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Pigeons are the hidden heroes of war.

ICAN'T remember who, but someone once described pigeons as flying rats. Unkind, but probably true in today's increasingly urban landscapes, but there was a time when the birds were heroes. Coming up in an auction later this month is the unassuming little lapel badge issued by the National Pigeon Service which helps to prove the point.

I spotted it among a collection of World War II medals, cap badges and paraphernalia which is expected to fetch just pounds 100-pounds 150 in the sale. The enamel badge is a now scarce reminder that more than 200,000 pigeons saw active service in the conflict, and some were given bravery medals for the part they played. I kept pigeons as a lad (post WWII I hasten to add) and I wanted to learn more.

Noah was probably the first individual to use a pigeon as a messenger and since then careful selective breeding produced birds capable of flying further and faster than nature ever intended.

Genghis Khan established pigeon relay posts across Asia and Eastern Europe and the Greeks used the birds to spread news of the Olympic Games from Athens to the various countries they controlled, while a pigeon post of sorts was in existence in Baghdad in the 12th century.

Prior to the invention of the telegraph, stockbrokers and bankers relied on pigeons to carry messages about stock market prices. In 1815, Jacob Rothschild is said to have enhanced his wealth after stealing a march on the markets thanks to a pigeon bearing news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, and in 1851 the German entrepreneur Paul Julius Reuter used pigeon messengers for his famous news agency.

Fancy that: The Service badge to It was the Siege of Paris in 1870 that saw carrier pigeons win their wings, so to speak. Six days after the siege began following the Prussian advance, France was able to send carrier pigeon messages to its troops which could be returned within six hours. Of the 409 pigeons used during the year-long siege only 73 survived, having braved cold, fatigue, Prussian bullets and falcons trained to intercept them.

As a result, French pigeon lofts were well prepared come the outbreak of World War I. Around 30,000 birds were mobilised and housed in lofts which advanced with the troops, while the Germans, who themselves used pigeons with cameras strapped to their chests for aerial reconnaissance, continued to train hawks and marksmen to intercept the messengers.

One brave bird, Cher Ami, saved 200 lives among the US 77th Infantry Division's "lost battalion" at Verdun by delivering 12 messages and returning to his loft with a shattered leg, only to die of his wounds. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm.

The National Pigeon Service, which issued the lapel badges to its members, was a volunteer civilian organisation formed in 1938 to provide birds to the British armed forces. More than 200,000 were supplied from private lofts and over 16,500 were dropped by parachute to the Resistance and Special Forces in Europe.

Many were lost in service, falling victim to the marksmen and falconers that German troops used to intercept the birds along the French coast, while others were killed through bad weather, exhaustion, or by wild birds of prey. Others survived countless arduous journeys and some were decorated for their courage, notably White Vision who was responsible for saving 11 members of the crew of a RAF Flying Boat that had to ditch in the sea off the Hebrides, and Commando, who carried vital messages from SOE agents on more than 90 covert flights in and out of German-occupied France.

Another was Winkie, a messenger pigeon on an aircraft which had to ditch because of engine trouble. She broke free as the aircraft hit the water and, arriving at her loft in Scotland, her owner was able to tell roughly from the state of her oiled and bedraggled feathers how long she had been flying and how many miles she might have covered. This, combined with the last known position of the aircraft, aided the search party in locating the downed plane and the crew was rescued.

Tyke was reared in Cairo who served with the Middle East Pigeon Service. In June 1943, he carried a message from a point approximately 100 miles from a base in poor visibility and, as a result, an aircrew was rescued, the men claiming afterwards that they owed their lives to the pigeon.

The Irish bird Paddy was honoured after being the first carrier pigeon out of hundreds dispatched with the RAF to arrive back in England with news of the successful DDay landings. He flew across the Channel in four hours and five minutes.

National Pigeon be sold this month G.I. Joe was a member of the United States Army Pigeon Service which saved the lives of British troops who had captured the Italian village of Calvi Vecchia. Unaware that the German occupiers had been defeated, the Allies planned to bombard the village until Joe arrived in the nick of time to halt the attack and save the lives of more than 1,000 villagers and soldiers.

In all, 32 pigeons were awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal, the so called animal VC, instituted in 1943 by Mrs Maria Dickin to honour the work of animals in war. The bronze medallion bears the words For Gallantry and We Also Serve within a laurel wreath, suspended from a ribbon of striped green, dark brown and pale blue.

The medal was awarded only 54 times between 1943 and 1949, three pigeons - White Vision, Winkie and Tyke - being the first recipients. Additionally, medals were awarded to 18 dogs, three horses and a cat.

Maria Dicken was the founder of the veterinary charity the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, which provides two million free treatments to sick and injured animals every year.

The medals awarded to Commando and Tyke sold in London auctions for pounds 9,200 and pounds 4,830 respectively.. The National Pigeon Service lapel badge will be sold by Nantwich, Cheshire auctioneers Peter Wilson on Thursday April 22.


Flying to the rescue: More than 200,000 pigeons were used by British armed forces in WWII - 16,500 were dropped by parachute to the Resistance and Special Forces in Europe Honoured: Winkie, one of the first recipients of the Dickin Medal, with Wing Commander Lea Rayner and PDSA's founder Maria Dickin High stakes: GI Joe with his PDSA Dickin Medal. This bird is credited with saving the lives of at least 100 allied soldiers from being bombed by their own planes Fancy that: The National Pigeon Service badge to be sold this month
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 10, 2010
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