Homing pigeons have long played an important role in war. Due to their homing ability, speed, and altitude, they were often used as military messengers. Carrier pigeons of the Racing Home breed were used to carry messages in World War I and World War II and 32 such pigeons were presented with the Dickin Medal. They ceased being used as of 1957.
During World War I and World War II, carrier pigeons were used to transport messages back to their home coop behind the lines. When they landed, wires in the coop would sound a bell or buzzer and a soldier of the Signal Corps would know a message had arrived. He would go to the coop, remove the message from the canister, and send it to its destination by telegraph, field phone, or personal messenger.
A carrier pigeon’s job was dangerous. Nearby enemy soldiers often tried to shoot down pigeons, knowing that released birds were carrying important messages. Some of these pigeons became quite famous among the infantrymen they worked for. One pigeon, named “The Mocker”, flew 52 missions before he was wounded. Another, named “Cher Ami” , lost her foot and one eye, but her message got through, saving a large group of suuronded American infantrymen.
During World War II, the United Kingdom used about 250,000 homing pigeons for many purposes, including communicating with those behind enemy lines such as Belgium spy Jozef Raskin . On 1 May 1942, Raskin was betrayed as a spy by a man dressed as a beggar and was arrested by the Gestapo. While imprisoned awaiting trial, he was described by other prisoners as being “a learned man, uplifting, eloquent, a support and an example” who sang every night, told stories of his years in China, and took confessions from his fellow inmates. On 31 August 1943 he was tried and convicted, offering as his only defense: Im Gewissen und vor Gott habe ich meine Pflicht getan (In conscience and before God I have done my duty). The following day, 1 September 1943, he was sentenced to death and on 18 October 1943, at 1843 hours, he was guilloted in Dortmund Prison.
The Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valor given to animals, was awarded to 32 pigeons, including the United States Army Pigeon Service’s G.I Joe and the Irish pigeon Paddy .
The UK maintained the Air Ministry Pigeon Section during World War II and for a while thereafter. A Pigeon Policy Committee made decisions about the uses of pigeons in military contexts. The head of the section, Lea Rayner, reported in 1945 that pigeons could be trained to deliver small explosives or bio weapons to precise targets. The ideas were not taken up by the committee, and in 1948 the UK military stated that pigeons were of no further use. During the war messenger pigeons could draw a special allowance of corn and seed, but as soon as the war ended this had been cancelled and anyone keeping pigeons would have to draw on their own personal rationed corn and seed to also feed the pigeons. However, the UK security service M15 was still concerned about the use of pigeons by enemy forces. Until 1950, they arranged for 100 birds to be maintained by a civilian pigeon fancier in order to prepare countermeasures. The Swiss army disbanded its Pigeon section in 1996.