The Pigeons of War

Homing Pigeon

Homing Pigeon

The holidays brought with them a case of writer’s cramp; the junior version of writers’ block.  For a sufferer of writers’ block an empty page or a blank screen causes terror. For a sufferer of writers’ cramp that blankness merely mesmerizes. It is, I suppose, something akin to the torpor of hibernation.

By the way, the only bird known to hibernate is the Common Poorwill.  More on that another time.  We’re on a roll here and must not be distracted.

While we wrestled with the Cramp, the earth kept turning, the solstice passed, people shopped, the birds kept eating, and people complained about the pigeons at their bird feeders.

The time also brought the sad news of the death of Richard Topus,  one of the last pigeon trainers who served in the Army during World War II; presumably but not certainly, the last war in which homing pigeons were used to send messages across battlefields, a practice that began at least as early as the ancient Persian military and probably before, war being one of mankind’s most ancient practices.  Genghis Khan employed them.  Britain first learned the news of the great victory at Waterloo from a carrier pigeon.

Richard Topus in World War II

Richard Topus in World War II

Pigeoneers, as people like Mr. Topus were called, served in the United States Army Pigeon Service.  Many were from Brooklyn where the sport of pigeon racing was popular.  Mr. Topus began training and racing the birds as a young boy in Brooklyn. Two of the men who took Mr. Topus under their wings when he was young had been pigeoneers in World War I, when the use of pigeons was far more widespread than in World War II.  Mr. Topus volunteered for service in 1942.

Even with the advances of radio communication by 1942, radio signals remained interceptible and the radios sending them could be found quickly.  The need for pigeons was not gone when Mr. Topus signed on.  More than 50,000 pigeons were enlisted by the United States alone.  The Maidenform Bra company made paratrooper vests with special pockets for pigeons.  Pigeons as well as paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines.

Homing pigeons are simply well-trained Rock Pigeons or, as they were officially named until recently, Rock Doves.   Rock Pigeons can fly for hours at about 30 mph and can get up to 60 mph for short distances. They mate for life and breed freely in and around human habitations. Most likely they are the ones trying to eat from your bird feeders.  You may have seen them at weddings and funerals as well.

Because Rock Pigeons are smart, they can find their way home over vast distances. They can even find their home roost when that roost has been moved during their absence, as frequently happened in World War II when battle fronts were more fluid than the static trench warfare of World War I.  Encoded messages on light weight paper, inserted into small capsules on the legs of their birds often helped battlefield commanders during the war.

Mobile Pigeon Loft from WWI

Mobile Pigeon Loft from WWI

But every military advance is soon met with a counter-measure.  Someone invents an arrow and someone else invents a shield.  Invent radar and someone will think of dropping aluminum foil to confuse it.  To combat the Allied pigeons — the Germans had their own messenger pigeons — the Germans enlisted falcons. Falcons love pigeons to death. After the Germans deployed falcons, the British countered with their own falcons, thinking to destroy German messenger pigeons.

This didn’t work out too well.  Falcons do not discriminate against pigeons: they will eat any pigeon without regard to race, gender or nationality.  Soon both sides stopped deploying falcons.

People are not the only sentient beings to suffer during war.  Animals are killed and wounded as well.  Pigeons are used not only in battle where they are killed and wounded just like soldiers, they are also eaten by people whose food supplies run low.  (The pigeons, not the soldiers.  Writers with the Cramp sometimes leave ambiguous antecedents stumbling along behind them.)  For more information about the effects of war on birds see our post about the Paris pigeons of World War II, written when we were not under the baleful influence of writers’ cramp.

187 years ago today Charles Darwin left England onboard the HMS Beagle on a five-year trip which took him to the Galapagos Islands and other places.  Twenty-seven years would pass before he had the courage to publish what he learned and thought about on that trip. That is a world class case of writers’ block.

3 Responses to “The Pigeons of War”

  1. Larry Glover Says:

    Great post!

  2. Mad Bluebird Says:

    Read a bout during WW II a homing pigeon named G.I JOE is credited with saving the lives of a 1000 british solders by carrying a message

  3. quent Says:

    look into the pigeon in the french armed forces who was awarded the ‘Croix de Guerrre’, for delivering 12 messages in the battle of Verdun. the last one being with a broken wing and shattered leg which saved 200 of the US military (lost batallion)

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