The Royal Air Force Pigeon Service: Bomber Command’s Emergency GPS of World War Two

Homing Pigeons, the Emergency GPS of Bomber Command
Who Could Make This Up?

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.

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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 of Toronto, Canada, (in the hatchway) hands a carrier to Sergeant W Tatum of London, while Warrant Officer A Mackinnon of Auckland, New Zealand, 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 good fix on your position.  But this 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.

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.

In war, 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.

Facts in this post are drawn from a brief description of the Pigeon Service in the book:

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.

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1942. Canadian PO (A) S Jess, wireless operator of an Avro Lancaster bomber operating from Waddington, Lincolnshire 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)  

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/