When War Gets Weird

When Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, the British needed up-to-date intelligence, and fast. But how could Belgian civilians get information about German troop numbers and movements out of the occupied territory? Help came from above, in the form of a confused pigeon strapped into a parachute, floating gently to the ground. The British parachuted homing pigeons into the area from airplanes and balloons, says Peter Taylor, author of Weird War One: Intriguing Items and Fascinating Feats from the First World War (Imperial War Museums, 2017). Strapped to each bird were instructions asking civilians to write down intelligence information, attach the scrap of paper to the bird, and then release the pigeon so that it could fly home.

Belgian civilians wrote down information about German troop movements and sent the intel home with the pigeons. But the Germans soon caught on, and began to substitute German birds that would return to their own lofts, writes Peter Taylor in his book Weird War One. (Via Imperial War Museums collection)

The pigeon parachute was the inspiration for Taylor’s book, and its sequel, Weird War Two. “Very early on, I had the idea for a book about all the strangest items in the Imperial War Museums collection,” he says. (His actual job was to search the collections and work with historians to find material that would be of interest to book publishers, especially in the run-up to the World War I centenary in 2014.) But he was worried there might not be enough weird items for a book. “So I carried on looking,” he says. “It was a mixture of proper research—talking to curators, reading books, trawling through the archives—and suitably strange research: for example, (mis)using the museum’s database by typing in odd words for hours to see what came up (‘Socks,’ ‘Disguise,’ ‘Secret,’ ‘Insect’). It’s hard to have a completely sensible plan for finding strange and surprising things.”

This went on for a couple of years, and eventually Taylor had enough for a book. “But by then I couldn’t bear to let someone else write these books,” he says. “I argued that although I wasn’t a historical expert, I was an ‘expert’ in the field of what is strange. The museum was kind enough to indulge me and publish the books itself, having run them past its historians to check I hadn’t made any slips.”

The books reflect Taylor’s sense of humor and preoccupations. (“There are a lot of pigeons,” he explains.) “People often ask me what emerges from the book, whether it has a serious message,” he adds. “I guess it’s a tribute to the creativity, inventiveness, and even silliness that can flourish in even the darkest of times.”

Click on the thumbnails below to see some of the aviation-related items from Taylor’s books. Posted with the permission of the publisher.

“Spitfires used for photo reconnaissance missions during the day were usually painted blue, but those that went out at dusk or dawn were given a cute ‘Camoutint Pink’ color to blend better with the sky,” notes Taylor. (Via Imperial War Museums collection)
“In 1944, the U.S. government asked the Maiden Form brassiere company to make 28,500 special vests to protect carrier pigeons strapped to the chests of paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines,” writes Taylor. “British paratroopers simply cut the end off an old sock and stuffed the bird in.” (Via Smithsonian National Museum of American History)
“Designed to enable the ‘pilot’ to survey the battlefield and signal enemy positions, the Perkins Man-Carrying Kite of 1915 stalled at the testing stage,” writes Taylor. (Via Imperial War Museums collection)
“This bizarre helicopter-like device is actually a Goertz Sound Locator,” writes Taylor. “Before radar was invented later in the [Second World] War, these giant ear trumpets were the state-of-the-art equipment for tracking enemy aircraft.” (Via Imperial War Museums collection)
“It’s a tough call, but, the prize for the most bizarre plan to escape from Colditz POW camp goes to…the ‘Colditz Cock,’ a two-man glider,” writes Taylor. “Constructed mostly from bed boards and sheets stiffened with porridge, the glider was completed in the castle’s attic in 1944, but never actually flew. A reconstruction made from these plans in 2012 showed that it might have made it.” (Via Imperial War Museums collection)

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