The story of animals both on active service and on the home front during the Second World War is a deeply moving one.
They had no choice but demonstrated loyalty, determination and bravery time and again, be they dogs trained to locate air raid victims buried under rubble, the pigeons that flew over dangerous enemy territory to get vital messages through, or the mules that carried ammunition and supplies through the sweltering jungles of the Far East. The contribution of these and other animals during the war were pivotal to the success of many military operations.
The reliance soldiers placed upon their animal comrades could literally mean the difference between life and death. When asked why they thought such special bonds were formed between them and their animals, the servicemen who worked during the conflict would laugh – thanks to conscription being introduced in Britain when war broke out in 1939 they didn’t have a choice either, so man and animal in the military had something in common to start with.
Here, in no particular order, are some stories of 10 animals that played important roles during the Second World War.
Mules provided the backbone of British Army logistics over difficult terrain transporting ammunition, equipment, medical panniers and even the wounded over what amounted to thousands of miles during the course of the war. The first of some 3,000 mules to serve with the British Expeditionary Force landed in France in December 1939 in the charge of Royal Indian Army Service Corps and Cyprus Regiment troops.
Mules served in every theatre of war in every climate, from the snowy passes of Lebanon and the deserts of Ethiopia, to the mountain country of Italy. Mules provided notable service for the deep penetration missions of the Chindits deep into the jungles of Burma between 1943-44.
Dogs performed a variety of roles during the war including as watch dogs who, using their keen senses of hearing and smell, would bark at the approach of troops.
Combat dogs were trained to directly tackle the enemy and rescue dogs carried medical supplies out to stranded soldiers under fire. Other dogs were used to carry messages or were specially trained to sniff out land mines or casualties buried under rubble in places that had been bombed.
Over 200,000 homing pigeons were supplied by the National Pigeon Service during the war for the British military in a variety of roles. They fulfilled tasks from being message carriers to having a camera strapped to their chests to take aerial reconnaissance photographs as the bird flew over enemy territory.
Pigeons were also carried in special cases aboard RAF bombers on missions deep over enemy territory, in case the aircraft was shot down and their radios damaged – pigeons could still carry the message back and an appropriate rescue team could be despatched to help them.
Around the world, thousands of horses were used by both army and partisan messengers, scouts, or fighting troops in areas of difficult terrain such as the mountainous regions or jungles where motorised vehicles would find it difficult or even impossible to pass and soldiers needed to travel quickly.
Some 9,000 horses were required for the British mounted regiments deployed to peacekeeping duties in Palestine during the Arab revolt in 1939. Mounted troops were later deployed to the Syrian campaign after which the Cheshire Yeomanry had to give up its horses in 1941 and the Yorkshire Dragoons, the last mounted Yeomanry unit in the British Army, bade a final farewell to their mounts in 1942.
Elephants were widely used in Africa and India for transport and heavy lifting during the war. One group of elephants stands out, those of Mr Gyles Mackrell of Shillong, Assam who had his own elephant transport business before the outbreak of war.
When Mackrell heard that a group of refugees, Sepoys and British soldiers were having difficulty crossing the Chaukan Pass he set out to help with his elephants, in foul weather over a route considered impassible. He eventually reached the starving and exhausted group and his team of elephants carried them all back to safety, saving over 100 lives.
Even in an age of automatic weapons, camel-mounted fighting troops maintained a fearsome reputation. A number of British Imperial units employed camels during the Second World War, such as the Sudan Defence Force who used their camels on mounted armed patrols of the Upper Nile, the Arab Legion, Egyptian Camel Corps and Bikaner Camel Corps of Indian troops who had artillery support provided by the camel-mounted Bijay Battery, and the British organised Druze Regiment.
In one incident on the Tunisia-Tripoli borders at Tamout Meller, 25 miles east of Tieret in December 1942, it was reported The Free French Camel Corps charged Italian forces estimated to number around 400. With swords drawn and slashing they accounted for 150, and sent the rest fleeing in terror.
The mongoose is one of nature’s fighters but soldiers in India and Burma soon found they made a very useful pet, earning their keep fighting off poisonous snakes. A good mongoose would also curl up near their army pals at night and would become restive if enemies were around, saving many lives with their early warning of the approach of intruders under cover of darkness.
Cats were always useful in stores, barracks, and on ships to tackle vermin. One of the luckiest ship’s cats was picked up by the British destroyer Cossack as he floated on some of the wreckage of the infamous German battleship Bismarck after it was sunk in May 1941. The cat was rescued and named Oskar, but just as he was settling in Cossack was torpedoed. True to form, Oskar survived the sinking and was rescued by HMS Legion who took him to Gibraltar.
Oskar then joined the famous aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal where he was nick-named ‘Unsinkable Sam’. After Ark Royal was attacked in November 1941, one of the ships going to her aid from Gibraltar received a signal from a destroyer on the scene stating a piece of board had been spotted with a cat on it.
The location was given and sure enough there was Oskar balanced on it, he was promptly rescued and returned to Gibraltar and given a home on dry land at the Governor’s offices.
A small animal to care for such as a mouse would often bring much-needed comfort to those on active service. Some became mascots, with once such a piebald mouse named ‘Eustace’ adopted by the crew of LCT 947 – he was with them when they landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944.
10. The Desert ‘Rat’
The greatest animal symbol of the Second World War is the red ‘rat’ of the Desert Rats, proudly emblazoned on vehicles and uniform insignia of the 7th Armoured Division. But it is actually a jerboa, an endearing and gregarious little creature, that was both a curiosity and pet to many soldiers during campaigns in the western desert.
Neil R. Storey is a social historian and lecturer specialising in the impact of war on society. He has written over 40 books, numerous articles for both national magazines and academic journals and features as a guest expert on television and radio programmes and documentaries. Neil is an animal lover and is the author of the companion volume ‘Animals in the First World War’, published by Shire Library.