Building On the Past: War Pigeons
In 1943, the 169th London Infantry Brigade had taken the Italian village of Calvi Vecchia ahead of schedule. Unable to transmit a radio message, they sent G.I. Joe back to American headquarters to call off a planned American bombing of the village. Both the villagers and forward elements of the 56th London Infantry Division were saved as a result when G.I. Joe arrived with his message in the nick of time.
G.I. Joe was a war pigeon.
Deployed in both world wars, pigeons provided commanders with a simple way to receive messages from the front. Pigeons were kept near the trenches of World War I and could be dispatched at a moment’s notice. Pigeons were also kept on aircraft during World War II as a means of relaying a position if the aircraft was downed and the crew bailed out.
When the war began, English pigeon fanciers offered their birds to the struggle to act as message carriers. It is estimated that the Army, Royal Air Force, and Civil Defense Service deployed almost a quarter million of these birds during the war. After the fall of France, resistance members began to look for ways to relay military intelligence to their allies in England.
In April 1941, the British began Operation Columba. This top secret pigeon drop operation was designed to give the French Resistance a simple way with to send messages back to England with low risk. The first pigeons were dropped from a Whitley transport plane, and soon after pigeons began arriving back in England with critical intelligence on German troop movements and the location of supply dumps along with other military targets.
During the war, 32 pigeons were award the PDSA Dickin Medal, a decoration for animals who demonstrated gallantry.