A Royal Air Force (RAF) veteran called me after he read a column I had written about pigeons. He told me how some of the pigeons were used during the war. He suspects that the Gander birds were used in much the same way as they were used in the United Kingdom.
Prior to his first operational sortie on Coastal Command, our friend was unaware of the fact that pigeons were used at all, so you can imagine his surprise when he was told as he was getting ready for the flight, "Don't forget the pigeons!"
"Pigeons? What pigeons?" he asked.
He soon found out. Two pigeons were taken along on each flight. He laughed as he said, "One was a younger bird - a trainee."
The idea was that if the aircraft got into trouble and was unable to contact base by radio and could not make it back, the crew would tie a message on each of the pigeons and release them. The message would contain their last position, and rescue could depend on the ability of the birds to find their way home.
Coastal Command in the RAF and the RCAF in Gander, consisted of long (12 hours) patrols usually taken up by looking for German submarines.
Our friend, who shall remain nameless at his request, devised an ingenious method to combat boredom. Needless to say one cannot find his method in RAF manuals. One day, over a beer, he told his pilot that during the next flight he thought they should have a pigeon race.
This is the way it worked: The pigeons after being taken from their cage would be held by the tail gunner who would wait for the release signal. Our friend would then get some raisins from the emergency rations and lay them out in two lines along the floor of the Whitley bomber. Bets were made and the pigeon who got to the end of the line was the winner and the lucky airman who had his bet on the winner would get a free beer on landing, compliments of the loser.
Now, knowing this character as I do, I was not surprised at the next revelation. He used to lay one line of raisins 12 inches apart and space the other raisins a lesser distance, approximately 10 inches. He knew that the pigeon eating the raisins in the 12-inch row would get to the end of the line first. The pilot is probably still wondering how our friend won the bets most of the time. He said, "I got to be a bloody expert at it!" Our friend, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), got to be an expert at a few other, more serious, things as well!
Frank Tibbo writes from Gander, NL