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The Royal Air Force Pigeon Service

May 11, 2015 Charles McCain 1 Comment


Who Could Make This Up?

Yes, the Royal Air Force deployed homing pigeons or carrier pigeons on bombers and other planes in the event 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.




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.

Date between circa 1943 and circa 1944 (Caption and photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum posted by Charles McCain on )


The RAF Pigeon Service was established shortly before World War Twobecause RAF reconnaissance aircraft had begun flying longer missions and spending large amounts of time over the sea. if they got in trouble, radio communication from an aircraft worked relatively well as long as the aircraft was flying of at least 5,000 feet and preferably higher, especially if you were at the limit of your range.

This enabled the receiving end to get a good fix on your position. However, 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 signalling the position of the aircraft as well as transmitting “Mayday.” War made all of this more difficult.

In war, British planes 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.


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)

#Bomber Command#Bombers#Charles McCain#homing pigeons#pigeons#RAF#RAF Homing Pigeon Service#Royal air force#WWII

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  1. Jennifer Spangler
    January 7, 2016 - 11:20 am

    Great information! You can read documents from The National Archives, London which cover the operations of the pigeon service at

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