Monday, February 10, 2014

Beasts of Burden: The Animals of WWII

For centuries mankind has waged war, implementing new technologies and strategies; thriving through combat-transforming innovation. Since the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution, forces have employed animals into service positions, endeavoring to develop militaristic tactics. Common beasts of burden, such as elephants, horses, mules, and camels were utilized for transportation methods and engineering purposes while 20th century conflicts witnessed the use of messenger pigeons, canines, dolphins and even bears. These animals not only provided emotional support but offered a unique advantage that often altered the course of war.

Notoriously, World War II is famed for using messenger pigeons, dogs and war horses due to their sensory benefits and adept skills which could be honed. In order to recognize their service, the United Kingdom established the Dickin Medal in 1943. This award honors animals of WWI and WWII who have displayed “gallantry or devotion to duty.” The majority of these recipients adhere to pigeons and dogs, such as Lady Astor, a pigeon who carried an Allied message to North Africa despite a broken leg and a wing tarnished by gunfire while another pigeon, Gustav, flew one hundred and fifty miles to England to deliver the first official news of D-Day’s success. In 1944, Paddy made the fastest recorded crossing of the English Channel to deliver messages from Normandy, travelling two hundred and thirty miles in four hours and five minutes. Pigeons' natural homing devices, small stature and flight were used as a means of strategic intelligence. These birds were assembled into special units and viewed as highly prized combatants that were protected by the American and British army which launched sixteen thousand pigeons throughout the course of WWII.

Simon, the HMS Amethyst's cat, while injured from a cannon blast which killed 17 members of the UK crew, continued to protect the ship's dwindling rations from rats
Animals were engaged in every theater of war, serving as comrades-in-arms and altruistic companions. It was a common practice for soldiers to smuggle their pets from home or for an entire squadron to adopt an animal as a mascot for their battalion. Australians typically brought kangaroos on board while Russians and Germans were known to relish their cavalry.

Wojtek boxing with a comrade
One of the more far fetched mascots and soldiers appeared in Wojtek, an intimidating, artillery shell-carrying bear who fought alongside a Polish Regiment at Monte Casino. Besides overwhelming German nerves, he additionally captured a spy, enjoyed boxing with soldiers and later retired to the Edinburgh zoo. Although not all stories are quite as remarkable as Wojtek’s, the majority of mascots were pets who had been abandoned due to the devastation of war. Through adoption, an advantageous liaison formed between the soldiers and the stray cat, dog or bird that was taken in by a company. Cared for and fed, pets simultaneously returned gratitude by providing companionship for distraught men who were thousands of miles away from the soil and comforts of home. Referred to as “buddies,” military units of WWII established an enduring bond between themselves and their animal companions as displayed by Marine Burckhardt and his adopted kitten.
Marine Cpl. Edward Burckhardt adopted the kitten he found at Suribachi, Iwo Jima in 1945.
However, man’s best friend presided as the most efficient counterpart to martial affairs. Roughly ten thousand dogs were instituted into the military and were prized for their keen hearing, incomparable sense of smell and obedience. Allied forces as well as the Axis powers comprehended the unique role dogs played, their importance in war and thoroughly used that realization to the fullest extent. Most were trained to track enemies, guard supplies, protect units, serve as messengers, detect weapons and explosives as well as rescue drowned pilots.
Beauty with her P.D.S.A. Owner
A shining example of ingenuity, Beauty, a Wire Haired Fox Terrier and a recipient of the Dickin Medal, worked with the British civil defense throughout the war. She located sixty three other animals alongside their owners who had become trapped in the wake of London’s bombing. Rex, a rescue dog, saved sixty five lives after the blitz and also received the Dickin Medal in 1945. In addition to Allied breeds, German Shepherds became a famous symbol of the Third Reich’s authority while Great Danes were used to deploy bombs into tunnels or trenches. Disturbingly, the practice of “suicidal dogs” emerged as a Russian tactic. In such occurrences, bombs were attached to a dog’s collar before the Soviets released it towards the enemy as a last-ditch attempt to destroy oncoming tanks and vehicles.

Despite barbarianism and the horrors of war, compassion and endearment existed between the soldiers and the animals they worked, fought and died besides. These heroes proved their intelligence and steadfast loyalty, as captured by photographs stored in the National Archives and through military exhibits such as the New Orleans “Loyal Forces: The Animals of World War II” that document self-sacrificing creatures whose exploits saved hundreds of lives.

"Let the Soldiers Take a Short Sleep" (Czechoslovakia, 1945). Photo by G. Lipskerov


Suggested Reading:

Auel, Lisa B. "Buddies Soldiers and Animals in World War II." Prologue Magazine 28 (1996), (accessed February 10, 2014).

Dixon, Mary. "The National World War II Museum honors four-legged veterans with Loyal Forces: The Animals of World War II." The National World War II Museum: New Orleans. (accessed February 10, 2014).

"In pictures: Heroic dogs." BBC News. (accessed February 10, 2014).

Jones, Rob Lloyd. "Animals at War." Usborne Children's Books. (accessed February 10, 2014).

"PDSA Dickin Medal pigeons." People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). (accessed February 10, 2014).

Swick , Gerald D. "Loyal Forces: The American Animals of WWII – Book Review." Armchair General. (accessed February 10, 2014).

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