Homing Pigeons, the Emergency GPS of Bomber Command
Yes, the Royal Air Force deployed homing pigeons or carrier pigeons on bombers as well as amphibious patrol planes in the event the planes had to ditch in the sea. Theoretically, the carrier pigeons served as a method of emergency communication to send the position of the downed plane.
Checklist: Bombs? Check. Fuel? Check. Pigeons? Check.
Crewmen of Consolidated Liberator GR Mark VA, BZ818 ‘C’, of No. 53 Squadron RAF handling carriers containing homing pigeons at St Eval, Cornwall, after a patrol over the Bay of Biscay. Sergeant J Knapp hands a carrier to Sergeant W Tatum, while Warrant Officer A Mackinnon holds a second carrier. (circa 1943. Caption and photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
RAF Pigeon service
The RAF Pigeon Service was established shortly before World War Two because RAF reconnaissance aircraft had begun flying longer missions and spending far more time patrolling over the ocean. If they got in trouble, radio communication from an aircraft worked relatively well as long as the aircraft was flying at a minimum altitude of 5,000 feet. Radio transmission was better the higher your plane was, especially if you were at the limit of your range.
If the RAF controllers in the emergency radio section received your transmission it was possible to get a fix on your position but unless they could triangulate with another recipient of your signal, they could only approximate your location. Even signaling by radio wasn’t as helpful as you might think. The radio only worked if the plane was in the air. Once below a certain altitude and most certainly after they hit the water, the aircraft’s long-range transmitter would not work. Unlike what you may have seen in the movies, planes don’t float. Most sank within 60 to 90 seconds.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday
If the pilot announced he was going to ditch the aircraft into the water, then the radio operator began transmitting the position of the aircraft in Morse code using his telegraphy set as well as verbally transmitting “Mayday” in a constant stream. War made all of this more difficult. (“Mayday” indicates life-threatening emergency and is derived from the French m’aider which translates as “help me”). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayday
Hypothermia From Water Temp English Channel Killed Downed Aviators Within ninety minutes
In World War Two, British planes over Western Europe were often attacked by German fighters. If the RAF bomber had sustained critical damage in the engagement and could not remain in the air long enough to make it home, then the pilot would ditch into the English Channel. Unfortunately, in the early years of the war, the chances of being rescued weren’t good. If you went down in the English Channel which had a water temperature of 59 F degrees or 15 °C and you were in a lifejacket and not a liferaft, hypothermia killed you within 90 minutes.
Sources: Shot Down and in the Drink: RAF and Commonwealth Aircrews Saved from the Sea 1939 to 1945 by Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork (published by the National Archives of the United Kingdom in 2005) and from the Imperial War Museum.
1942. Canadian PO (A) S Jess, wireless operator of an Avro Lancaster bomber carrying two pigeon boxes. Homing pigeons served as a means of communications in the event of a crash, ditching or radio failure. (Photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. Official RAF photo)