Bravest Animals of War

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    Daily Express, 18 September 2012       

            An award ceremony will take place next month at Wellington Barracks, near Buckingham Palace. The award is for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while serving in military conflict’. It is being bestowed posthumously, as its recipient was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan. His name was Theo. He was an arms and explosives search dog serving in Helmand province with 104 Military Working Dog Squadron, and the award is the PDSA Dickin Medal, regarded as the animals’ Victoria Cross.

Established in 1942, it is named after Maria Dickin, founder of the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals), the charity which administers the award. In 70 years the Dickin Medal has been awarded only 64 times: to 32 homing pigeons, 28 dogs, three Metropolitan Police horses and one ship’s cat. Most of the recipients won the medal for their achievements during the Second World War, but more latterly their actions were connected to the rescue and recovery operation in America following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror in the Middle East.

The bronze medal, suspended from a tricolour ribbon, says simply ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We Also Serve’. There are those who decry the notion that the traits of gallantry and bravery can exist in our four-legged and feathered friends, but a new book which tells the moving stories of these 64 medal winners may well convert the sceptics. ‘There was certainly more going on with these animals than mere instinct and training,’ says David Long, author of The Animals’ VC. ‘You need a term to describe the extraordinary things they did and in three years of working on the book I couldn’t come up with a better one than gallantry.’

Long points out that many men who have won the VC claim to have acted not out of courage, but on impulse and thanks to their military training, yet that did not diminish their incredible achievements. ‘The difference is that a pigeon, for example, won’t appreciate the significance of what it has done.’

In fact the first awards were given to three such carrier pigeons, who helped locate downed wartime RAF air crews by carrying back to base vital messages regarding their positions. Pigeon fanciers all over the country gave some 250,000 birds to the British government’s wartime National Pigeon Service (even King George VI donated prize-winning racers from the royal lofts at Sandringham) and the majority perished ‘in action’. But those plucky birds which battled through atrocious weather conditions, survived attempts by German marksmen to shoot them down and evaded the trained falcons the Germans deployed along the coast to intercept them, saved the lives of many thousands of Allied servicemen and civilians. They did this by carrying vital intelligence back through enemy lines to the War Office in London- sometimes across great distances and at astonishing speeds, and after more sophisticated methods of communications had broken down.

One of the best known of the Dickin Medal-winning birds was G.I. Joe of the U.S. Army Pigeon Service, whose most memorable flight took place in Italy on 18 October, 1943. On that morning, ahead of schedule, British troops occupied a strategically important village previously held by the Germans. It was due to be bombed the same morning by the Americans, who were unaware that the enemy had already retreated, leaving the Brits open to ‘friendly fire’ unless they could get an urgent message to their Allies cancelling the bombing raid. Attempts to relay the message to the airfield by radio and other means failed, so G.I. Joe was dispatched from British 10th Army HQ. He flew the 20-mile distance in as many minutes, arriving just as the bombers were warming up for take-off, and so saved the lives of hundreds of British soldiers.

After the war G.I. Joe was invited to London to receive the medal at the Tower of London, in a ceremony which was filmed for a British Pathé newsreel. At one point the camera cut away from the assembled VIPs to show a tabby cat emerging from a doorway to see what all the fuss is about, before disdainfully turning away…

Another animal hero of the Second World War was a scruffy little mongrel called Rip who proved his mettle during the London Blitz. The stray attached himself to a kindly Air Raid Precautions warden in the East End and soon displayed an exceptional talent for locating air raid victims trapped under rubble.

The pioneering Rip was largely responsible for the rapid adoption of official search and rescue sniffer dogs, the use of which is standard practice today in both wartime and natural disasters. But what other dogs achieved after intensive training, he did through a sense of adventure and terrier-like determination, braving smoke and fire, explosions, falling masonry and the perils of clambering over smouldering and unstable ruins. For scores of buried bombing victims, lying injured and terrified, the sound of Rip’s shrill yapping and scrabbling paws signalled that rescue was at hand.

Rip was presented with the Dickin Medal in 1945 and wore it around his neck on a daily basis until his death the following year. In 2009 his medal was auctioned to an anonymous bidder for £24,250 – a fair price for this unique piece of London’s wartime history.

The wartime police horses who received the medal – Olga, Upstart and Regal – were honoured for providing the strong, reassuring presence which enabled their riders to re-establish order following air raids and rocket attacks. Despite belonging to a notably skittish species, the horses remained unruffled even in the midst of explosions which showered them with debris. They helped to calm not only panic-stricken members of the public but other, frightened horses nearby (there were still 40,000 working horses in London at the time) and bring the incidents under control.

Simon, the black and white tomcat adopted by the crew of H.M.S. Amethyst in 1948, acquitted himself with great distinction the following year during the Yangtze Incident. This famous episode of the Chinese Civil War occurred when the frigate Amethyst was sailing up the Yangtze River from Shanghai to act as guard ship for the British embassy at Nanking. It suddenly came under unprovoked attack by Chinese communists, there were many casualties and the badly damaged ship ran aground.

Simon suffered burns and serious shrapnel wounds, but after medical attention he rallied. During the 10-week diplomatic deadlock which followed – until the Amethyst’s eventual escape to the open sea – the desperately low food supplies were constantly raided by the growing rat population on board. This is where Simon stepped in. Despite his injuries he soon exceeded his normal peacetime rate of kills, dispatching at least one rat per day, and when he killed the particularly large and ferocious specimen dubbed Mao Tse-tung, the crew hailed him as a hero and promoted him to ‘Able Seacat’ Simon.

His homecoming in England was reported in the international press, turning him into the world’s most celebrated cat. But sadly, before he could receive his Dickin Medal Simon died from complications due to his war wounds. He was buried with full Naval honours at the PDSA’s animal cemetery in Essex.

The English pointer Judy was the only canine ever officially registered as an Allied prisoner of war. She won her Dickin Medal for showing ‘magnificent courage and endurance in Japanese prison camps, which helped to maintain morale among her fellow prisoners, and also for saving many lives through her intelligence and watchfulness’.

A former ship’s dog, Judy was smuggled into the Gloergoer PoW camp at Medan, on Sumatra, where she suffered the same horrendous conditions, starvation and ill-treatment as the other PoWs. She regularly alerted prisoners to the presence of deadly snakes and scorpions, and distracted the guards when they were administering punishments.

Leading Aircraftman Frank Williams took a special interest in the dog, sharing with her his meagre ration of maggoty rice, and intervened to protect her from the guards, who often threatened to shoot Judy as she growled and barked at them. While the camp commandant was drunk on sake, Williams persuaded him to provide Judy with a measure of security by officially listing her as Prisoner No. 81A. In return he promised the commandant a puppy from Judy’s forthcoming litter.

Though painfully thin and battle-scarred, Judy’s presence kept up the prisoners’ spirits. If she could hang on until liberation, they reckoned, so could they.

After the war Judy was enrolled as a member of the Returned British Prisoners of War Association – the only dog so honoured – and spent the rest of her life with her beloved master and fellow POW, Frank Williams.

And so to Dickin Medal recipient No. 64, Theo. The spaniel cross was a star amongst arms and explosives search dogs, making more finds than any other deployed to date in Afghanistan. While on operations with his handler, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, time and again Theo saved the lives of troops and civilians by sniffing out improvised explosive devices, hidden arms caches and bomb-making equipment, often while under enemy fire. Tasker would joke that Theo was ‘impossible to restrain’.

Liam Tasker was tragically killed in action in Helmand on 1 March, 2011. Theo, who was naturally with him, died later that day from an unexplained seizure. Was it the shock of losing his closest companion?

‘There’s a great bond between people and animals,’ says David Long, ‘an inter-dependence that’s not only practical, but emotional. As well as saving lives, they bring comfort and boost morale.’ Which, presumably, is why the military has always favoured mascots.

Bob Sessions, an American rescue worker who witnessed search dogs working tirelessly and unstintingly in the 9/11 rescue and recovery operation, remarked: ‘If these dogs only knew what a difference they make. There’s nothing than can replace the precision of a dog’s nose – and absolutely nothing that can replace a dog’s heart.’

Perhaps ‘heart’ is just another name for gallantry.

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