Few people realize that in World War II carrying a homing pigeon on bombers during missions was common.
One aircrew 70 years ago could thank a pigeon called Winkie for saving their lives.
Her reward? The Dickin Medal, the equivalent of a Victoria Cross, created especially for animals. Winkie the pigeon was the first of many animals honored by the veterinary charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) during the conflict.
On February 23, 1942, a badly damaged RAF bomber ditched into the North Sea after returning from a mission over Norway. Their Beaufort bomber had been struck by enemy fire and crashed into the sea more than 100 miles from home.
Trying to cope with the freezing water and unable to transmit an accurate position back to base, the aircrew faced a lonely, cold death.
But as the aircraft descended, the crew had managed to deploy their last chance – a carrier pigeon. The blue chequered hen bird, Winkie, was set free in the expectation it could wing its way home to its loft in Broughty Ferry, close to Dundee, and so alert their colleagues.
During the Second World War, carrier pigeons were common on RAF bombers for this kind of situation, yet in a time before satellite locator beacons and GPS, a rescue was not guaranteed. But this time, their hope was rewarded.
Winkie did arrive home after flying 120 miles. She was discovered, fatigued and covered in oil, by owner George Ross who quickly told RAF Leuchars in Fife. The pigeon was not carrying a message, but the RAF were able to determine the position of the downed bomber using the time difference between the plane ditching and the appearance of the bird, factoring in the wind direction and even the effect of the oil on Winkie’s feathers in reducing her flight velocity.
A rescue mission was started, and the men were located within a quarter-hour.
Elaine Pendlebury, from the PDSA, said the carrier pigeon had been released as a last-ditch effort when the crew realized they had other alternatives.
She found the story very, very moving. These people would have perished without this pigeon message arriving.
Winkie became a celebrity, with a dinner held in her honor. One year later, she became the first animal to receive the Dickin Medal, named after the PDSA’s creator, Maria Dickin, for ‘delivering a message under exceptional difficulties.’
More than 60 animals have since received the medal, including one cat, three horses, and 18 dogs.
It is very difficult for us today, with emails and mobile phones, to think about the way communication would have occurred in wartime in the 1940s, Pendlebury told BBC Scotland.
One pigeon, called GI Joe, was an American bird which saved more than 1,000 lives when it got a dispatch through that a village about to be bombed had actually been retaken by British troops. Another, Mary of Exeter, was employed to transfer top secret messages and was treated with 22 stitches after being injured, BBC News reported.
Elaine Pendlebury been a veterinary surgeon for a long time. To her, the animals that have been awarded the Dickin Medal are an inspiration. They have behaved above and beyond the call of duty, Pendlebury added. The message on the medal is ‘We Also Serve,’ and that says it all, really.