Saturday, July 18, 2009

Pigeons Forward

#1: From “Wonder Weapons Between The Wars,” Army Magazine, June 1984. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved.

Snickers-Horace Pigeon Catapult (Great Britain, 1917). Mounted on a Snickers three-tonne, K-type lorry, the pigeon catapult was a natural follow-on to the more common pigeon vans used by the Royal Army Signal Corps (RASC) in World War I. The idea itself was born amid the rolling barrages of the French battlefields, as the RASC suffered increasingly prohibitive losses among its highly trained messenger pigeons.

At the Second Battle of the Somme, the pigeons suffered in in-flight casualty rate of 80 per cent.

Lt Col Vandemere Horace then suggested the concept of propelling the pigeons through the deadly curtains of fire at a higher rate of speed – in effect, a booster system. Several variants were tried, including a pneumatic gun and large rubber bands. But Col Horace, who had taken a second in Classics at Oxford (Balliol, ’01) insisted the Roman catapult was the answer.

Events proved him right. Properly synchronized, the catapult launcher was an amazing success during field trials on Salisbury Plain in 1916, where wet athletic socks were used to simulate the messenger pigeons. The special shields extending from the sides of the lorry (see drawing) protected the RASC crew from pigeons launched with acute trajectories, while padding on the upper shield sides preserved overshot birds from serious injury.

The use of the pigeon catapult was temporarily discontinued when an outbreak of trench molt devastated the entire stock of RASC messenger pigeons in June, 1917.

1 comment:

Richard Laurence Baron said...

I wrote this “Wonder Weapons Between The Wars” series for ARMY Magazine in '84. The series introduction read:

“Some weapons get all the glory: the Sherman tank, the Bedford lorry, the Tiger tank. How quickly we forget the vehicles that did the donkey work – the tough, unglamorous jobs that characterize the everyday life of any military establishment.

“These special-purpose vehicles should not be allowed to fade from history without a last salute. In their time and place, they, too, have been, as the noble Bard said, ‘Warriors for the working day.’”

Thanks to then-Editor-in-Chief L James Binder for his encouragement and sense of humor.