How a pigeon saved plane crash survivors to win Sunderland’s only Victoria Cross of the Second World War

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It is 70 years since Sunderland’s only Victoria Cross of the Second World War was won by a winged warrior. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner pays tribute to her bravery.

WINKIE Ross was cold, wet and covered in oil by the time she made it home from a plane crash in the icy North Sea at the height of the Second World War.

BRAVE BIRD: Winkie and her well-earned medal.

BRAVE BIRD: Winkie and her well-earned medal.

Despite her bedraggled appearance, and obvious exhaustion, she was to prove the key to rescuing the stranded crew of an RAF bomber – downed 120 miles from home.

“Winkie was a carrier pigeon for the RAF, and she did just what she had been trained to do when the plane crashed – she flew home,” said local historian Jack Curtis.

“Her owner immediately contacted the RAF, who deduced where she had flown from by her condition, and then successfully redirected a search for her missing crew.

“She was hailed as a heroine, and we in Sunderland should be very proud of her, as she was awarded the Dickin Medal – the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.”

Winkie, a Blue Chequer hen, was bred at Whitburn Bents Farm by farmer AR Colley, who later sent the bird to be trained for RAF duty by Dundee plumber James Ross.

“Breeders found it impossible to get corn to feed their birds during the war, unless they worked with the National Pigeon Service as part of the war effort,” said Jack.

“You were given a ration card if you joined the NPS, allowing you to buy enough bird food, but you had to agree to any birds you bred being used to help win the war.”

Between 250,000 and 500,000 birds were bred for war work, including Winkie, and they were used extensively in the RAF – with every bomber carrying two ‘war doves.’ “If you crashed in enemy territory and tried to send a radio message, chances are the Germans would pick it up – leaving you a sitting duck,” said Jack, of Tunstall.

“Radio silence had to be maintained at all times, so the RAF crews used pigeons to send messages home instead. They were extremely reliable – and usually undetected.

“The birds were used for spying in enemy territory as well. Microfilm and other information could be tied to their legs by agents, who then sent them flying off home.

“This brought great success, including the discovery of a doodlebug manufacturing site. Eventually, if a person was found with a pigeon, they could be shot by the Gestapo.”

Winkie flew with 42 Squadron, a fight-bomber unit based at RAF Leuchars, near Fife, during the war – taking part in several bombing raids across Europe in 1942.

On the fateful night of February 23, 1942, however, the Bristol Beaufort bomber in which she was travelling was hit by enemy ack-ack fire during a mission to Norway.

“The crew tried to struggle back to Scotland, but the plane started breaking up over the North Sea and crashed,” said Jack, a volunteer at Living History North East.

“The impact forced open Winkie’s cage, and she managed to escape – completely by accident. She was actually under the water, but struggled free of the waves and wreckage.

“She was 129 miles from home, and there was only one-and-a-half hours of daylight left. It was also a very cold February day, so you can imagine what the sea was like.”

As the crew clambered aboard a dinghy, huddled up against the cold, Winkie did what she had been trained to do – and flew home to owner James Ross.

“These was the era before GPS and satellite locator beacons, and rescue was far from certain,” said Jack. “But Winkie flew on through the night, determined to get home. When she landed, exhausted and covered in oil, Sergeant Davison of the NPS was called to examine her. Although she carried no message, he managed to deduce what had happened.

“The search for the crew, so far unsuccessful, was redirected – thanks to the clues on Winkie’s feathers, her flight time and wind speed – and all her crew were saved.”

The men of 42 Squadron later presented a brass statue to Winkie, featuring her flying over the waves, and even held a celebratory dinner – with the bird as guest of honour.

The following year, in December 1943, Winkie became the first recipient of the Dickin Medal – commonly referred to as the animal’s Victoria Cross – for her actions.

The citation read: “For delivering a message under exceptional difficulties and so contributing to the rescue of an air crew while serving with the RAF in 1942.”

“She became the only VC winner from Sunderland during the Second World War,” said Jack. “It is incredible to imagine the hardship she endured on that flight home.”

Winkie was cared for by James Ross until 1952, when he emigrated with his wife and daughter to Rhodesia and left the brave bird in the care of his brother, George.

James presented Winkie’s Dickin Medal to Dundee Museum before he left, and today Winkie herself is also part of the display – having been stuffed after her death.

“She is, so I’ve been told, very popular among the visitors, and has even been displayed at the Imperial War Museum and at Edinburgh Zoo in recent times,” said Jack.

“I would very much like to see Winkie and her medal pay a visit to Sunderland now as well. After all, she is a local hero – and we should celebrate her wartime gallantry.”

Medal of valour

•The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for “valour in the face of the enemy” to members of the Commonwealth armed forces.

•The medal was instituted by a Royal Warrant in January 1856, but made retrospective to the autumn of 1854 to cover the period of the Crimean War.

•The VC has been awarded 1,357 times to 1,354 people. Only 14 – ten to the British and four to the Australian armies – have been granted since World War Two.

•Gunmetal is used to craft VCs. Some medals have been created from metal taken from Chinese cannons which may have been captured from the Russians in 1855.

•The first person to be awarded a VC was Mate C D Lucas. He served with the Royal Navy and won the award on June 21, 1854, in the Crimean War.

•Hospital apprentice A Fitzgibbon, of the Indian Medical Establishment, Taku Forts, China, was the youngest winner – aged 15. He won the medal in August 1860.

•Lieutenant W Raynor, of the Bengal Veteran Establishment, was the oldest VC winner. He was awarded the medal during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, aged 69.

•The greatest number of VCs won on a single day is 18, for deeds performed on November 16, 1857, during Second Relief of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny.

•The greatest number won in a single conflict is 628, being for the First World War.

•The most recent VC was awarded to Lance Corporal James Ashworth in March this year, who showed courage “beyond words” during a battle with the Taliban.

Four more local heroes

THOUGH few are considered brave enough to receive Britain’s top military decoration, four courageous local servicemen have won the honour since 1856.

George Bell Chicken, William McNally, George Maling and Dennis Donnini all battled against adversity to win the medal, putting their lives in danger to help others.

Chicken, who was born at Bishopwearmouth in 1838, was a volunteer serving with the Indian Naval Brigade when he won the VC during the Indian Mutiny.

His bravery in attacking a crowd of 700 rebels near Peroo on September 27, 1858, earned him the prestigious honour – but it is not known if he ever received the medal.

The citation in the London Gazette read: “They were surrounded on all sides, but, fighting desperately, Mr Chicken succeeded in killing five before he was cut down.”

Chicken was given command of a schooner shortly after the battle, which was lost at sea in the Bay of Bengal in May 1860, making it probable he was never aware of his VC.

Sunderland-born doctor George Allen Maling was the next to get a VC, after showing courage beyond expectation at the Battle of Loos during World War One.

The battle formed part of a wider French-English offensive, known as the Second Battle of Artois, to capture the Western Front in 1915 – but brought huge casualties. It was against this backdrop of carnage that Lieutenant Maling used his body as a shield to tend to the sick and dying, despite being shot at and shelled by enemy troops.

Sadly, although he survived the war, the GP was just 40 when he died in London in 1929. His medals are held by the Museum of Army Medical Services at Aldershot.

Murton-born William McNally also received a VC during World War One – after showing bravery and courage in bloody battle after bloody battle.

He won several medals for bravery during the conflict, but was awarded the VC for three separate acts of gallantry in October 1918 – including rushing a machine-gun post single-handed.

Fusilier Dennis Donnini, the son of an Italian immigrant, was the last of the local men to be awarded the VC – and the youngest winner during World War Two.

Dennis, who was born in Easington Colliery, earned his VC on January 18, 1945, after rescuing a fallen comrade under heavy fire – despite being shot in the head.

The 19-year-old was wounded a second time while pursing his German attackers, but continued firing until the grenade he was carrying was hit by an enemy bullet and exploded.

The blast left the young Fusilier dead, but his gallantry enabled the remaining men of his platoon to overcome “twice their own number of the enemy.”