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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Wartime pigeon parachute on show
Dorothy Moore and Tony Jones with pigeon parachute
The pigeon parachute was made by Dorothy Moore and Tony Jones' mother
When does a bird need a parachute? It may sound like a joke, but there is a serious answer: when it needs to be dropped behind enemy lines.

During World War II, a factory in Monmouth made parachutes for pigeons to enable them to be dropped into France.

The pigeons were put in containers for the drop, in the hope that people would find them and send information back to the Allies in the UK.

One of the parachutes features in an exhibition at Monmouth's Nelson museum.

Curator Sue Miles was organising an exhibition to coincide with Monmouth's women's festival and decided to focus on women during the war.

"I'd been a curator at the museum for over 25 years and I'd picked up that there had been parachute factory in Monmouth, but I didn't have any more information," she explained.

Valiant
Valiant tells the tale of a messenger pigeon in WWII

However, she had a stroke of luck, when she discovered a woman who used to work at the factory had managed to get some photographs of the women workers having a break outside the Temco factory on the outskirts of the town.

Through this, they managed to track down a few former workers and their relatives, and get their memories of their work.

Film

One worker, Alice Williams, had been one of the women who made the "pigeon parachutes" and had kept the very first parachute she ever made.

It had passed down to relatives, who lent it to the museum for the exhibition.

"It was so lucky to have it to use. As far as we know, it's the only one left," Ms Miles told BBC Wales' news website.

"[The container] looks a lot like a Thermos flask but presumably it had breathing holes in it."

She thinks the factory was the only one in the UK making parachutes for pigeons.

The pigeon Commando, with his gallantry medal - 32 were awarded to pigeons
Commando was twice parachuted into France in 1942 to help the resistance

The role of pigeons during WWII inspired the recently-released animated comedy film Valiant, starring the voices of Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Cleese and Hugh Laurie.

Ms Miles said up to 16,000 pigeons were dropped into France by this method, but only just over 1,800 made it back to Britain, as a lot could have perished unfound in their containers.

"They were dropped in the hope that people who found them would return them with information. It was a brilliantly simple idea."

Many may not have been found, but some could have fallen victim to a counter-attack strategy by the Nazis - a "squadron" of hawks posted at the French coasts to catch any pigeons winging their way across the English Channel.

The Monmouth factory did not just make parachutes for pigeons, Ms Miles explained.

"It was general parachute making. There were a lot that were used for dropping munitions and flares, some for practice. Some were made in dark blue for night-time, some were red, others were white."

One worker, Marcia Evans, had just left Haberdashers Monmouth School for Girls when the war broke out.

Despite a preference for an office job, she was persuaded to take up work in the factory.

"These sort of parachutes were made in sections. We all had our own section to do and there were some people who used to not be very good at it.

"The examiners used to stretch these seams and we'd hear cracking going on. It meant we had to be very, very careful or it would stretch a lot."


SEE ALSO:
Brave bird's animated adventure
09 Dec 04 |  Entertainment
Pigeons 'sense magnetic field'
24 Nov 04 |  Science/Nature
Pigeon's war medal up for auction
26 Oct 04 |  Southern Counties


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