Pigeons and dogs played a crucial role in D-Day

Pigeons and a parachuting dog were among the courageous animals who played a vital role during D-Day.

During the war, thousands of pigeon fanciers gave their birds to the war effort to bring back news on how the troops were progressing.

Families also donated their pets, with Brian the Alsatian, also known as Bing, sent from his home to the Army War Dog Training School.

The brave efforts of the animals who served were recognised through the PDSA Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

The PDSA Dickin Medal (PDSA/PA)
The PDSA Dickin Medal (PDSA/PA)

This was launched in 1943 by Maria Dickin, the charity’s founder, and bears the words “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve”.

Amy Dickin, of the PDSA, said: “It is such a unique piece of social history.

“Maria Dickin was working in Blitz London seeing the role that animals were playing in the military effort both at home and abroad.

“She went to the War Office and the Imperial War Museum and asked both institutions for her blessing, which they gave.

“The first recipients were pigeons – the messenger pigeons in the Second World War were used to great effect.

“Their legacy lives on through the Dickin Medal but their individual stories are incredible too.

“Pigeons were relentless in their drive to get home but in doing that they saved lives.”

Brian, or Bing, the Alsatian, receives his Dickin Medal along with his owner Betty Fetch (PDSA/PA)
Brian, or Bing, the Alsatian, receives his Dickin Medal along with his owner Betty Fetch (PDSA/PA)

The birds were used by troops to help deliver intelligence as radio equipment could be unreliable, particularly during heavy fighting.

The coded messages they carried were in a tiny scroll attached to a ring on the pigeon’s leg.

They braved fighting, bombs and bullets from enemy soldiers who would try to shoot them down, as well as hawk attacks.

Days before D-Day, a pigeon named the Duke of Normandy was dropped in Merville with paratroopers from the 21st Army Group.

Their mission was to ensure that four heavy-calibre guns trained directly on Sword Beach were out of action before D-Day.

Radios went missing and the only way to relay that the operation had been successful was to release Duke of Normandy with the news.

“His journey home took 27 hours and he flew through bullets and bombs,” Ms Dickin said.

“There was a northerly gale and driving rain as he made his way back.”

The Duke’s heroics delivered critical intelligence to Allied Command that saved many lives.

He was awarded the Dickin Medal on January 8 1947, with the citation: “For being the first bird to arrive with a message from paratroopers of 21st Army Group behind enemy lines on D-Day.”

RAF homing pigeon Gustav released by Reuters news agency correspondent Montague Taylor relayed the first news report of the D-Day landings.

He travelled 150 miles across the Channel in five hours and 16 minutes with his message.

Gustav received the Dickin Medal on September 1 1944, with the citation: “For delivering the first message from the Normandy Beaches from a ship off the beach-head while serving with the RAF on June 6, 1944.”

Paddy the pigeon also received the Dickin Medal (PDSA/PA)
Paddy the pigeon also received the Dickin Medal (PDSA/PA)

Another Dickin Medal recipient for his actions during D-Day was Brian, also known as Bing, a parachuting Alsatian.

He joined the Army War Dog Training School after the Fetch family from Loughborough could not sustain feeding him with their rations.

After his training, he was posted to the 13th Lancashire Parachute Battalion and completed a two-week training course with the scout and sniper unit.

During his career, he completed seven parachute jumps.

As the D-Day landings began, Brian was parachuted into the town on Ranville but became stuck in a tree on his way down.

His fellow paratrooper Sgt Ken Bailey cut Brian down from the tree despite being under fire and the pair fought together over the next few months.

Brian, who took part in Operation Varsity, remained on active duty in occupied Germany but was eventually reunited with his family.

He was presented with his Dickin Medal on March 29 1947, with the citation: “For excellent patrol work and qualifying as a paratrooper, Airborne Division, Normandy, June 1944.”

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since 1943, plus one honorary medal that was awarded in 2014.

Recipients comprise 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, four horses and one cat.