Maintaining and Threatening Wartime Communications: Homing Pigeons in Britain, 1939-1945
Homing pigeons were enrolled by the British armed forces during the Second World War as a mode of communication. Famously, they were parachuted in bright orange boxes into occupied Europe for espionage purposes. But they were also used as a form of S.O.S. communications by RAF bomber crews downed in the sea and were mobilised by the army for secret communications – most notably on D-day. However, this mobilisation of homing pigeons by the British state was also underpinned by efforts to regulate and contain the movements of the majority of those owned by civilians – predominantly working class men – on the Home Front. Amid fears of an internal ‘Fifth Column’ of spies, homing pigeons were represented as a potential means of subversive communications. Their ability to transgress borders with minimal detection caused anxiety within the Home Office, leading to state officials not only inspecting pigeon lofts but also destroying those without official permits.
Drawing on recent insights from the ‘mobility turn’, which considers the physical movements, representations and practices that encompass the politics of mobility, this paper will examine how the movements of homing pigeons were simultaneously enrolled and contained. This will not only demonstrate how humans both co-operated, and came into conflict, with homing pigeons, but will also show how efforts to control the mobility of pigeons reveal wider co-operations and contestations between pigeon keepers and the state at a time of war. Subsequently, this paper contributes to the fields of animal history, mobility studies, and the cultural and social histories of wartime Britain.