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The gallant pigeon that saved six WW1 airmen lost in the North Sea

Posted in Aviation, Birds, Historical articles, History, World War 1 on Wednesday, 30 May 2012

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This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 714 published on 20 September 1975.

Carrier pigeons, picture, image, illustration

Carrier pigeons, so vital to the survival chances of the airmen

“H.12. N8666. We have landed to pick up D.H.4 crew about 50 E by N of Yarmouth; Sea too rough to get off; Will you please send for us as soon as possible as boat is leaking; We are taxying W by S.”

Squadron Commander V. Nicholl signed the official Pigeon Service Form, rolled it up, and pushed it into the metal cylinder which he attached to the bird’s leg. “Good luck,” he whispered in the bird’s ear and then threw it into the air. As they watched the pigeon circle before setting course for home, all six men aboard the crippled flying boat gave a silent prayer that the creature would reach England safely.

Six hours earlier, at 10.35 a.m. on 5th September, 1917, the men had taken off from the Royal Naval Air Station at Great Yarmouth, confident that they would be able to shoot down one of the German Zeppelin airships that had been operating near Terschelling Island north of the Netherlands. With Nicholl in the Curtiss H.12 seaplane No. N8666 were pilot Flight Lieutenant Leckie, wireless/telegraph operator Petty Officer Walker, and Flight-Engineer Chief Petty Officer Thompson. Accompanying N8666 on the sortie was a two seater de-Havilland D.H.4 biplane manned by Lieutenant Gilligan and Lieutenant Trewin.

Less than half of their intended journey had been covered when they suddenly spotted two Zeppelins directly ahead. But the Germans had seen them first. Two bullets seared through the starboard wing of the D.H.4 and the whine of bullets coming from below, confirmed the fact that they had also been spotted by the anti-aircraft gunners on the German support ships. By now the Curtiss, which had been flying lower than the D.H.4, had climbed higher and was joining in the attack on the dirigibles.

Nicholl directed his twin Lewises into the side of the cumbersome monster. He cursed vehemently as several of the incendiary bullets scored direct hits but for some inexplicable reason the airship, the L44, refused to burn and her crew were now firing back at the Englishmen. Leckie dipped the nose of the Curtiss, to follow the D.H.4 which had ducked below the airship and was firing upwards into its belly. He then turned to attack the other German vessel, the L46, but she was already heading away as fast as she could go. As he swung back to the L44, Leckie was dismayed to see that she, too, was now well out of range.

All in all, it had not been a very successful operation. The Germans had got away scot-free and both the British planes were in trouble. The 300 h.p Rolls Royce Eagle engine of the D.H.4 had spluttered into silence and the craft was now gliding down to the sea. Although still airborne the Curtiss, with one of its two engines misfiring angrily and one wing badly damaged, was not much better off. As the D.H.4 made its final death plunge into the ocean, Nicholl in the H.12 had to face the agonising decision whether to limp home leaving his comrades to an almost certain death from drowning or to touch down and rescue them in the forlorn hope that the flying boat would have sufficient power to take off again.

But Leckie, without waiting for the command from Nicholl, was already taking the plane down. He taxied over to where Gilligan and Trewin were hanging for grim life on to the fast-sinking D.H.4.

Once the two men were on board, Leckie tried to get the Curtiss airborne once again. But it was no use so it was decided that they would try and taxi the 75 miles (120 kilometres) to the English coast.

With their radio equipment waterlogged, their only means of notifying the authorities of their position were the four carrier pigeons carried on the seaplane in case of emergency. At 4 p.m. Nicholl sent the first bird winging over the waves. A second bird, carrying an identical message, was released soon after.

Four hours later, the engines of the N8666 ran out of fuel and the plane started to drift helplessly. To keep the craft as steady as possible in the rolling sea, a primitive anchor was fashioned from empty petrol cans.

During the night that followed, the sea washed away the tip of the damaged wing and it now became necessary for each man in turn to spend two long hours perched precariously on the other wing, receiving frequent dunkings in the process, to prevent the broken wing from filling up with water and sinking the plane.

After three days of this, the six men were suffering badly. They had no food on board and less than two gallons of water when they started. Now seasickness, hunger, thirst, and exposure were beginning to take their toll but the men battled on grimly. A third pigeon was released with the message that it was thought that they had drifted north. This bird was never heard of again. Later that same day, the fourth and last pigeon was sent on its way with a similar message. This final bird reached Yarmouth on the following day, Friday 7th September.

Meanwhile, the massive search operation that had been mounted to find the missing airmen was on the verge of being called off. The very next day, the first of the four pigeons was found, dead from extreme exhaustion, on the beach at Walcot but by this time the search had been abandoned. However, Lieutenant Commander B. S. Bannerman who was stationed at nearby Lowestoft in command of an old gunboat refused to give up. He knew the North Sea well and, piecing together every shred of evidence he could dig up regarding the two planes and their mission and calculating the amount they would have drifted, he estimated where he thought the men should be. Luckily he was given permission to test his theory. Soon after noon on 8th September, HMS Halcyon picked up the exhausted men and the Curtiss flying boat at almost exactly the position he had predicted.

The message that Nicholl had sent on the first day, together with the container that held it, is today one of the prized exhibits at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset. Carrier pigeon No. N.U.R.P./17/F.16331 which had been the first to be despatched by Nicholl and which had died in the execution of its duty, was preserved for posterity. For several years this bird that saved the lives of six courageous men, stood in a place of special honour in the officers’ mess at RNAS Yarmouth but was eventually transferred to the RAF Museum at Hendon where it can be seen to this day. At the base of the glass case is a small brass plate which bears the inscription “A very gallant gentleman.”

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