During my time researching my Dad’s time in the RCAF, I read about a wide variety of subjects, from Atlantic convoys to tank warfare on the Russian front, from Nachtjaeger squadrons in France to the building of airfields on the Canadian prairie. One character popped up at every location and situation I read about: the animal.
Innocent animals have always been caught up in the human insanity we call war, whether pressed into servitude, caught in the crossfire as their habitats became battlefields or kept as companions. WW2 was no different, and from cats on battleships, dogs on guard duty, horses pulling artillery (the German army used in excess of 3,000,000 horses from 1939-45) to pigeons flying messages, animals were there in the front lines.
Bomber Command made use of homing pigeons until early 1944, and all aircrew took a pair of them in a cage on every operation, usually in the care of the Wireless Operator. If they had to ditch in the North Sea, a message with their location would be tied to the leg of the birds and they would be sent on their way. A surprising number of aircrew were rescued from near certain-deaths by these humble birds.
The British even had a medal for brave animals, the Dicken Medal, which was awarded to heroic deeds by dogs, pigeons and horses (and a single cat, in 1949.)
One of my favourite stories from WW2 is from the wonderful (and not widely known) book Six War Years by Barry Broadfoot. Broadfoot travelled Canada in the 1970s, sticking a microphone into stranger’s faces and asking simply “what did you do in the war?” The stories cover everything from being a kid on the home front to harrowing memories of combat in places like Italy and Normandy and are transcribed almost verbatim, without commentary.
The story I recall so fondly took place in the middle of the North Atlantic. An unarmed repair ship itself broke down halfway to England and the convoy it was part of had to leave it behind. While the small crew worked frantically to fix the problem so they could try to catch up, the conning tower of a German U Boat suddenly broke the surface of the ocean not far away. Much to the crew’s amazement, the hatch opened, a dingy was inflated and several German sailors began to row the short distance towards them. When the dingy came alongside, the captain of the repair ship was astonished to see that the German officer in the dingy was holding a large fluffy cat.
“The captain of our submarine wishes to know if you might have some milk for his cat?” asked the officer.
The captain of the repair ship immediately sent one of his men below to the galley to fetch some condensed milk. A net bag with several cans was duly passed to the German officer, who gave his thanks and had his men row back to the U Boat, which then peacefully submerged and went on its way...
Apparently the Coffey crew, in Tholthorpe in the spring of 1944, shared their home with a small menagerie of birds and animals. The 420 Squadron Operational Records Book notes on May 29th, 1944 that “...the Squadron is getting to look like a zoo more and more every day. The following is the strength of pets: 1 fox, 2 dogs, 3 cats, 2 rabbits, 8 ducks 2 geese and one hen.”
The entry appears lighthearted, but it doesn’t have a happy ending, and it continues: “...the killing order was given. Now the old hen lies well roasted on its back in the Officers Mess kitchen to be devoured at noon. No more eggs for the batman!”
War is hell, as they say.
Clint L. Coffey is the author of The Job To Be Done, available now through FriesenPress. Check back soon for new blog posts