How the Israeli Army Sent Messages in the Days Before WhatsApp

The humble homing pigeon played a key role in the army's communications during the War of Independence in 1948. Now, the country's most famous dovecote is looking to take flight once more

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Haim Wolf at the Givat Brenner dovecote in central Israel, April 5, 2017.
Haim Wolf at the Givat Brenner dovecote in central Israel, April 5, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

At the entrance to Kibbutz Givat Brenner's dovecote, pigeon keeper Haim Wolf found time this week to debunk an ancient myth. The dozens of years he has spent with pigeons taught him that the Hebrew expression “Like a pair of pigeons” – in which the bird symbolizes loyalty and eternal love – is far from the truth. “Just like human beings, there are pigeons that fool around on the side,” he notes.

There are more than 50 pigeons in the dovecote Wolf has been rebuilding in recent years, since the central Israeli kibbutz decided to revive the place recognized by the state as a National Heritage Site.

“This dovecote is the last remnant of the system of homing pigeons that operated in Israel,” says Tal Ben-Nun Glass from the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, the driving force behind the initiative to preserve, renovate and reopen the dovecote, which had been neglected for years.

The pictures, documents and stories collected at Givat Brenner provide a glimpse into a forgotten age, when pigeons filled the role reserved today for WhatsApp: sending short messages, fast (well, relatively quickly).

Givat Brenner's dovecote was built by the Israel Defense Forces in 1948. It was used during the War of Independence by the pigeon unit of the Signal Corps, under the command of Shimon Handler (who is mentioned in Meir Shalev's 2009 novel "A Pigeon and a Boy"). About 60 soldiers and some 1,000 pigeons served in the unit. Homing pigeons were used to contact isolated communities and during operational activities.

Detailed evidence of this can be found in the pages of the “Yonograma” (a portmanteau of “yona,” or pigeon, and “telegram”) and special notes that are kept on the kibbutz.

Two such notes contain documentation of the operation in which three kibbutz members were killed in a nearby Arab village in March 1948. On March 29, they sent a homing pigeon with the message, “We arrived safely.” The next day, though, their friends sent another pigeon that bore the sad notice: “Killed in battle: Berthold Levy, Oded Yarkoni and Hanan Peltz. Others well. Don’t know when we’ll return.”

Along with the Givat Brenner dovecote operated by the IDF, there were also other pigeon lofts in Merhavia and Tzrifin. The IDF also equipped its soldiers with portable dovecotes, which they carried with them, and larger dovecotes that were towed by an army vehicle. The pigeons were trained to return to these dovecotes from wherever they were sent.

A pigeon in every plane

In the “Handbook for the Pigeon Handler,” which was published by the Signal Corps in 1950, there are “operating instructions” for the soldiers: Remove the pigeon from the basket, attach a tube to its leg while holding it properly, and release the bird by throwing it upward. Try to throw it as high as possible.”

Givat Brenner had already established a reputation for raising and training homing pigeons before the War of Independence. In 1938, another dovecote on the kibbutz operated on behalf of pre-state underground military organizations the Palmach and the Haganah, but today there is no trace of them.

The most famous example of the use of homing pigeons before the establishment of Israel dates to Ottoman Palestine in 1917, when the Turks intercepted a pigeon sent to the British by the NILI underground organization, exposing the Jewish spy network.

Wolf says historical IDF research shows that pigeons were also recruited to the air force: They would be given to pilots flying piston-engine aircraft and if the plane was about to crash, the pigeon would be released with a message.

The Intelligence Corps also operated a pigeon unit, “but for obvious reasons the information about it is partial,” as researchers Yigal and Yotam Tepper wrote in studies about the communications network using homing pigeons.

A military messenger pigeon, 1950s.Credit: Palmach archives

In their study, they documented dozens of dovecotes in which hundreds of members of the Haganah and Palmach worked between 1938 and 1947. The activity was done while maintaining confidentiality and secrecy. One such dovecote operated in the Jerusalem plant nursery of agronomist Rachel Yanait – the wife of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who later became Israel’s second president. Another was built in Ramat Gan, next to the Assis factory belonging to the Bejarano family that had immigrated from Bulgaria and whose sons were active in the Haganah. In Tel Aviv, meanwhile, there was a dovecote in the zoo, on the site of today’s Gan Ha’ir.

During the War of Independence, a special shipment of about 200 pigeons arrived in Israel from the United States – a donation from a Pennsylvania Jew who had served in the U.S. Army Pigeon Service during World War II. The pigeons were packed in 20 baskets and loaded onto a plane that was carrying airplane parts and which landed in Rome. From there, they continued in a Dakota aircraft that came from Czechoslovakia and flew to Haifa.

“In 1948, one of the kibbutz members set out for Jerusalem equipped with a pigeon. When he arrived safely, he dispatched it to report that,” says David Sachs, a former Givat Brenner kibbutz secretary, retrieving a nearly 70-year-old clipping from the newspaper Al Hamishmar.

A soldier from the Signal Corps holds a messenger pigeon with a note attached to its leg, 1940s.Credit: Hanan Bahir

In 1949, in an article entitled “On the Wings of Pigeons,” the same newspaper reported: “The value of homing pigeons begins to increase in battle.” The article said that in cases where a military unit remains cut off from the telephone and the radio, “then the voice of the pigeon is heard, bringing news of danger and the demand for help with the ‘pigeon note’ tied to its foot.

“Some of them are capable of covering the distance between Eilat and Metula without stopping,” the article added, referring to the southernmost and northernmost points of the country, some 415 kilometers (260 miles) apart. For example, a pigeon reported the fall of Gush Etzion in the Judean Hills in a dispatch that arrived at a Jerusalem dovecote. After the war, the Jordanians used to send falcons and hawks after the IDF homing pigeons, in order to interfere with communications.

The dovecote in Givat Brenner was dismantled in 1953. Three years later, then-IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan dismantled the Signal Corps pigeon unit, saying there was no longer any operational need for it.

But if we believe the Syrians, homing pigeons continued to serve the IDF for decades afterward. In an article published by a Syrian newspaper in 1975, it was claimed that Israeli intelligence was using homing pigeons for espionage. According to the article, electronic transmitters and tiny cameras were being attached to the pigeons and they were used in place of Israeli spy planes.

Closing the circle

The recreation of the Givat Brenner dovecote has taken about a decade to get off the ground. Kibbutz members received funding from a government program, and the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites – which is successfully heading the preservation of many historical sites throughout the country – was charged with implementation. The Palmach archive also contributed to completing the project and provided important documentation on the organization’s pigeon handlers, which is kept in the archive.

Among other things, you can see pictures of Lea Ziegler-Anafi, a pigeon handler in the Signal Corps who served in the Givat Brenner dovecote. She was a source of information and inspiration for Shalev’s “A Pigeon and a Boy,” in which he wrote: "After a love letter brought by a pigeon, the sender and the addressee would never again consent to any other type of postman. Nothing would ever compare to the dispatching, the vanishing before escorting eyes, the appearance – at the very same moment – before awaiting eyes."

The information provided by Ziegler-Anafi also helped preserve and recreate the dovecote.

The first pigeons at the recreated dovecote were donated by Haim Sperling, a pigeon-keeping expert who had received his first pigeon from the pigeon handler at Givat Brenner - thus closing a circle. Ziegler-Anafi and Sperling died about two years ago and weren't around to see the opening of the historical dovecote to the public at the weekend.

A visit to the site is not only a historical journey; you also get to observe the pigeons in action – the results of Wolf's labors. First he taught the fledglings to leave the dovecote and then re-enter it. Then he took them several hundred meters from the dovecote and released them to fly back. Following that, he took them about 20 kilometers away and watched them fly back. “Every pigeon knows how to return to its dovecote from any distance. We don’t know how that happens,” he says, although some research suggests it is due to magnetoreception. “They rise, begin to circle in the air, choose the direction and fly. Each one arrives separately. Some after half an hour, others after a day,” he adds.

The training takes anything from three to six months, and Wolf’s pigeons ultimately know how to return to Givat Brenner from anywhere in Israel.

“My pigeons have already arrived from Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva,” he says proudly, although he admits not all of them make it home. “Some are devoured by falcons, hawks and ravens. Others head to other dovecotes and disappear.”

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