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How NI was to rely on pigeons if Nazis took out our lines of communication

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 05/05/2016

Life-saving WWII pigeon William of Orange
Life-saving WWII pigeon William of Orange
One of the letters detailing the plan to use pigeons to carry communications during the war

A little-known plan to use carrier pigeons during the Second World War has been discovered by staff at a records office in Belfast.

Previously classified files refer to a network of pigeons based across Northern Ireland, and outline moves to set up pigeon lofts in Co Armagh and Enniskillen.

One letter reads: "The Home Guard Pigeon Service is an important auxiliary link in communications."

It goes on to say the provision of pigeon lofts is "essential".

The plans emerged in papers discovered at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Anne Craig from PRONI explained: "I was cataloguing Ministry of Home Affairs files and the vast majority of it was routine correspondence, but the title Police and Home Guard Pigeon Service jumped out at me.

"The Home Guard had a pigeon service for transmitting messages during the war in the event of other communications systems breaking down.

"It might be easy to label it 'Dad's Army with pigeons', but the British Army used about 250,000 homing pigeons during the Second World War.

"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 animals belonged to National Pigeon Service and they were a key way of delivering messages from the front," she 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."

Of the pigeons used in the Second World War, 32 received the Dicken Medal - the highest honour given to animals, and the equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Among them was Paddy, the Irish pigeon who was the first to bring news of the D-Day landings to England.

A second pigeon, William of Orange, helped save 2,000 lives by successfully delivering a message from a surrounded infantry division in Arnhem.

The bird relayed the news that the British forces at the Battle of Arnhem were in trouble.

The 1944 British offensive saw troops cut off and isolated by the Germans.

Desperate troops had sent the carrier pigeon home as a last-ditch attempt to make contact after their radios failed.

William flew the 260 miles back to its loft in Cheshire in a time of four hours and 25 minutes.

Belfast Telegraph

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