Carrier Pigeons in the Bomber War

October’s Feature was a fabulous charcoal drawing of Lancaster gunners preparing for a raid on Berlin in December 1943. It was published in The Illustrated London News on 18 December 1943. The double-page spread was drawn by Captain Bryan de Grineau, a war artist.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed, in one part of the drawing, a pigeon in a carrier case. This clearly shows that carrier pigeons were still being used in Bomber Command as late as December 1943.

Lancaster gunners with a pigeon

Pigeons appear from time to time in wartime publications, for example the wonderful cartoon “Getting There”, from TEE EMM, of an unfortunate carrier pigeon dodging flak and bullets.

‘Getting There’

The 1991 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 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, by Tim Hamilton, HMSO, 1991, pp. 76-77).

Pigeons also occasionally featured in Bomber Command magazine articles, such as in ILLUSTRATED on 21 November 1942.

ILLUSTRATED magazine, November 1942

Part of the text in the article reads:

These little winged friends are carried “in case anything happens”. They bring back the news. And they also call up rescue if the disabled bomber comes down in the sea. They are always carried on daylight raids, seldom on night raids because pigeons do not fly by night.

The fact that pigeons do not fly at night raises an interesting query. 1942 was the year of the showpiece raids in broad daylight, in particular Augsburg, Le Creusot and Milan. The cost of such daylight raids proved prohibitively high, and from 1943 Lancasters flew night operations for a year and a half, until D-Day had made the skies safer. So why does the Captain Bryan de Grineau drawing of December 1943 show carrier pigeons? The drawing is so clearly taken from life that the pigeons cannot be there because of artistic licence. Were the birds there only ‘in case anything happens’ and the crew were able to wait until daylight to release their messenger? If anyone has the answer to this mystery, please let us know.

Below, another illustration from the magazine, showing the pigeons in their boxes.

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