It takes me back to my childhood in Hampshire where my Father was a keen fancier and even had some of his birds parachuted into France to bring back messages from the Resistance during WW2.
Racing pigeons are descended from the Rock Dove, and the earliest recorded reference to the use of messenger pigeons comes from Ramses III (c1200 BC) when they were used to convey news between cities regarding the flood state of the Nile.
Here in Portugal there are around 500 pigeon racing clubs, from Braga in the north and as far south as the Algarve, with three main types of races from the shorter to longer distances which are categorised as: Speed Races 200–300kms (124–186 miles), Middle Distance 300–500kms (186–310 miles) and Long Distance 500-800kms (310–500 miles).
In the longest marathon races birds are released in eastern Spain and left to cross the Iberian Peninsula, covering a distance of over 1,000kms (620 miles).
The rewards for the winning birds are significant and the Algarve Golden Race, the largest in Portugal, attracts prize money ranging from €10,000 up to €400,000.
During WW2 homing pigeons in Britain were seconded into the National Pigeon Service including birds from the Royal Lofts at Sandringham. A pigeon from the Royal Lofts – Royal Blue – was the first to bring a message from a force-landed aircraft on the continent when eighty years ago it was released in the Netherlands. He flew 193kms (120 miles) in just over four hours reporting the information so that a search and rescue mission could be mounted. For this action Royal Blue later received the Dickin Medal, the equivalent of the Victoria Cross but for animals. He is one of thirty-two pigeons to have been awarded the medal. Another heroic bird was ‘All Alone’ who in the summer of 1943, was parachuted with a British spy into Vienne, France. The agent learned important information which was carried back to her home in Staines, Surrey, flying more than four hundred miles in less than twenty-four hours. The speed of her flight and the urgency of its success earned ‘All Alone’ a Dickin’s Medal “…...for Gallantry and Devotion to Duty”.
One of the most famous pigeons was ‘White Vision’ who received her Dickin’s Medal for “delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an aircrew while serving with the RAF in October 1943”. This hardly tells the story! A Catalina flying boat had to ditch in the Hebrides at 0820 hrs one morning. Sea rescue operations were hindered by very bad weather and air search was impossible because of thick mist. At 1700 hrs that afternoon White Vision arrived at her loft with a message giving the position of the ditched aircraft and as a result the search was resumed, the aircraft sighted and rescue of the crew effected. White Vision had flown 96kms (60 miles) over heavy seas against a headwind of 40kms/per hour (25mph) with visibility only a hundred metres at the place of release and three hundred metres at the place of arrival.
Surely the most heroic effort by a pigeon was performed by ‘Cher Ami’ during WW1 when she helped save the lives of nearly two hundred American soldiers stranded behind enemy lines in France.
In 1918 during the battle of Argonne some 500 American soldiers with no food or ammunition were surrounded by German forces. To make matters worse, they were exposed to friendly-fire since the Allied forces thought that they were the enemy. By the second day, more than three hundred American soldiers had been killed. The remaining 194 men were lucky to be still alive and their last hope was to try and dispatch messages by one of the three carrier pigeons they had with them. The first two pigeons were shot down by the enemy and only ‘Cher Ami’ was left.
The desperate soldiers had no other choice and decided to write the final note: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop.” Cher Ami was liberated but while flying across the battlefields was shot down by the Germans. Incredibly she managed to take off again and despite being severely wounded she flew 40kms in order to complete her mission. Cher Ami arrived in the headquarters’ pigeon loft in just 25 minutes. Covered in blood, with a bullet in the chest, blinded in one eye and hopping on one leg she managed to save the “Lost Battalion” who were subsequently rescued. Medics managed to save the life of Cher Ami and even carved a woodleg to replace the one that was blown off. The French government decorated her with the Croix de Guerre Medal for her bravery.
So as we salute the birds of yesteryears, we can look to the sky and hope that in the not too distant future we will all have the freedom to once again go about our daily lives in some sense of normality.