the Great War, pigeons became especially useful with the development of microfilm and many countries extensively used them including England, France, Germany and even by the United States. With the success of pigeons during World War One, England used around 250,000 pigeons throughout World War Two. 32 of them were awarded the Dickin Medal, the animal’s equivalent to the Victoria Cross. Like many people, I first learned about pigeons being used in the Second World War when Walt Disney’s British made movie “Valiant” first came out in 2005. Not long after watching the movie, i decided to read about these birds. And now, eleven years later, I am writing this article about a few of the most famous of these birds of valor…
G.I. Joe was born on March 24, 1943 and belonged to the United States Army Pigeon Service. During the campaign in Italy, a village called Calvi Vecchia (now Calvi Risorta) was to be bombed on the 18th of October 1943 to weaken the German defenses. The British 56th (London) Infantry Division secured the village ahead of schedule after the Germans unexpectedly retreated. The situation turned grim when radio attempts to reach the bombers failed and the news desperately needed to be reached. The 169th (London) Infantry Brigade sent G.I. Joe with the message to call off the bombing mission. The pigeon flew 20 miles in 20 minutes and arrived at the airfield just as the bombers were about to take off, saving the lives of over a thousand villagers and soldiers. In November 4, 1946, G.I. Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal in the Tower Of London by Major-General Charles Keightley crediting him with “the most outstanding flight made by United States homing pigeon in World War Two”. He was the 29th of the 32 pigeons awarded the Dickin Medal and the first non-British recipient of this medal. For the rest of his life, he (along 24 other pigeons) lived in the Churchill Loft of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. In June 3, 1961, G.I. Joe died at the age of 18 in the Detroit Zoological Gardens. He was then mounted and displayed at the U.S. Army Communications Electronics Museum at Fort Monmouth.
Paddy was owned by Andrew Hughes and trained by John McMullan from the Irish town of Carnlough. During the D-Day operations, the British gave the U.S. 1st Army 30 pigeons on June 8, 1944. On June 12, the 30 pigeons were released to deliver a coded message regarding a secret task code-named “U2”. Paddy released at 8:15am, the last of the 30. From France, successfully avoiding German falconers, he flew 230 miles over the English Channel as the first to arrive at his loft in Hampshire, it only took him 4 hours and 50 minutes . To date, he is the only animal from Ireland to be awarded the Dickin Medal. He was credited “for the best recorded time with a message from the Normandy Operations while serving with the RAF in June, 1944”. He also served in air-sea rescue missions before D-Day. After the war, he lived back in his home of Carnlough, in 1954, paddy died at the age of 11. In September 1999, his medal was sold for 7000 pounds and in 2003, author Gail Seekamp published an illustrated children’s book that immortalizes Paddy called “Paddy The Pigeon”. In 2009, a plaque was unveiled by John McMullan himself at the Harbor Wall of Carnlough.
“He was the best of the lot, the best of thousands”
William of Orange was bred by Sir William Proctor Smith from Cheshire. In 1942, Sir William gave him to the Army Pigeon Service of the Royal Signals, who trained him. Orange isn’t as well known as other pigeons who were awarded the Dickin Medal but, nevertheless, just as incredible. It started on the 19th of September in 1944, during the Battle of Arnhem. Allied paratroopers were cut off at the Arnhem Bridge without any working radios to call in air support to repel the German advance. At 10:30 p.m., as a last ditch attempt to reach Allied authorities, a note was attached to the leg of Orange and a few other pigeons, but he did not want to leave. Two men tried nudging him off the bridge while under fire but he still did not want to leave. One of the men then fired his Sten gun and that got him flying. 260 miles and 4 hours, 25 minutes later, he arrived at his loft at Knutsford and was one of the very few who made it. Unfortunately, he did not make it in time to save all the men. 1,984 British troops were killed with 6,854 captured, but around 2,500 were able to escape the battle thanks to the message. In May 1945, William of Orange became the 21st pigeon to be awarded the Dickin Medal. Sir William eventually bought the bird back from the military at the heavy price of 185 pounds. He lived for another ten years and Sir William said William of Orange was “the grandfather of many outstanding racing pigeons”.
You can also go to The Royal Pigeon Racing Association | Pigeons in War for additional information about the other pigeons that were awarded the Dickin Medal.