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Archives reveal secret plans for wartime carrier pigeon unit

Published 05/05/2016

The National Pigeon Service was a key way of delivering news from the front
The National Pigeon Service was a key way of delivering news from the front

Top secret plans to use carrier pigeons during the Second World War have been discovered in public records archives.

Pigeon lofts were to be set up in counties Armagh and Enniskillen while a network of birds would be despatched throughout Northern Ireland, according to Ministry of Home Affairs files.

In one letter, the Police and Home Guard Pigeon Service was described as an important auxiliary link in communications.

Anne Craig from the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) said: "It might be easy to label it 'Dad's Army with pigeons', but the British Army used about 250,000 homing pigeons during World War Two.

"They had lofts in different counties and people looking after them. It seems likely that those in the Home Guard were pigeon fanciers, and this was their way of supporting the war effort."

The birds were part of the National Pigeon Service - a key way of delivering news from the front. They carried messages in specially designed leg containers or in small pouches looped over their backs.

Ms Craig added: "There is not a great deal of detail in the file, just some memos and letters from Army HQ, but this probably reflects the secret nature of the plan.

"One mentions a County Pigeon Officer who cannot continue in his duties, while another talks about a grant of £20 to build a loft in Armagh."

Pigeons were used by the Army, RAF and civil defence services throughout the war.

They were carried in all bomber and reconnaissance aircraft and were also dropped behind enemy lines to resistance workers in places like France and Belgium. They often flew in extreme circumstances and were credited with saving thousands of lives.

Some 32 pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal - the highest honour given to animals -- including Paddy, an Irish pigeon who was the first to bring news of the D-Day landings to England, and William of Orange, who helped save 2,000 lives by delivering a message from a surrounded infantry division in Arnhem.

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