Their “feral” descendants are often derided as pests, but there is no denying the heroism of the humble homing pigeon in wartime.
An innate navigation ability means that the pigeons will find their way back to their home regardless of where they are released. The secret to their homing skills is still not well understood, but it’s thought to be about scent, the earth’s magnetic field, landmarks and infrasound (tiny sounds that the human ear cannot detect).
During conflicts, pigeons were military messengers, trained to communicate intelligence from the frontline or advancing units, or send Mayday messages across vast distances.
Hand-scrawled notes were rolled up and tucked into tiny canisters attached to the bird’s leg or put in bags on their backs.
Historical images depict pigeons in wartime as omnipresent and essential. They are seen carried in wicker baskets on the backs of bikes or cupped in the hands of soldiers ready for release.
During World War II, there were fears that Australia would be invaded, leading to the establishment of the Australian Corps of Signals Pigeon Service.
Breeders and handlers donated more than 13,500 homing pigeons, and whilst they were not needed on home soil, the birds proved valuable in New Guinea, where the difficult terrain posed no problems for the winged messengers.
“The number of lives saved by the messages pigeons have carried is incalculable - as is the number of pigeons lost in the line of duty,” author Anthony Hill writes in his book, Animal Heroes.
The Dickins Medal was introduced during the Second World War by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals to recognise animals that demonstrated outstanding gallantry or service in wartime.
A blue bar cock pigeon known as 139 DD43 T is one of thirty-two pigeons to receive this honour. This pigeon earned its medal in 1945 for flying through a tropical storm in New Guinea to relay this important message:
Engine Failed. Wash on to beach at WADAU owing very heavy seas. Send help immediately. Am rapidly filling with sand.
DD43 T, immortalised in the Australian War Memorial, is reported to have flown 63 kilometres in just 50 minutes to deliver the message and ensure the boat crew and their supplies could be saved.
The extraordinary deeds of our “forgotten winged allies” have recently gained increased recognition.
In 2020, the Australian War Memorial and the Australian National Racing Pigeon Board unveiled a plaque to commemorate this amazing animal's contributions.
In a spectacular sight, homing pigeons will be released from the Shrine’s upper balcony during its annual Remembrance Day ceremony this year. It’s a fitting tribute to our feathered friends as a symbol of peace.
Gerry Sheean and his brother Ed will be at the Shrine on Remembrance Day to release their carefully trained pigeons.
The nephews of Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean, an Ordinary Seaman from Tasmania who received the Victoria Cross in 2020 for his heroic efforts to continue to shoot down planes as his vessel sunk during a torpedo attack in the Second World War, have been flying pigeons together for more than 55 years. Gerry said their involvement in homing pigeons was a hobby that harks back to their childhood.
“They are phenomenal animals. The things that they can do are just out of this world,” Gerry said.