18 September 2023
John C Pursley discusses the loyal and intelligent creatures who have more than proven their worth as soldiers
When my job brought me to Guam in 2008, I sought out the remains of a substantial number of WWII battle sites and displays including Japanese bunkers, pill boxes, tunnels, land-based naval guns and even an intact miniature submarine. But I was most intrigued with the War Dog Memorial on Naval Base Guam.
Left: Located on Naval Base Guam is a memorial to 25 War Dogs killed in combat during the liberation of the Island in 1944
The monument is surrounded by tall jungle vegetation and once inside the circle, I was instantly drawn to a life-size bronze figure of a proud Doberman Pinscher set on a substantially sized block of black granite with a bronze plaque containing the names of 25 dogs. The dogs themselves are buried in a semi-circle behind the statue, with each grave marked with an upright head stone.
The memorial plaque reads: ‘They served as sentries, messengers, scouts. They explored caves, detected mines and booby traps. Semper Fidelis’ (the U.S. Marine Corps’ renowned Latin slogan translated into English as ‘always faithful’).
A majority of the dogs, mostly Doberman Pincers and German Shepherds were loaned to the US Government by private citizens, ostensibly for the duration of the war and trained for combat duty. The US Marines used Doberman Pincers almost exclusively and trusted them to locate and flush out Japanese soldiers hiding in caves, carry medical supplies, and warn against enemy attacks both while on patrol and as they slept.
During the Battle of Guam (21 July-10 August 1944) the working dogs went on more than 450 combat patrols and I was told by a local historian that no unit of Marines who had a dog with them was ever successfully ambushed.
The 50th anniversary celebration of the liberation of Guam was on 21 July 1994, a befitting day to dedicate the War Dog Memorial recognising the brave and loyal dogs for their contribution with helping free the Chamorro people from the bondage of Japanese invaders.
The dogs used during the battle paved the way for many others as the Marine Corps immediately established a battalion for war dog handlers and assigned teams to participate in all subsequent island invasions. The memorial is quite emotionally moving especially when one considers that without hesitation, these creatures sacrificed themselves in loyal service just as a soldier does (perhaps more willingly). However, the use of dogs in war is neither a modern, nor a uniquely American concept.
Origins of war dogs
Dogs have participated in armed conflicts or provided support services since about 600BC when their earliest use in battle was recorded. This occurred when handlers in the army of Alyattes of Lydia sent hundreds of trained attack dogs against the totally unprepared Cimmerian forces killing some and sending many others fleeing for their lives.
Moving ahead, during the 7th century BC war between Ephesia and Magnesia, the latter forces unleashed a torrent of vicious, highly trained dogs outfitted with spiked collars and coats of chain mail headlong into the ranks of their adversaries. The dogs shattered the enemy formations shredding infantry soldiers and triggering horses to pitch their riders. Taking full advantage of the mayhem and carnage generated by the dogs, the Magnesians subsequently struck, launching a spear assault immediately followed by a cavalry attack that routed their enemy.
Dogs have been used by the armies of ancient countries in many capacities to include Rome, Egypt, Greece, France, Persia, Briton, Spain, Slavic nations, and Celts. But, with the passing of time and the development of more efficient weaponry including guns on the battlefield, dogs in war were no longer needed to perform the majority of their former functions.
Gradually their purpose transitioned from strictly assault to other important roles that, thanks to specialised training, included sentry duties, communications, rescue, war patrol and tracking. By the late 19th century most of the powerful nations of the world employed dogs in their military.
World War I
During the Great War dogs were invaluable and used on the western front as sentries, stretcher bearers, messengers, rescuers, and even hauled machine guns. They could smell enemy soldiers 1,000 yards ahead of them and would silently notify their master by pointing their tail, the signal that meant the enemy was nearby. In addition, they alerted soldiers to don protective masks when sensing a gas attack and were fitted with their own masks.
Dogs were also trained and used to improve telephone transmissions on the front lines where the topography of shell craters and mud from trench warfare meant communication would be a constant issue. Using human runners was unreliable because each mission was a gamble that vital messages from the front may not make it to where they needed to be received, or vice versa.
The solution was to use trained dogs to carry messages as they were several times faster than a human, presented less of a target to a sniper because of their much lower silhouette, were able to navigate the arduous terrain, and had a much better chance of getting through the enemy’s artillery. Within a short time period, they proved to be a reliable and rapid source of communication between sectors.
Dogs were also much more reliable than rickety military vehicles of the time that could easily break down or become hopelessly stuck in the morass of bomb-churned earth that constituted roads. And although carrying messages was extremely important, some dogs received special training for pulling telephone wires across no-man’s land between units, thus saving the lives of soldiers.
Many dogs were taught to locate wounded combatants in hiding or ones who had crawled off into an obscure spot for their safety and bring back medical assistance to them. Their task was especially challenging considering the locating and evacuating operations were conducted at night.
Right: A WWI Ambulance dog with saddlebags containing medical supplies has located a wounded soldier capable of dressing his own injuries
This was a contradictory practice as it provided protection for the searchers but made it next to impossible to locate the wounded in the darkness. In this role the ambulance dogs were crucial and so effective that participating armies from both sides used them.
Also referred to as Mercy dogs, the animals were equipped with medical supplies for incapacitated soldiers who were able to tend their own wounds. Many Mercy dogs comforted the mortally wounded by remaining with them until they died.
The majority of the dogs used by British, French and eventually the American forces during the war were the medium-sized, intelligent and trainable Doberman Pinscher’s and German Shepherds, each ironically native to Germany. Both breeds possessed exceptional guarding abilities, strength, agility, and were very trainable. Other breeds such as terriers were also very valuable as they were most often effectively used to kill rats in the trenches.
It is estimated that around 60,000 dogs were used during WWI.
World War II
Between the World Wars military dogs continued in their basic purpose of performing physical, security-related duties. However, after the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 the role of the war dog was greatly expanded, and thousands were trained to perform a great many functions; though, not all of the individual programs were as successful as others.
The Red Army handlers fastened magnetic mines on the backs of their specially trained dogs anticipating detonation as they ran under unsuspecting German Panzers. The plan, as it turned out was far better than the actual results achieved in combat. Because the dogs were trained using Russian equipment for target vehicles, that is what they went after in actual combat. Corrective training was later conducted.
The Russians did get it right when they took advantage of the ability of dogs to travel in deep snow and used them to drag wounded soldiers on sleds to medical aid. The chance of survival for the soldiers was greatly increased by rapidly moving them out of the freezing conditions on the battlefront. Over the course of one winter, a team of sled dogs on one sector of the eastern front transported 1,239 wounded off of the battlefield and also delivered 330 tons of ammunition to the front lines.
Left: This German Shepherd receives training for service in the snowy terrain of Norway from its German Waffen-SS handler (C Peter Chen)
Dogs were used by Allied and Axis forces alike in a security force function for surveillance of camps or equipment, discovering booby traps, anticipating ambushes while on combat patrol, locating hidden weapon and ammunition stocks, and providing warnings for approaching enemy forces.
Detection dogs were trained to locate mines but under combat conditions proved to be less than effective. The problem was not the inability to find the mines but more the manner in which they were trained to locate the explosives. The dogs were eager to locate the explosives, but when they did, they received an electric shock to teach them not to touch it. The anticipation of the jolt was so stressful it unnerved the dogs to the point of rendering them totally ineffective.
The Germans and Japanese used dogs for guard duty in concentration and prisoner of war camps and to track down escaped prisoners. Dogs even parachuted out of aircraft with their human handler so they could join in the action immediately after landing. Five para-dogs served with the British 13th Parachute Battalion making jumps into Normandy in 1944 and over the Rhine in 1945.
Left: A US Marine and his dog hunting the enemy during the 1945 U.S. invasion of Okinawa
The Vietnam War
9,087,000 military personnel (including 10,000 dog handlers) and 5,000 American war dogs served on active duty during the Vietnam War (28 February 1961 through to 7 May 1975). The majority of the dogs were used to guard defenses, living areas, and the perimeter of bases. Their keen ability to sound early warnings of Viet Cong intruders resulted in the rapid movement of troops to counter the threat of attack. Within one year of deployment, strikes on several bases had been thwarted thanks to the use of the detection dogs.
Right: A U.S. Army dog team patrolling on a rice paddy dike somewhere in Vietnam c. 1968. The Vietcong so feared the dogs that a bounty was posted for both the dog and handler (Vietnam Veteran News)
Vietcong prisoners told interrogators they were afraid of the American’s dogs and although they had respect, had placed a bounty on lives of both them and their handlers. About 250 dogs and 300 of their handlers were killed in action.
The United States War Dogs Association estimates that canines saved approximately 10,000 US lives in Vietnam yet despite their success, the military shamefully deemed them as expendable equipment and barred their return home at the end of the war. Approximately 200 were reassigned to US bases in foreign countries and the remainder either euthanised or left behind.
The decision not to repatriate the dogs that had saved many lives rightfully created a huge public outcry in America, but the Government remained cold-hearted. Thankfully, in 2000 President Bill Clinton signed a law allowing public adoption of the retired or wounded canines.
Modern uses of dogs
German Shepherds and Doberman Pincers have been the breed of choice for military-type operations for possibly centuries, but in more recent years smaller dogs with keener senses of smell for detection work are being used. It was also discovered stronger varieties like the Belgian Malinois, and Dutch Shepherd are just as well, if not better, suited for combat and law enforcement patrolling.
Military working dogs can smell small traces of virtually any substance, even in sealed containers, and locate drugs despite creative efforts at concealment. They are also trained to detect explosives and have a 98% success rating.
Left: British Army working dogs and their handlers in Afghanistan
Dogs are used in Special Operations and, when outfitted in special assault vests, dog goggles with night vision and a camera link, can discover and recognise explosives, search buildings, and provide intelligence. In 2010 British Special Forces handlers and their dogs parachuted into Taliban positions and gathered valuable surveillance information. In May the following year, a German Malinois was with the Navy SEAL team that located and killed Osama bin Laden.
Tactical K-9 equipment is available via the internet and there are books on the subject, with one of the better ones being Dogs of War by Kathleen Kinsolving. In addition, the United States War Dog Association offers memberships and an informative Facebook page. Atlantis Miniatures offers beautiful and realistically sculpted war dogs ready for the battlefield, for £22 from www.atlantisminiatures.com.
On the medal front the most notable is the Dicken Medal, which is issued by the PDSA and is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Some 33 dogs have been awarded the medal which reads ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We also serve’ on the obverse, with details of the recipient on the reverse. Copies cost around £90 on eBay, while a recent auction of one sold for £27,280.
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