At the end of WW1, with the casualties of war, it was concluded that over one million dogs have been used on both sides, Allies and Axis Powers.
What happened next?
After the end of the Great War Germany, not surprisingly, went ahead, secretly training war dogs even under the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, while USA chose not to pursue further training of war dogs during peace times.
It is estimated that by the time the United States got involved in World War Two, Germany had already trained 200 000 military dogs, while America had plenty of family pets and only a handful of sled dogs – in Alaska.
Over the pond, in Europe, the Allies believed for a long time that WW2 will be a mechanized combat, some experts even saying that dogs, this time around, should remain in the doghouse. It took Colonel E. H. Richardson (the man who began training military dogs for the very first time) and Major James W. Baldwin a great deal of effort to prove to the British government (again!) that dogs would be of invaluable effort during the Second World War as they have been during WW1 – read some amazing, true stories here – indeed!
Using dogs during WW2, a slow start.
First to use dogs as sentries and messengers during WW2 have been the French and the Belgians.
The very first British War Dog School officially opened in spring 1942. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Canine Defence League and the Animal Protection Society of Scotland and Northern Ireland cooperated in recruiting dogs.
Since they started training military dogs so late and so many dogs had been already euthanized at the very beginning of WW2, when food was suddenly so scarce, in their hurry to catch up with the German school of dog training, the British saw themselves forced to use a wide variety of dog breeds: Alsatians (the name German Shepherd was avoided back then for obvious reasons), Airedales terriers (the breed Colonel E. H. Richardson first started dog training with), farm Collies (mostly as messenger dogs), Kerry Blue terriers, Boxers, Labradors, Bull terriers, and Labradors.
Soon enough, the RAF, Royal Air Force, used dogs to guard their camouflaged airfields.
This particular image is a page of history in itself as it was shot by Sgt Chetwyn deployed in North Africa, on the exact date of 15 August 1942, and depicts the Corps of Military Police training a Boxer dog to attack.
In contrast, look at this image below. A soldier forgetting all about war for a few moments.
The Royal Engineers, part of the British Armed Forces, used dogs with success in North Africa in 1943, when the Germans introduced non-metallic mines. The dogs were trained to sit when finding an anti-tank or anti-personnel mine. Sadly, these dogs’ skills were affected by the scent of bodies, the battlefield debris and the differences in weather.
It is worth mentioning that the dog’s ability to detect the chemicals found in explosives was only discovered and exploited after WW2.
During WW2 the dogs were merely trained to discover the soil that had been turned over by humans when a mine was buried. Surely the dogs still smelled the buried chemicals, but the whole method the dog handler used to teach them and the principle behind it was wrong – looking at it now.
What qualities were required for a dog to have, to be included in the military?
Perhaps the one quality that was often taken for granted and all canines possessed was their ability to empathize with humans, the millennial bond between man and dog.
Sentry dogs had to be willing and aggressive, able to work without a leash and not prone to barking.
Scout or patrol dogs had to be of medium size, strong and of quiet disposition and to prove they possess extra sensitive powers to discern, by smell only, if a soldier was enemy or not.
The canines working with the coast guard were trained to spot the stranger by his scent, not bark and to lead the sentry silently toward the intruder, even crawling on their bellies if necessary.
Messenger dogs were chosen from the most loyal dogs and they had to be super-fast runners and good swimmers, as well as proving great stamina. But if a dog was aggressive he would not make a good candidate as a messenger dog as choosing fight over the safety of the mission was not desired.
Mine dogs or M-dog were the first mine detecting dogs trained to find trip wires, booby traps, metallic and non-metallic mines. Sadly, these dogs struggled with real combat conditions such as excessive noise and weather changes.
It is worth mentioning here all those dogs who were not trained for the military but adopted by soldiers, dogs who brought along love and hope and a glimpse of home in the middle of a deadly war.
Interesting to notice that “British War Dogs”, the book written and published during WW1 by Lieut. Col. E. H. Richardson, the commandant of the British War Dog School, was by now a favorite with American Army officers involved in dog training.
The first British dog killed in action
War records state that Bobbie, a brave Alsatian and a messenger dog, was killed in March 1940 while delivering a message to the front line, in France. Bobbie lost his life on the battlefield, so his sergeant major with three men from his battalion could only retrieve Bob’s body during the safety of the night. Bob was deeply missed, as he was more than just a messenger to his platoon mates. He was buried with full military honours.
Able Seaman Just Nuisance, the first dog to be enlisted in the Royal Navy
Just Nuisance served between 1939 and 1944 on HMS Afrikander, a Royal Navy shore establishment in Simon’s Town, South Africa. Read his story here.
Bob, the first British dog to win the Dickin Gallantry Medal
Although he was a white mongrel, Bob did excellent job as messenger and patrol dog in North Africa, prove that pedigree fades in front of a brave heart. Because of his white coat he had to be covered in camouflage paint during missions, but that did not stop him. Bob saved many British soldiers with his excellent abilities of sniffing out the enemy.
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