Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Pigeon Power by Janet Woods

Pigeon Power

During WW11, pigeon extraordinaire number 139 was based at Madang in New Guinea.
               Along with the rest of his attachment, number 139 served with the Australian Corps of Signals Pigeon Service. Their members were a hush-hush unit with superior navigation skills. They were able to fly at a moment’s notice and at a high altitude.
               Usually, the birds went about their business silently and mostly they remained undetected as they breasted the tough and muddy trails and high mountains of Papua New Guinea. Their main job was to send and receive messages and maps that reported the position and movement of enemy troops. Sometimes the Pigeon Postmen were detected and brought down by enemy fire - sometimes killed. There were those who were intercepted by the enemy and used for counter espionage by sending false messages back.
               One of the drawbacks of being a pigeon: Quite a few would have been posted as lost while serving their country – but alas, some of those would have been dished up as a tasty meal for hungry allied soldiers and enemy soldiers alike! Not many survived to pass on the tale of the cooking pot I would imagine.
               Several thousand homing pigeons served with the British in WW1. Far fewer were needed during WW11 due to the improvements made in radar, radio and telephone communications, approximately a quarter of the amount.
               Still, it was a lot of pigeon power, and it would be fair to say that, generally, the pigeon postmen were a brave and fearless unit that made a significant contribution to winning the war. Reports show that the birds flew with bullets lodged in their bodies and wings, trying to complete the tasks they were trained to do until they could go no further and fell out of the sky. 
               Pigeon 139’s unit was especially suited for marathon flights since Australia and its war zone had wide open spaces of sea and land that need to be covered quickly. They are truly power-packed birds. Pigeons can manage a mile a minute and sustain the pace for hours on end, apparently without any stress. Previous to his award winning dash, pigeon139 had clocked up over a thousand miles during 23 operational flights without fraying a feather.

Pigeon 139 joined the army in 1943. Bred by pigeon expert, Gordon Whittle, he was one of several birds recruited by George Adams from the Yarraville pigeon club and donated to the Australian fighting services, where he shared mobile quarters in an uncomfortable, but portable bamboo cage when he wasn’t as base or on the wing. This was probably carried on a man’s back. It was a far cry from the spacious loft accommodation with views over the rooftops that he’d left behind in Yarraville.

So how did pigeon number 139 win his medal? He was in a boat running much needed stores. The weather in the South Pacific was unpredictable on his tour of duty and there was a heavy tropical storm brewing. The boat’s crew was dismayed when in heavy seas the engine failed and their craft was washed ashore on Wadou beach in the Huon Gulf, leaving them in a vulnerable position.
               Pigeon 39 did his utmost to carry out his duty to the letter. Taking to the air he flew through the storm, travelling the 50 miles back to base in 40 minutes, the mayday message secured in the little canister attached to his leg. It advised the recipient that the boat was carrying ammunition, stores and much needed equipment. The engine had failed in heavy seas and they desperately needed help. The boat and its crew survived to deliver their cargo safely, and it was all due to one little pigeon.
               For his valiant rescue effort in 1943, Pigeon 139 was honoured with the
 * “Dickin” medal. This medal is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. It was one of two awarded to Australian Pigeons.

I can find only limited information about the second awarded pigeon, Q879. He was bred in Elwood, Victoria by A.J. Flavell and donated for war duty. It appears he was attached to the US forces.

Q879’s brave feat of endurance took place in 1944 and his story was similar to that of 139, I imagine. The award was made for gallantry after the plucky little Aussie bird carried a message through heavy gunfire to fetch help for his beleaguered human compatriots. Surrounded by enemy fire they had no other means of communication to draw on at the time.

Both medals were awarded in 1947 and the heroic birds’ bodies returned to Australia, where they now have a special place of honour in the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra.

 *The Dickin Medal is a British award supported by The People’s Dispensary for sick animals. The citation advises that it is awarded to “animals that display conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while serving or associated with a branch of the armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.”

Janet Woods

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Thank you.

On behalf of my fellow authors, I'd just like to say a big thank you to all our readers of this blog. We've received over two and half thousand page views last month alone. We obviously have a faithful band of followers and regular readers of this blog, and although not all our authors are regular contributors, we must be doing something right with what we do post.

So thank you for reading, and hopefully buying our stories. We appreciate it very much.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Inspiration for the book For All Our Tomorrows

Why did the Yanks come? The river valley and creeks of Fowey were well defended, as they provided a relatively secure place to hide munitions which the enemy would more likely expect to find in Plymouth, surely never thinking to look in this secret, wooded hideaway.

 The docks, from where the ammunition was shipped and the china clay dispatched, were guarded around the clock, with nobody allowed in without a pass. There were guards stationed in the Pillbox at Whitehouse, and Albert Quay had tank traps across the centre with barbed wire along the seaward edge, as did many of the beaches. In addition, at St. Catherine’s, closer to the mouth of the river, there was a gun point, and one on the opposite side at Polruan.

The navy came first with their minesweepers and Z boats, armed trawlers and motor gunboats, swiftly followed by the RAF, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, plus many units doing jobs nobody quite understood or dared question. Situated as the town was, relatively close to the Channel Islands and to France, the movement of the French fishing fleet within these waters was common place, and who knew what they were up to half the time? Hush-hush boats, they called them.

All my interviewees remembered the American soldiers with great affection, how they were great at throwing a party for the children, and Santa Claus would arrive in an army truck loaded with sacks full of presents, one for each child. The local girls clamoured to get to know them, as do the two sisters in my story. For fun, they went dancing to the Armoury, up near the doctor’s surgery, or to the flicks, which was near Berrill’s yard. So many lovely memories were told to me.

Sara is asked if she would help organise the school children into collecting bagfuls of seaweed. This was a special commodity which the coastal towns of Cornwall could provide, being a variety known as gonothyraea, used in the making of penicillin. Janet, one of my interviewees remembers doing this as a girl – I think she quite enjoyed the excuse to miss school.

By December Sara has been co-opted onto the War Weapons Week committee where plans are in progress for a major fund-raising event the following year. They also had something called Salute the Soldier Week. In reality the town raised tens of thousands of pounds to buy boats and equipment although they had no real idea what operation was being carried out in Cornwall before their very eyes. They collected vast amounts of salvage, old magazines, letters, books and paper of every sort. Tin and other scrap metal, rags and bones. Jam jars, bottle tops and old iron bedsteads. Apparently the pavements were piled high with the stuff. The council paid 10 shillings a ton to the St John Ambulance for each ton of salvage they received. And all this from a population of no more than 2,000 living in 600 houses.

They put up a sign outside the Council offices as the salvage collected increased: ‘Hitler sank into a barrel.’ Even the children were involved, saving for Tommy Guns. What would our education officials think of that today?

So what was all in aid of? Operation Overlord. This was to be the master plan for an Allied invasion of Europe. Everyone knew that something was going on, but nobody dared speak of what they saw or knew. Edna, another of my interviewees, remembers being brought from her bed as a young girl, and told this was a moment in history that she must see.

‘Ships filled the River Fowey, so many that you could have walked from one shore to the other without getting your feet wet. A living mass of men and machines, seething with activity and noise: a throbbing, whining, whirring and rattling; a clattering of gas masks, canteens and weapons, and the endless chatter of hundreds, packed tightly into every corner, waiting for the order to leave. 

Hour upon hour they waited, cold and damp, sick to their stomachs with apprehension and fear, in full combat gear, weighed down with equipment. 

The loading had been done chiefly at night, scores of vehicles driving straight onto the LSTs; thousands of foot soldiers directed up the gangway and counted on board. 

It was June 4 and they left later that night but by the following day were driven back by the weather to spend yet another night in harbour. After all these months of preparation, all the careful planning and organising, the fate of Operation Overlord appeared to be at the mercy of the elements. There was a storm brewing and if the weather did not improve, there would be further delays. 

Twenty-four hours later the decision finally came. This time for real. On the night of June 5 they left the safe waters of Fowey, Falmouth and the Helford River, and all the other ports along the south coast for the last time and headed out to sea. Operation Overlord was underway at last.’ 

We all know the heavy toll of their victory in reality. What it brings to the lives of my characters I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves.

So many memories, of rationing and making do; colour prejudice, fights and love affairs; Fowey Home Guard who once sank the boat they were towing upstream; French Fishing boats and Secret Operations; the huge camp up at Windmill; the wounded being brought home on soiled and stinking mattresses and nursed back to health in lovely quiet Fowey; school children competing to collect the most salvage and being told off for straying under the coils of barbed wire.

There were tragedies, of course, much pain and suffering, fear and trauma, and no one will ever forget those brave men. But most of all we like to remember the good times, and the spirit that is essentially Fowey.

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