World War II, February 23rd 1942, a Bristol Beaufort Bomber returning from Norway is hit and irrevocably damaged by enemy fire, ditching itself into the North Sea more than 100 miles from the Scottish coast.
Unable to radio for help, and cast into the freezing winter waters the four men faced a slow, cold and lonely death. That is until a vital piece of equipment escaped; a blue chequered hen, number NEHU.40.NS.1. She was a long shot but she was also the only shot.
Distance to land 120 miles, distance to base 129 miles, 1.5 hours of daylight left. The pigeon had her work cut out. Homing soon after dawn the next day, wet, exhausted and drenched in oil, her owner, George Ross immediately alerted the RAF Base in Leuchars, Fife.
Air search for the missing crew, based on an extremely poor radio fix up, proved unsuccessful. Sergeant Davidson, R.A.F. Pigeon Service, quickly deduced from the pigeons condition, her arrival time, the known time of the bomber’s ditching, as well as the wind speed and direction, that the area of search was in fact incorrect.
A second rescue mission was launch and the men were found within 15 minutes.
This was the first rescue mission during the 1939-1945 war that was attributed to a pigeon.
The rescued crew gave a dinner in honour of both the pigeon and her trainer, it was here that the courageous bird was christened “Winkie” as she appeared as though she was winking at them.
Winkie’s heroic efforts earned her the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross and on December 2nd 1943, she was awarded the first Dicken Medal. The citation read “for delivering a message under exceptional difficulties and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew while serving with the RAF in February 1942.”
With mobile phones and emails it is hard for us, now days, to comprehend how communication would have been capable in the 1940’s wore torn world.
Without the efforts of the small birds there would have been so many more men, and women, who lost their lives, and recognising Winkie only led to more recognition.
There was GI Joe, an American bird who saved more than 1,000 lives when he managed to pass on a message that a village, which was about to be bombed by allied forces, had actually been recaptured by the British. Another, Mary of Exeter, was the pigeon who just would not give up. Used in order to send highly classified messages, she was attacked by an enemy Peregrine Falcon, shot, bombed and was left with 22 stitches, a shortened wing and a permanently injured neck.
The message on the medal ‘We Also Serve’ truely does sum up how important and history changing these birds were during the war effort, and reminds us how much we really do owe to these little fearless flyers.