Wartime Messenger Animals

It’s not only humans who have risked their life in times of conflict: animals have played a crucial role in the war effort too. Throughout history, various types of animals have been on active service, some sadly losing their lives in the course of action.

From the first world war onwards, animals transported the troops and munitions to war zones, helped to evacuate the wounded, detected gas in the trenches, performed sentry duties, carried out search and rescue operations and located explosive devices in Afghanistan.

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How were animals used in wartime?

Horses, donkeys, mules and even elephants were used during the Great War and WW2 for manual labour, carrying heavy loads including artillery across terrain that was unsuitable for motor vehicles. Horses pulled ambulances to evacuate the wounded from the Western Front during the first world war.

Large mounted cavalry forces went into battle on horseback during WW1, while camels were used like horses in the desert campaigns. Dogs were sent with medical supplies into No Man’s Land to tend to the wounded.

Trained to silently alert their handlers in the event of trespassers; guard dogs watched over important military locations such as bridges, railways and ammunition stores. Cats and dogs were used to kill rats in the trenches and on Royal Navy ships.

The troops, far away from home, also kept cats, dogs, goats and pigs as pets to boost morale.


Messenger animals

One of the biggest challenges during conflict is effective communication. Dogs and pigeons were trained to carry messages, particularly during World War II. It was a vital task, especially when technology failed and all other forms of communication were cut off.

Carrier pigeons were used during the first world war, when it was a crime to kill or injure a pigeon. The use of pigeons continued during WW2. Dogs were also extensively used during the Great War from 1916, when Britain first used them to send information to the Frontline. They easily navigated dangerous and tricky terrain and were intelligent enough to arrive safely at their destination.

The war dogs programme was extended to the second world war. A special dogs’ training school was set up to prepare them for their war work. It helped them to get accustomed to the sights and sounds of a war zone, so they could remain focused on their task.


1. William of Orange

William of Orange, a homing pigeon working for MI14, was responsible for saving the lives of more than 2,000 soldiers during World War II. He delivered a crucial message from the Arnhem Airborne Operation during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944.

Bred by Sir William Proctor Smith of Cheshire, the pigeon was trained by the Royal Signals’ Army Pigeon Service. He was sent on a hazardous 260-mile flight from Arnhem in the Netherlands back to Britain with a vital note attached to his leg alerting the British HQ that the Paratroopers at Arnhem Bridge had been cut off by the German forces and urgently needed airborne support.

William flew back to his loft in Knutsford, Cheshire, in four hours and 25 minutes, averaging a speed of 60 mph. Allied troops were able to save the stranded regiment at Arnhem.

The brave pigeon received the highest military medal, the PDSA Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, in May 1945. After the war, his former owner, Smith, bought William out of military service and he lived a happy retirement for ten years, fathering many successful racing pigeons and living well into old age.


2. Caesar

Caesar was a messenger dog in the Pacific during World War II. The German Shepherd had been a family pet owned by Max, Irving and Morris Glazer of New York City.

The Glazer brothers joined the military during WW2 and Caesar pined when they left, so the family answered a national call to sign up dogs for the war effort. After passing his military training, Caesar left the US in June 1943, along with thousands of Marines and 24 dogs of the 1st War Dog Platoon.

They sailed to Bougainville in the South Pacific, where Caesar and the other dogs were the fastest means of communication. When out scouting for Japanese snipers, the handlers would attach messages about their locations to the dogs’ collars to take back to base. Caesar made many successful runs, averaging nine per day, dodging sniper fire each time.

One morning, Caesar awoke handler Rufus Mayo with his growling. Japanese soldiers were sneaking up on the camp. As they headed towards Mayo, Caesar intercepted them and was shot protecting his handler.

Caesar ran off into the jungle. Mayo and other troops followed a trail of blood and found him barely conscious. They carried him gently back to camp and amazingly, after surgery, he not only survived, but carried on as a messenger dog for the rest of the war.

When the war ended in September 1945, 559 dogs were still in US military service. The men who had fought alongside them made sure the war dogs returned home to their families.


3. Sandy

Sandy was another messenger dog in the South Pacific campaign during WW2. Handled by Sgt Guy Sheldon and Sgt Menzo Brown, she was one of 90 dogs in the 26th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon. She saved lives during the Battle of Cape Gloucester between Allied and Japanese forces on New Britain island in New Guinea, from 26th December 1943 to 16th January 1944.

As the Allied troops advanced towards an airstrip, they met resistance from Japanese forces. Radio and walkie-talkie communications were down, so the troops couldn’t send for more artillery. Sgt Brown attached an urgent message to Sandy’s collar and sent her back to Sgt Sheldon at the battalion’s command post.

However, the HQ had moved since the night before. Despite this, the brave dog found her way to Sheldon’s foxhole at the command post. She had swum across a river, run through tall jungle grass and dodged mortar and artillery fire to find him.

Thanks to her successful delivery of the message, the US troops were able to move forward, as additional artillery fire was directed at the Japanese troops. Sandy was one of eight dogs in the platoon to be honoured with a Citation Certificate after the war.


4. Winkie

Winkie was a homing pigeon who was awarded the Dickin Medal in 1943 after saving the lives of an aircrew who crash-landed in the North Sea.

Following a mission to Norway on 23rd February 1942, the RAF crew were on their way back to Britain when their Bristol Beaufort aircraft was shot down by enemy fire. Badly damaged, there was no radio communication, and the crew were helpless in the freezing waters. They hadn’t even had time to radio in their position before the crash.

Attaching an urgent message to Winkie’s leg, the men set her free. 120 miles away from her home at Broughty Ferry, at the River Tay in Scotland, Winkie made it back. Her owner, George Ross, discovered Winkie exhausted in her loft and alerted RAF Leuchars airbase in Fife.

The RAF was able to determine approximately where the plane had crashed. It took them only 15 minutes to work out where the plane was, and a search and rescue mission was launched. A rescue vessel saved the airmen from the icy sea.

Winkie was awarded the Dickin Medal on 2nd December 1943. The citation praised her for delivering the message “under exceptional difficulties” and contributing to the air crew’s rescue.

The RAF held a military dinner in her honour, when she sat in her cage while they praised her for saving the men’s lives. Winkie was retired from military service and lived a long life. Her Dickin Medal was donated to Dundee Art Galleries and Museums by Ross after her death.


5. Commando

Commando was a red chequer homing pigeon bred by pigeon fancier Sid Moon in Haywards Heath, Sussex. Moon, who had served with the Army Pigeon Service during the Great War, offered his birds’ services during WW2.

Commando was used by the British Armed Forces to carry intelligence on more than 90 dangerous missions. In 1945, he received the Dickin Medal due to the importance and high risk of his missions.

It was nothing short of miraculous that Commando survived more than 90 missions from German-occupied France. In June, August and September 1942, he completed three particularly important missions, carrying information vital to the war effort from secret agents in France.

Sadly, many messenger pigeons died after German troops used marksmen and falconers to intercept them on the French coast. Exhaustion, bad weather and wild birds of prey killed others.

In November 2004, the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, unveiled a memorial statue in Park Lane, London to honour all the animals who had served with British troops. Lest we forget.