I found myself in Carnlough, a village on the pretty County Antrim coast recently, on the famously scenic Antrim Coast Road. I do find it odd, though, that the area’s use as a location for parts of Game of Thrones seems to have done more for tourism there than so many of the previous attempts to publicise the area. The village has a number of famous offspring, with the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers possibly being the one most in the media at the moment. However, the local resident who made a big enough impression on the world to have a plaque displayed proudly in the harbour is a local war hero. The decorated veteran of World War II played a significant part in the D-Day landings, as part of an elite team of 30 who carried out operation U2. He was Paddy the Pigeon.
Paddy was born and raised in Carnlough, and was one of the thousands of pigeons enlisted into the RAF when war broke out. As part of his military service, he was sent for training at RAF Hurn in Hampshire, where he impressed senior officers whilst flying in the Air-Sea rescue operations. He was seconded to a special forces team with the US First Army, to operate covert missions as part of the planned Normandy landings. Two days before D-Day, Paddy and his colleagues were taken to France. Paddy started work at 0815 on 12th June 1944, with a mission to carry coded information back to England. He managed to be back in his loft in Hampshire in just four hours fifty minutes, the fastest time recorded by a message carrying pigeon during the Normandy operation. The operation was made more perilous not just by the war conditions, but by the special German unit aiming to take out Paddy and his colleagues; a series of hawks stationed in Calais to intercept the pigeons.
On the 1st September 1944, he was awarded the Dickin Medal, which is awarded for conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in military conflict. It is the highest medal awarded to a war animal, and is often described as being “the animals’ Victoria Cross”. Paddy’s medal citation reads “For the best recorded time with a message from the Normandy Operations, while serving with the RAF in June, 1944.” Paddy is Northern Ireland’s only recipient of the Dickin Medal.
After the war, Paddy returned to Carnlough where he lived until his death in 1954 at the age of eleven. In 2010, Paddy Memorial Day was held in nearby Larne, which included a fly past, and Gail Seekamp reading from her book, Paddy The Pigeon. He has even had a song written about him, which is covered on the BBC website.
The story was made more poignant for me today when Paddy was joined as a recipient of the Dickin Medal by Sasha, a Labrador who was trained to hunt out explosives and is credited with saving the lives of many soldiers and civilians. Sasha served with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, and was attached to the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. She spent time in Afghanistan sniffing out weapons and explosives, including IEDs. She was assigned to work with Lance Corporal Kenneth Rowe, and the two formed a formidable team. On 24th July 2008, both Sasah and L/Cpl Rowe were killed when their patrol was ambushed by a rocket-propelled grenade attack. Sasha is the 65th recipient of the Dickin Medal. The three most recent other Dickin medal recipients – Sadie, Treo and Theo – were all dogs who located explosives.
The stories of many of the animals who have been awarded the medal over the years are remarkable, and show how vital a role that these creatures continue to play in warfare. Their participation in military service is not normally voluntary, and many of the animals have found themselves in very difficult circumstances, but their actions have been remarkable. Courage comes in many forms.