The late 19th and early 20th century Royal Navy was an organisation, to borrow a quote, being forged in the white heat of a technological revolution. The Royal Navy was pushing the bounds of the possible with regard to submarines, fire control computers, and ship design, while Commander Henry Jackson was vying with Guglielmo Marconi to perfect ship-to-ship wireless communication.
This progress was being driven forward by a group of highly progressive and technologically-minded officers centred around Admiral Sir John Fisher, arguably the most influential officer of the era. Thus I was somewhat surprised to find a file hiding in the Admiralty records showing the considerable attention given by the Royal Navy, led in part by Fisher himself, to a far older form of technology: homing pigeons.
The story began in 1893 when a young officer named Hugh Evan-Thomas drew up plans to establish homing pigeon stations at Malta and Gibraltar. Evan-Thomas is best known as the man who commanded the 5th Battle Squadron, the Royal Navy’s most powerful ships, at the Battle of Jutland, but at this stage he was Flag Lieutenant to Admiral Michael Culme-Seymour, commanding the British fleet in the Mediterranean (ADM 196/87/141). Evan-Thomas outlined how homing pigeon stations would allow British ships up to 200 miles from base to rapidly report the movements of enemy vessels. Such information he argued ‘might be very valuable’. Culme-Seymour in his covering letter to the Admiralty fully endorsed the report stating how useful such a facility would be in wartime (ADM 121/19). Continue reading »