A beautiful item in the equipment of a parachutist is a pigeon vest (non-standard). As seen in the pictures it’s a harness for a carrier pigeon (also known as homing pigeon). This version of the vest is specially made for Airborne troops to carry the animals with them during the jump. There are known examples of jumps with pigeons in Normandy, Holland and in the Ardennes! The pigeon had no problems with it, it was even pretty comfortable. The animal may be worn up to 6 hours in the harness on the jacket, as seen on the photo below.
Pigeons were not jet being kept as pets in the 18th century by ordinary people, only the nobility did keep these animals. Lateron these animals were also being kept by ordinary citizen and they started flying races with them. It was back in 1870 when the first bird ever flew for a military purpose, carrying important information back to his loft ‘or home in France.
Pigeons of war
The pigeon was a big succes in WW1, and they were being transported in baskets / baskets or loft carriers to the front and the head quarters. Of course it is risky to rely on such a animal. Sometimes it occurred that the pigeons did not come back. There are also stories that they fell down dead from the sky, because they flew into toxic clouds of mustard gas.
The pigeons were being given the same military use in WW2. Namely to fly back important information about military convoys, artillery positions, S.O.S. messages and other tactical information. Another problem they experienced in WW2 happened when they moved loft carriers (on trucks for example). The pigeons, once released, flew to wrong places and didnt find their lofts anymore.
During bombingmissions (in the Battle of Britain for example) pigeons were taken standard aboard on airplanes, to send back the crash position if needed when radio contact was not possible.
During the Ardennes offensive it happened that a pigeon on his way back home, felt in German hands. The Germans have returned the bird with the message: “To American Troops: We herewith return a pigeon to you. We have enough to eat. -The German Troops.”
One of the most famous pigeons was ‘GI Joe’. He has saved hundreds or even thousands of lives in an Italian village. American B17 bombers, escorted by P-51 fighters, wanted to bomb the village because there were German troops. The British on the other hand had already taken the town, and released GI Joe as quickly as they could to fly to the airbase with the message to call off the bombing mission. This prevented a disaster. The animal is distinguished and is set up in Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.
The American and British army developed themselves after WW1, but the pigeons remained. In addition to the artillery, infantry, navy, cavalry and airforce units, the Airborne were also being equipt with pigeons.
The first paratrooper pigeon was a male called Thunderbird. At Fort Benning (Parachute school) he has experienced 10 jumps and has been awarded two miniature jump wings by Colonel James Coutts.
During D-Day the paratroopers took many pigeons with them fitted with two tubes (message tubes or capsules). Paratroopers were sometimes equipped for the jump with two pigeons at their reserve chute or under their arm on either side of the body.
Thousands of pigeons were also dropped in special containers in Normandy. These were meant for Resistance fighters to recieve to send back secret information on German positions in England.
Other statistics / facts:
– 56,000 pigeons were trained to fly for war and peace purposes in WW2.
– 95% of all messages sent by pigeon were delivered, so this was a fairly reliable way of communicating.
– The tubes / messages tubes did not only contain short messages as well as blood samples. Even short films and small negatives were being sent.
– Other famous and distinguished pigeons are: Anzio Boy, Global Girl and Cher Ami.
By corporal Jochem ‘Woody’ Blok
Recruitment office, Pir 501st, 101st Abn.