Fenland artist’s bird’s eye view

TO some, they are the scourge of modern-day town centres. To others, just rats with wings.

TO some, they are the scourge of modern-day town centres. To others, just rats with wings.

Yet during the last war, pigeons played a vital part delivering messages from behind enemy lines which often saved lives.

Now their heroic achievements are being commemorated in an exhibition opening today, which includes a bird’s eye view of the Fens.

Lyndall Phelps became fascinated by how the much-maligned birds were used to carry messages from friendly spies and distress calls from aircrews who had been shot down by the enemy, when she visited London’s Imperial War Museum.

“They had a stuffed pigeon attached to a parachute,” said Miss Phelps, an Australian artist who relocated from New South Wales to East Anglia 10 years ago. “I thought, I like that - that was the start of five years’ research.”

Ely-based Miss Phelps combed archives and consulted pigeon fanciers from across the Fens to assist with her research.

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One aspect of pigeon history the exhibition highlights is the relationship between the birds and wartime Lancaster crews.

Each bomber would carry a brace of pigeons with parachutes fitted. If they were attacked by the enemy and the aircraft was too damaged to make it back to its base, a last known position would be hastily-scrawled on a note attached to the pigeon, before it was thrown free of the stricken plane to, it was hoped, summon help.

Thousands of pigeons were conscripted into the RAF as the air war intensified with the beginning of an all-out air assault on Germany. They included birds from the Royal Lofts, at Sandringham.

Some 32 were awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest accolade for animal bravery. They included a bird called White Vision, which carried a message from the crew of a Catalina flying boat which had ditched off the Hebrides, which enabled the airmen to be rescued.

A spy pigeon known only as NURP.36.JH.190 won the award for bringing home the first message from occupied France, in 1940, while another pigeon successfully delivered messages from Dutch agents three times, before being pronounced missing in action on his fourth mission.

At the centre of Miss Phelps’s exhibition are two videos filmed by pigeons, which were released with tiny digital cameras strapped to their bodies.

“They’re attached to the breast of the bird, so you’re picking up every movement, every beat of the wings, every dip,” she said. “You’re seeing what they see, at their pace.

“It surprised the pigeon fanciers - they’d never seen what their birds see.”

Scientists still can’t explain the pigeon’s in-built homing mechanism. But they believe birds will always return to their “home” location via a similar route - normally the shortest one.

One bird in particular - known only by his aviary name of GB-05-X-2207 -seemed to enjoy taking part in the filming, so he became Miss Phelps’s regular camera carrier-pigeon.

“Some of them didn’t like it at all; one of them refused to even fly,” she said. “But he was like, ‘Woo-hoo - let’s get going’.

“I released that bird the same time every day, and he went a totally different way every time.”

Miss Phelps’s exhibition - The Pigeon Archive – is now on show at the Shakespeare Barn, at King’s Lynn Arts Centre.

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