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Gustav the Pigeon

Updated on June 26, 2015
Gustav the pigeon - a war hero
Gustav the pigeon - a war hero | Source

Gustav - a pigeon and a war hero

When I heard this story on the radio recently, I knew that I had to share it with you. I had no idea that birds were used in this way during the war.

Gustav was one of many specially-trained pigeons that carried vital messages from Europe to England during the Second World War.

I know that it seems to be a rather primitive and unreliable method of communication but in fact, Gustav and his colleagues were highly successful and contributed a great deal to the Allied victory.

Pigeons were taken over to Europe, often by secret agents who would carry them in wicker baskets. The birds then were the carriers of vital messages.

Radio communications were difficult in those days and had to be coded in case they were intercepted. The messages that the pigeons carried were encrypted too.

The birds flew across the Channel in just a few hours and sometimes reached speeds of eighty miles an hour. This was an effective and successful way of reporting information back to HQ. Gustav carried the news to England about the success of the D-Day Normandy landings in June, 1944.

The Normandy Landings

The D Day landings
The D Day landings | Source

Did you know?

  • It took Gustav just over five hours to deliver his message. The length of the flight was a hundred and fifty miles.
  • Maria Dickin was the founder of the PSDA, an animal charity, and awarded 32 medals to wartime messenger pigeons for their gallantry. This is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
  • The Nazis utilized specially trained hawks. Their role was to find the messenger pigeons and prevent them reaching their destination.
  • These weren't the only peril because enemy soldiers knew only too well what the pigeons were doing. If they spotted a pigeon, they would take pot shots in order to disable or kill the bird.
  • Two of the birds used during the war were owned by King George Vl.
  • One chief at the air ministry during the war planned to use pigeons to carry biological weapons. This was obviously considered to be 'not cricket' and one official described the man as "a menace in pigeon affairs" - a phrase you don't hear every day!
  • In 2004 a London exhibition commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings also honored Gustav for his heroism.
  • In 2008 on the South Coast of Britain, an event was held where eight homing pigeons were released with not vital wartime messages but poems fasted to their legs. One poem was inspired by Gustav.

The conditions of war - The Normandy Landings

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Forgotten hero

In 2012, a couple in England decided that they would renovate the fireplace in their home. Inside they found the skeleton of a bird. This didn't surprise them as birds often get down chimneys and can't escape.

But then they noticed that the leg bone had a red capsule tried to it.

They realized that this was one of Gustav's colleagues - a bird that had been carrying vital messages during wartime.

The capsule still contained the message.

The code was shown on websites and on the television. A month after its discovery a Canadian expert claimed to have deciphered the message and believed that it too came from Normandy.

Video with more information

Further reading

Several different types of animal have taken part in our human wars. We're accustomed to making use of animals on so many endeavors and war is no exception. The more you read about these animals, the more you realize the debt we owe them. These books make a fascinating read and are also great gifts for animal lovers.

Your thoughts?

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    • AcornOakForest profile image

      Monica Lobenstein 

      4 years ago from Western Wisconsin

      I love that they used pigeons but hate that they were put in danger for a war. Thanks for sharing this story!

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @David Stone1: True Dave, I've heard people refer to them as 'flying rats' as though they are vermin. (Mind you, I don't have a problem with rats,either). They certainly must be smart.

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      The pigeon story is a sad one these days. They once played a vital role, and not just in war. Now, everyone seems to think these smart, friendly birds are a nuisance - now that we've crowded them out of their habitats.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @fullofshoes: It really is fascinating, isn't it?

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      pretty interesting stuff....I remember my father talking about this....

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      5 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @ecogranny: Fascinating, isn't it?

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      5 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Lorelei Cohen: I've also written about the dogs that were - and still are - used in war. I knew nothing about either subject until last year and both are fascinating.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 

      5 years ago from San Francisco

      I had forgotten about homing pigeons and their roll in the war. I never knew that the Nazis trained hawks to nab our flying messengers. What an interesting story.

    • profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      5 years ago

      I like the "Forgotten Hero" line. There are so many animals who have unwittingly donated their time and their lives to their human counterparts. This really is an amazing article. I echo Renaissance womans thoughts.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      5 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Diana Wenzel: I find it so interesting. The fact that a message was found recently is so poignant, too.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      5 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @DawnRae64: Amazing technology 100 years ago :)

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      5 years ago from Colorado

      This is extraordinary. What a fascinating topic for a lens. Those war photos really touched me in a powerful way.

    • DawnRae64 profile image


      5 years ago from Maryland, USA

      Very Cool! I did not know that pigeons were used in this way. Very cool bit of information. Thank you for sharing.


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