Behind enemy lines

14th November 2003 at 00:00
There are hundreds of stories about pigeons like Cher Ami flying missions, getting wounded and saving lives.

In both world wars and in the Korean War, military pigeons were kept on aeroplanes and warships, carrying messages when equipment failed and even flying with tiny cameras that took pictures of the enemy.

In 1918, the British air force had more than 20,000 pigeons in service, looked after by 380 "pigeoneers". In the Battle of Marne in 1914, Allied troops prevented the Germans from marching on Paris. As the troops moved, the pigeons' lofts went with them, yet each of the 72 birds used in the battle found its mobile home.

Also during the First World War, pigeons with message holders on their legs were placed in baskets attached to parachutes and flown over occupied France. The birds were parachuted down to Earth, bearing messages in French and Flemish asking the reader to send back information that might help the British fight the Germans.

In the Second World War, 1,000 British troops defeated the enemy in an Italian village, before discovering that Allied planes were about to bomb the area. The soldiers tried to send a radio message to stop the mission but the radio failed. Instead, a pigeon named GI Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes, cancelling the mission minutes before the bombers were due to take off. The Dickin Medal for valour - a British award for animals - was given to 31 Second World War pigeons, including GI Joe and White Vision, who flew 60 miles in ferocious winds and over stormy seas to deliver information on the location of a Catalina Flying Boat and its 11 crew members who were stranded at sea.

Pigeons even made the beginning of a global media giant possible. Reuters news service began life in 1851 as a line of 45 pigeon posts, flying financial news and stock information between Brussels and Aachen in Germany in two hours, instead of eight hours by train.

Most recently, the birds have been recruited to work with American troops in Iraq. However, the job of saving lives is not as glamorous as that of their forefathers. This time the pigeons' mission is to help warn of chemical attacks. They travel in armed vehicles with handlers and if one pigeon dies suddenly this could indicate the presence of nerve and chemical agents.

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