Carrier Pigeons in the Bomber War

It’s amazing how lots of little things relating to the same subject come together at the same time when one is researching. In February we published Lancaster Gunners “Hotting Up”. In one part of the drawing, not included in the detail which we used, there was a pigeon in a carrier case (above). This clearly shows that carrier pigeons were still being used in Bomber Command as late as December 1943. The drawing was published in The Illustrated London News, 18 December 1943, and it was drawn by Captain Bryan de Grineau,

Then, a couple of days ago, looking through Pilot Officer Prune and TEE EMM material, we came on this wonderful cartoon of an unfortunate carrier pigeon dodging flak and bullets.

The book The Life and Times of Pilot Officer Prune tells us that pigeons were carried on all operational bomber aircraft (and also on Coastal Command long-range sorties) as a sort of back-up system in addition to a wireless SOS when an aircraft was either abandoned in flight or had to be ditched. Every Bomber Station had an NCO ‘pigeon keeper’ who came under the command of the Station Signals Officer. The care of the pigeon on board, with its ‘waterproofable’ box, was the joint responsibility of the wireless operator and the navigator. Apparently some 96 per cent of released pigeons arrived back or had their messages picked up and relayed.

The Life and Times of Pilot Officer Prune, pp. 76-77

See also, simply out of interest, these extraordinary coded pigeon feathers from the First World War, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.