The Use of Pigeons by the RAF in WW2

NUMBER 15          SIGNAL          15 FEBRUARY 1944

14. The use of Pigeons by the RAF

During the present war, the Royal Air Force has made extensive use of pigeons as an emergency means of communication. Pigeons are frequently carried in RAF aircraft on operational missions, and in several instances where planes have been forced down at sea and other communications have failed, pigeons released from their containers have homed successfully with a message from the crew, thus enabling a rescue to be effected. Several instances of the successful use of pigeons in this role are described below.

In February 1942, a Beaufort returning from operations made a forced landing in the sea as a result of engine failure. Prior to the landing, which was made at short notice, an SOS message was sent by radio. On impact the aircraft partially broke up, and the open pigeon containers fell into the sea. The crew, which had escaped in a dinghy, succeeded in recovering the pigeon containers, but one pigeon escaped wet (at 1630). The second pigeon was recovered too wet to fly, and endeavours were made to dry it by hand. An SOS message giving the crew's position was attached to the pigeon, and it was released at about 1700. (This pigeon never arrived. It had only about 1- 1½ hours of daylight to cover the 120 miles to land, which, in its wet condition, it was most unlikely to do.) In the meantime, the SOS radio signal had been received, but it was so weak that the resultant fix was extremely vague, and an air search was ordered to cover an area of 70 miles square. This search was proceeding without success next morning, when the first pigeon (which had escaped) arrived at the base at 0820 and was duly identified as coming from the missing aircraft. The pigeon keeper NCO noted that the bird had been wet and was smeared with oil. He reported to Operations and ascertained the area being searched. He formed the opinion, judging from the pigeon's condition, from the time of the forced landing (established by the faint radio signal), and from the weather conditions and the daylight available, that the bird could not have flown the distance from the area then being searched. He estimated that the maximum distance the pigeon could have covered would have been about 120 to 140 miles. At his suggestion, searching aircraft, which were operating beyond this radius, were redirected. The dinghy was sighted approximately 15 minutes later at a position 129 miles from base, and the crew was rescued shortly thereafter.

In June 1943, a Baltimore, suffering an engine failure on its return from an operation, "ditched" in the Mediterranean about 100 miles from its base. A radio SOS was sent and a fix obtained. The pigeon containers were not sealed in time, and one bird was drowned. The other was rescued wet and given time to dry, after a second accidental ducking in the oily sea. Visibility was only 2 miles, and a search by aircraft from the position of the fix was unsuccessful. The pigeon subsequently arrived at the base with the message, "Crew safe in dinghy 10 west of Tocra". As a result of the pigeon message, the crew was picked up by launch the following morning.

In October 1943, a Catalina in difficulty landed in the sea at 0820 northwest of the Shetlands, about 60 miles from land. No SOS message was received from the aircraft. The weather was extremely poor, and when the aircraft became overdue, it was impossible for a place to take off to search for it. At 1700, a pigeon arrived at the base with the following message: "Aircraft ditched safely northwest Ronas. Heavy swell. Taxiing southeast." After receipt of the message, a search by surface vessels proved successful, the plane being sighted and the crew rescued at 0005 the next morning. In this case, the pigeon homed successfully despite the presence of a 25-mph head wind; visibility at the place of release of the pigeon was 100 yards, and at the base, 300 yards.

These are but a few examples of the successful use by the RAF of pigeons in an SOS role. It should be noted that in all three of these cases where the pigeon contributed substantially to the rescue of an air crew, the conditions were extremely adverse to the pigeon - in two cases the bird was rendered wet and oily at the start, and in the other a thick fog and a strong headwind made its task extremely difficult. In cases where the bird has been released dry and undamaged and under favourable weather conditions, there has been only one recorded failure of a pigeon SOS; this isolated failure was held to be attributable to insufficient training of the pigeon.

This means of communication, which is intended primarily for use in emergency, is naturally dependent upon the accident of the emergency for opportunities of operation use. At the same time, it has to be maintained in a state of efficiency by practice and tests. Consequently, the practice and test flights necessarily far outnumber the operational flights.

The basic reliability of pigeons as a means of signal communication is demonstrated by the fact that within the practicable radius of 300 miles, the percentage of arrivals in Home Commands for various statistical periods, each covering several thousand releases, has varies between 86 and 96 percent. While the limit of operation effectiveness is considered to be 300 miles, there are several recorded instances in which pigeons have successfully spanned a distance of over 400 miles. Successful air releases by hand, without wrapping or special gear, have been effected up to 24,000 feet.

In addition to their use by aircraft, RAF pigeon installations, where suitably situated, have been used by marine craft. In one case where small craft of the Royal Navy were using RAF pigeons for communication in emergency or during radio silence, the presence of the pigeons was of service to an RAF crew which had been forced down at sea. A gunboat, while homeward bound near the enemy coast, found the crew of a ditched Stirling in a dinghy. Pigeons were not available to that Stirling squadron, and their radio had become unserviceable before ditching. Since some of the crew were seriously injured, the captain of the gunboat (which was then observing radio silence) released his pigeons, requesting an ambulance at dockside. He then proceeded to base, a distance of about 100 miles. Upon the boat's arrival, the ambulance was waiting at the dock.

In a few cases, where the geographical position of RAF lofts has happened to be convenient and the need has arisen, RAF pigeons have worked for or linked up with other pigeon services. A useful example of this was afforded by the cooperation of the RAF in providing one link in an emergency pigeon communication. This proved to be of the utmost value at a time when signal communication was seriously disrupted for a considerable period. A substantial volume of traffic was carried without failure during an emergency of several days.

RAF pigeons, where suitably situated and sufficiently experienced, have been used for special tasks with considerable success, having regard to the hazards which precede release. The principal lesson to be learned from experience in this respect is that it is essential that the operators have sufficient instruction and practice with pigeons to make possible their successful use.

[Source: TNA WO 208/3558, transcribed by]