Dogs of War, the Gunner Bear and World War II ‘s Other Unusual Combatants
By Vikas Datta | IANS
The Second World War was truly a “world” war — for, apart from encompassing most of the globe, it saw all military forces drawing in additional “personnel” beyond the planet’s dominant species. These were not only beasts of burden and transport like horses or elephants, but also man’s best animal friend performing a range of tasks from “escort” to “early warning”, and a shell-totting bear and many more.
Over 50 animals, on the British side, displaying “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty” were conferred the Dickin Medal, popularly known as “the animals’ Victoria Cross”. While not all these dogs, homing pigeons, horses and a cat recipients have books on them, some of these — or others who do — form a heartening sub-genre of war literature.
One of the most unusual of them was the beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking (or rather eating) “Corporal Wojciech Perski” of 22nd Artillery Support Company of the Polish II Corps — or rather Wojtek the Bear (c.1942-63) as he is better known.
Entranced by stories about this bear told by her grandfather, seeing him in Edinburgh Zoo and having helped to immortalise his memory in Scotland, Aileen Orr recounts his curious life in “Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero” (2010).
Bought in Iran from his boy owner by a contingent of Polish servicemen, released from Stalin’s gulags to join the Allies, the orphaned Syrian bear cub, bearing a Polish name meaning “happy warrior”, accompanied them through their onward sojourn through Iraq to Palestine, to combat in Italy.
In Iraq, he helped capture an Arab spy but also stole an entire washing line of women soldiers’ underwear. His minders, however, managed to recover them, returned them “with some difficulty in keeping straight faces” and made him say sorry. Wojtek “dutifully played his part, hiding his snout behind his large forepaws and whimpering piteously. Then he peeked out from behind his paws, his bright button eyes searching the girls’ faces to see what sort of effect he was having on them”.
Participating in the desperate battles of Monte Cassino (where he helped to carry around artillery shells), he came with them to Scotland, where the Poles were brought after the war ended, demobilised and most settled down — being unable to return to their Soviet-run homeland. He was eventually — and most reluctantly — sent to the zoo when his Polish minders had to move on, became a little sad, but was always perked by their visits, the sound of Polish and the treats smuggled in to him.
There was the St Bernard who became the mascot of the Royal Norwegian Navy and then of the entire Free Norwegian Forces and has his story told in, among other accounts, Angus Whitson & Andrew Orr’s “Sea Dog Bamse, World War II Canine Hero” (2011).
Owned by a whaler’s captain and taken to sea from an early age, Bamse became an official crew member when the war broke out and his owner fled to Britain with his vessel. Converted into a minesweeper, operating out of Scotland, it had Bamse, wearing a special helmet, standing in the vessel’s forward gun tower during action.
But he played a major role on shore too, once saving a ship officer attacked by a knife-wielding man by pushing the assailant into the sea. Made responsible for rounding up crew on shore leave, he travelled on local buses to get down near a bar they frequented to take them back. He also specialised in breaking up fights among crewmates by rearing up and putting his paws on their shoulders to calm them down.
Ant was a German Shepherd found by Vaclav Robert Bozdech, a Czech pilot in French service, after a crash and went to fly on missions with his master. Smuggled to Britain after France’s collapse, he continued as Bozdech’s aviation auxiliary in a bomber. Taken to Czechoslovakia after the war, he helped his master escape after the Communists seized power.
His story was first told (rather inaccurately) in Anthony Richardson’s “One Man and His Dog” (1961) but better in Hamish Ross’ “Freedom in the Air: A Czech Flyer and His Aircrew Dog” (2007) and Damien Lewis’ “War Dog: The No-Man’s Land Puppy Who Took To the Skies” (2013).
Ex-para Gil Boyd’s “The Amazing Adventures of Bing the Parachuting Dog” (2013) tells of the Alsatian-collie mix, trained to locate the enemy and having “an incredible ability to sense danger”, who participated in D-Day, and was again part of the paradrop into Germany the next year.
Then there was the Bactrian camel, who accompanied the Red Army to Berlin, a stray dog at an Australian airbase who was the first to warn of approaching Japanese aircraft, the elephants that helped defeat the Japanese in Burma and more.
But without disparaging these examples, doesn’t it raise a question why man can extend love to other species, but have no qualms at killing his own kind — whatever be the reason.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)