History Book Reviews

The Animals’ VC: For Gallantry Or Devotion – David Long

It is impossible not to be captivated by the stories in this book. All are truly wonderful tales of the way that animals help humans, often in the most difficult of circumstances, and the recognition of their achievements with the award of the Dickin Medal which was instituted in 1943 by Maria Dickin, founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), to honour the work of animals in war.

Dogs, with their exceptional sense of smell and intelligence, have long been used to sniff out explosives. Cats have kept food stores free of rats and horses have not only carried soldiers into war but also carried them to safety. In this book, the author sets out to reveal the story of every Dickin Medal recipient, told from first-hand accounts and the citations themselves.

With the 50th anniversary of the James Bond films currently in the news, the ideas dreamt up involving animals during the war for the SIS, MI6 and MI9, are reminiscent of those of Desmond Llewelyn’s ‘Q’. There was, for example the top-secret initiative to sneak dead rats filled with high explosive into coal stores in Occupied Europe in the hope of blowing up boilers in factories and workshops.

Another scheme proposed in July 1944 for the SAS to infiltrate into France to kidnap or kill Field Marshal Rommel which it seems, in the case of the latter, involved communication by pigeons.

The work that pigeons undertook on behalf of another secret organisation, the SOE, was also important. The birds were needed, for example, for a pigeon communications network across Belgium. The animals used were typically flown across the Channel by the Special Duties squadrons – Nos. 138 and 161. One 138 Squadron pilot, John Chariot, describes how the pigeons “had their own little parachute, they were in a little cage made of cardboard and they had food and water in there, and we used to try and find a nice quite spot for these so that they would be all right. We would drop them and watch them go down.”

Whilst reading these great stories one cannot help but wonder just how much did the animals realise what they were doing or what danger they were in? I have a sneaking suspicion that many knew much more than we realise.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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