How Animals Helped in WWII
As today is World Animal Day, we’re going to take a look into how animals played their part in WW2. Often, and understandably, it is human toil and suffering that is remembered most when we cast back to the Second World War. However, the amazing achievements of animals, both big and small, deserve recognition too. Woof.
Throughout the war, and often going unnoticed, animals played a major part in the conflict. Mostly it was mundane, beasts of burden hauling supplies for all sides involved. Some animals had a more colourful role to play though; from traditional cavalry charges to the more unorthodox, anti-tank dogs, pigeon-powered guided missiles and even a brown bear that would carry ammunition and drink beer…
The Second World War may have introduced mechanised Blitzkrieg tactics to the world, but old habits die hard. Against the odds American, Soviet, Italian, Polish and Indian cavalry all undertook successful charges against the enemy; a Polish cavalry unit even captured a German General in 1939! However, German and Soviet propaganda are responsible for creating the myth that Polish cavalry charged German Panzers with lances and sabres drawn.
It’s a Dogs Life
The Soviets made the most widespread use of cavalry, raised to replace the mechanised units lost during Operation Barbarossa. However, horses were not the only animals that the Soviets employed to try and stem the rapid German advance. To level the playing field against the numerically-superior German Panzers, the Soviets trained around 40,000 dogs to charge the German tanks and detonate explosives under the thinly armoured underside. Due to wartime shortages though, many dogs had never trained against a moving, firing, petrol-powered tank on the chaos of a battlefield. The tactic ultimately failed when most dogs that were let loose sought out the more familiar, diesel-powered Soviet tanks that they had trained with, with predictable consequences…
The United States experimented with using combat dogs too. William A. Prestre, a Swiss citizen living in New Mexico, proposed training up to two million dogs to be released via landing craft against Japanese-occupied islands, prior to invasion by regular ground troops. The program was eventually abandoned after millions of dollars had been invested when it was discovered that the dogs were either too docile, unwilling to charge en masse across beachheads or else terrified by shellfire.
A bird in the Hand…
In a less primitive manner, animal instinct and modern technology were combined by the US military for Project Pigeon. Housed inside a glider full of explosives, pigeons were trained to steer the aircraft towards enemy ships and bridges. The target would appear in the centre of a screen in front of the pigeon, which would peck the image in expectation of reward. If the missile deviated from its course, the target would drift to the edge of the screen, and the pigeon would follow it with its beak. The glider would respond by altering its course based upon the pigeons’ interaction with the screen, ensuring the missile returned to its correct heading. Although the project was dropped in 1944, the successes of Project Pigeon led to the birth of electronically guided missiles in the following decade.
The British made use of pigeons too, although in a more conventional manner. Where technology failed, homing pigeons succeeded. Many were issued to RAF crews, and often it was the success of pigeons like White Vision and Winkie that saved adrift airmen from an otherwise certain death at sea. No less than thirty-two pigeons were awarded the Dicken Medal during the war, often described as the “Victoria Cross for animals”.
Dogs were the second largest group of animals to be decorated with this award. Although some have questioned whether his exploits have been exaggerated, in order to prevent his return to civilian owners, a Collie named Rob was attributed with completing twenty parachute jumps in North Africa with the SAS. In the Pacific an English Pointer named Judy became the only registered canine POW held by the Japanese, after being sunk on board HMS Grasshopper. Amongst other feats, Judy is credited with finding fresh water on a tropical island for her fellow castaways, hunting for food in the jungle to bring back to the POW camp, and viciously defending other prisoners from being beaten by Japanese guards.
Some animals were even officially enlisted into the ranks. Our favourite is Private Wotjek, who was a Syrian brown bear that served in a Polish unit with the British Army in the Middle East and Italy after being adopted in Iran. When Private Wotjek wasn’t hauling 100 pound artillery shells to the front, as he did during the Battle of Monte Casino, he could be found relaxing with his comrades, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. After the war he retired to Edinburgh Zoo, and was a regular on the Blue Peter Show! Niesamowity!