Britain’s Heroic Dogs of War

From guard duties to laying telegraph wires and sniffing out explosives, dogs have played an invaluable role in British military history.

By Mark Bailey
Published 17 Nov 2017, 09:44 GMT
A search dog works to sniff out explosives in the muddy fields of Afghanistan with 2nd ...
A search dog works to sniff out explosives in the muddy fields of Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment. These highly trained dogs are a vital part of the team as they bring security to the uncompromising areas of Helmand Province.
Photograph by Crown Copyright

Animals have operated in military conflicts throughout history, from the elephants which crossed the Alps with the Carthaginian general Hannibal in 218BC to the dolphins trained by the US Navy to locate undersea mines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But dogs have a particularly strong link with the British military. During the First and Second World Wars, hounds were used to scout enemy troops, guard prisoners, transport messages, sniff for mines and deliver supplies to wounded soldiers. Today the canine recruits of the 1st Military Working Dog Regiment detect explosives, protect troops and track insurgents.

A group of dog handlers stand with their dogs at the British Army kennels near Etaples, 20 April 1918 during World War I. The rows of kennels can be seen behind them.
Photograph by Iwm q 29549

Dogs have a long history of military service. The Romans used to send into battle Molossus dogs armed with spiked collars. And a Belgian Malinois named Cairo joined the US Navy SEAL attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad on May 1st 2011, tasked with tracking escapees.

During the First World War, 20,000 British dogs were trained to complete extraordinary tasks, from laying telegraph wires to hauling machine guns.

Three dogs at the Central Kennel of the Messenger Dog Service, GHQ in World War I. Note the cylinder in which the message was carried.
Photograph by Iwm q 7345

In 1918, Jack, an Airedale, saved the lives of the Sherwood Foresters, who had been surrounded by German troops, by delivering an urgent message for help. He died from bullet wounds shortly after reaching his receiver.

A dog handler of the Royal Engineers reads the message that has just been brought to him by his messenger dog. The dog has just swum across a canal to deliver the message, near Nieppe Wood, 1918, during World War I.
Photograph by Iwm q 10960
Dog collar, with metal message canister attached, bearing brass label "War Dog No 180".
Photograph by Iwm com 1068

When a canine recruitment poster appeared in British newspapers in May 1941, during the Second World War, 7,000 dogs were put forward by their owners within two weeks. One dog called Bing, an Alsatian and Collie cross, was dropped into France as a ‘paradog’ during the D-Day landings of June 6th 1944. For distinguished service in locating enemy troops, he received the PDSA Dickin Medal, introduced in 1943 to honour the work of animals. 

Medals of valour awarded to dogs.
Photograph by Iwm eph 4540

The most recent British Army dog to receive this award was Sasha, a Labrador who located 15 bombs and ammunition caches in Afghanistan before being killed with her handler Lance Corporal Kenneth Rowe in July 2008. In 2010 British special forces even parachuted German shepherd dogs, equipped with cameras, into Taliban strongholds to search for insurgents.

A Royal Air Force Police Dog Handler attached to 42 Commando Lima Company, based at Checkpoint Zarawar, goes on patrol with his dog in Helmand, Afghanistan.
Photograph by Crown Copyright

Vital military functions aside, British soldiers have traditionally also welcomed the morale-boosting impact of dogs who provide psychological comfort and a poignant reminder of home. Wary that many dogs would become casualties, a decree of 1942 warned soldiers: “Don’t make friends with or pet any of these dogs.” It didn’t work.

Dogs and their handlers from 102 Military Working Dogs Squadron, part of the 1st Military Working Dog Regiment, take part in a live fire exercise on the Sennelager Ranges in Germany. The training allows the dogs to undertake enhanced battle induction, simulating some of the possible stresses of battle's live firing and explosions, and allowing them to become calm and controlled in stressful situations. the Regiment plays a pivotal role in supporting a number of key activities including; counter insurgency operations, the detection of Improvised Explosive Devices, assistance in the searching of routes, buildings and vehicles, enhancing security and patrolling key installations.
Photograph by Crown Copyright
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