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Flying Friends

Often coming under fire and suffering injury, exhaustion or severe weather, pigeons were renowned for their perseverance in delivering their messages, helping to save the lives of many men.

Behind enemy lines, trapped on all sides, food rations depleting and water accessible only by crawling under enemy fire to a nearby stream, the nine companies of the United States 77th Division prepared to send out their last messenger. With their own artillery fire now bearing down on them, the 500 or so men, who would later become known as the “Lost Battalion” of WWI, placed their last hope into the feet of a Black Check homing pigeon named Cher Ami (“dear friend”). The note placed inside the canister attached to its leg couldn’t have carried a more important message:

“We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!”

With two pigeons already shot and killed shortly after release and all previous runners’ feared either captured, killed or lost, Cher Ami rose above the safety of the hill as the battalions fate hung in the balance. Amongst a barrage of gunfire Cher Ami took flight. 25 miles and 65 minutes later, a shot, partially blinded, blood spattered pigeon with one leg hanging on by a tendon, arrived at his loft and subsequently helped to save the lives of 194 soldiers. As reinforcements were sent in to the “Lost Battalions” location, Cher Ami was nursed back to health by a team of army medics who even fitted him with a carved wooden leg. Preserved for ever more on display at the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C., US, Cher Ami is just one of many flying creatures who without a choice found themselves thrust into the world of human conflict and asked to risk their lives to aid in our struggles .

Over 100,000 pigeons served Britain alone in the WWI, and that number doubled for WWII. With communication lines often cut or destroyed by the enemy, the pigeons homing ability proved decisive in carrying messages to and from the battlefield. Often coming under fire and suffering injury, exhaustion or severe weather, pigeons were renowned for their perseverance in delivering their messages, helping to save the lives of many men.

A pigeon named GI Joe helped save the lives of at least 100 allied soldiers from being bombed by their own planes in WWII. After taking off from British 10th Army HQ and flying 20 miles in the same amount of minutes, the US Army pigeon delivered the message just in time and was subsequently awarded the PDSA Dickin medal. The success of the pigeon as a method of message delivery often meant they came under enemy fire.

A more unusual method to counter these flying messengers was invented by MI5 during WWII. To prevent German homing pigeons sending messages to and from spies within the UK, MI5 trained a group of peregrine falcons to patrol the skies. Targeting the Scilly Isles in 1942 after a batch of pigeons were sighted flying for France, the falcons were released on two hour patrols and trained to kill any pigeon that came into view.

Some of the more unusual flying animals to have been called upon are the bee and the chicken. The Romans unleashed the fury of an angry swarm of bees by catapulting bee hives into advancing armies. Even in WWI, bee hive booby traps were used by both sides, when a hive would fall onto the unwitting soldier after they activated a trip wire. In 2003, the U.S. military planned to attach caged chickens to the top of their Hum-Vees as they entered Iraq, to act as an early warning system to any dangerous chemicals or nerve agents. Just like the canary down the mine, if the soldiers saw the chicken keel over they would know to don their gas masks. Dubbed Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken (KFC), it never actually got off the ground after 41 of the 43 chickens died within a week of arrival in Kuwait.

Did you know?

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a group of Nationalists were besieged in the Santa Maria de la Cabeza monastery. Supplies were air-dropped into them attached to a live turkey. Acting like a parachute, the turkey would flap its wings and subsequently slow its descent and protect the precious supplies. When the turkey landed, it meant the trapped Nationalists not only had fresh supplies but a turkey to eat as well.