Animals at War
The declaration of war in 1939 was heartbreaking for British pet owners, with hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats being put down. Pets were not allowed in public air raid shelters, and there were fears that there wouldn't be enough food during the war for humans, let alone animals. However, many animals did their bit for the war effort.
For example, dogs were used to search bomb sites for buried victims, with seven dogs being awarded the Dickin Medal for 'conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in military conflict'. One of the most famous dogs in Britain was a St Bernard called Bamse, who was the mascot of the Free Norwegian forces stationed in Scotland. Bamse was an official crew member of a ship that managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. While stationed in Scotland, Bamse rescued a Norwegian sailor who’d fallen overboard, and saved another from a knife-wielding assailant (by pushing the villain into the sea). The crew bought Bamse a bus pass, which hung around his neck, and he would take the bus into town by himself to round up any crew members who were late returning to the ship. Bamse would often have a bowl of beer with the men, and he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper and centre forward when they played football on deck. When he died of a heart attack in 1944, Scottish school children lined the streets to watch his funeral procession through the town of Montrose, where he was buried and where a statue of him stands today.
Horses also did their bit during the war, taking the place of tractors, delivery vans and cars after petrol rationing began. However, for the military, the most valuable animals were pigeons, who acted as messengers in circumstances when it was impossible to use radio communication. Thirty-two pigeons, including Commando, Winkie, G.I. Joe, Flying Dutchman, William of Orange, Gustav and Paddy, were awarded the Dickin Medal for their services during the Second World War (and you can watch pigeons Gustav and Paddy receive their medals here).