Unsung heroes: the war dogs who fought in World War II
Unsung heroes: the war dogs who fought in World War II

War dogs who served in the armed forces during World War II.

In May 1941, during the dark days of the Second World War, a few small adverts started appearing in the columns of various press publications up and down the country.

“To British Dog Owners,” the bulletins proclaimed. “Your country needs dogs for defence. Alsations, Collies and other large breeds. Here is your great opportunity to actively help to win the war – will you loan one?”

The adverts were primarily designed by the War Office to test public opinion over the merits of sending people’s beloved pets to combat, but the response was overwhelming.

Within two weeks there had been a staggering 7,000 offers of dogs – not least because in such straitened times many were struggling to feed their pets.

One woman sent a message to accompany her offer: “my husband has gone, my sons have gone, take my dog to help bring this cruel world to an early end.”

And so, the most unusual regiment of the war started to form.

Britain had used dogs in military service before. During the Great War, Lt Col Edwin Hautenville Richardson had trained hundreds of Airedales up at his kennels in Shoeburyness, Essex, to carry messages along the communication lines of the Western Front.

But the War Dogs Training School was a different beast altogether. When it officially opened for business on May 5, 1942 at a greyhound kennels in Northaw, near Potters Bar, 40 recruits were eagerly awaiting training. By the end of the war some 3,300 had been successfully dispatched to units across the globe.

Around 200 were killed or reported as missing in action, others went on to achieve some of the most heroic deeds of the war. A few animals were heralded following the end of hostilities, but for many their contribution was never fully recognised. Indeed hundreds were simply disposed of by the authorities in 1945, never to see their beloved owners again.

Now a new book, written by husband and wife team Christy and Clare Campbell, aims to re-write the role of the war dogs in history. The pair, both journalists and authors, have uncovered reams of once secret documents detailing the fiascos and bravery of the animals recruited in the fight against Hitler.

Those such as, Rex, a stray black labrador, who in 1945 helped detect so many mines in the Reichswald Forest that he was hailed by his platoon commander his platoon commander, Lt Peter Norbury, as the bravest dog he had ever seen: “saving casualties that would most certainly have occurred but for his devotion to duty.”

The duties so faithfully carried out by the graduates of the War Dogs Training School also paved the way for the heroism of their modern forebears in the Royal Veterinary Corps. The PDSA Dickin Medal, which was introduced in 1943 as the Victoria Cross of animals to recognise incredible bravery on the frontline, has been awarded 65 times since, including four times to dogs in Afghanistan.

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