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Pigeons – The Secret Messengers

Many of you who have joined me in Normandy exploring the D-Day beaches of World War Two will have heard of Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis, who was awarded the only Victoria Cross on 6 June 1944; but his was not the only medal of that calibre to be won that day. The other medal was won by ‘The Duke of Normandy’ and the medal was The Dickin Medal.

Who is The Duke of Normandy I hear you cry. He was a homing pigeon and is credited as the very first pigeon to arrive back in England with a message from Normandy, in a small container strapped on his leg, after being taken to France by British Paratroops on the very dawn of D-Day.

Examination and treatment of Army Pigeons at the United States Signal Pigeon Centre near Tidworth, England just prior to the D-Day invasion in 1944

Examination and treatment of Army Pigeons at the United States Signal Pigeon Centre near Tidworth, England just prior to the D-Day invasion in 1944

The carrier, or homing, pigeon proved especially invaluable during the early hours of D-Day as radio silence was imposed to maintain operational security. But it is not the first time we have seen the humble pigeon delivering vital messages; they were used over three thousand years ago by the Egyptians and in turn by the Romans; and as recently as the 1990s by the Iraqi Army during the First Gulf War.

The Duke of Normandy ‘served’ with the National Pigeon Service, a volunteer organisation that helped with long distance communications during World War Two.

Established in 1938 the National Pigeon Service, bred over 200,000 pigeons which were ‘given’ to the services. The birds were then used by the all three services, but in the main by the Royal Air Force and Army, and latterly the Army Pigeon Service, which was born out of the Carrier Pigeon Service formed by Lieutenant Colonel Osman during World War One.

Lieutenant Colonel Osman was a recognised expert on all aspects of pigeon racing and breeding and saw his pigeons used during the Battle of The Somme in 1916.

Britain was not alone with the use of pigeons during this period; American Colonel Clifford A Poutre was appointed ‘Chief Pigeoneer’ as part of United States Army Signal Corps Pigeon Service. Poutre joined up in 1929 and soon became a ‘Pigeoneer’ stationed in Hawaii, before taking over as head of the Pigeon Breeding & Training Center.

Poutre released his last bird in 1957 with the closing of the Army Pigeon Service at Fort Monmouth, in 1960 Colonel Poutre retired. He died in April 2008 at the age of 103.

Commando, the Dickin Medal winning pigeon

Commando, the Dickin Medal winning pigeon

During World War Two over 16,500 pigeons were parachuted onto the continent, and bought vital messages back to London; one particular notable pigeon was Commando.  Who was bred in Sussex, on the south coast of England by Sid Moon. Sid was a pigeon fancier who had served with the Army Pigeon Service during the First World War, then on the outbreak of the Second World War, he offered the service of his pigeons to the war effort.

Commando carried out more than ninety missions during the war, and like the Duke of Normandy was awarded the Dickin Medal

The medal was sold at auction by Sid Moon’s granddaughter in 2004 for over £9,000.

 

A total of 32 messenger pigeons have been awarded the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, as have 18 dogs, 3 horses and a cat – One of the most recent recipients being a British Army Military Working Dog – Click here for the Full Story.

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