Unheard Tales of Gallantry From Dogs at War

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Eye-witnesses of the Victory Parade held in Moscow on June 24, 1945, remember a detachment of dog-handlers with their charges parading across Red Square.

Among those who had the honor of taking part was Dzhulbars, a dog who was famous at the time. Gifted with an incredible ability to detect explosives with his sense of smell, Dzhulbars saved architectural masterpieces in Prague, Vienna, Hungary and Romania. The dog had been injured and deemed unable to take part in the procession until Stalin himself ordered that Dzhulbars be carried across Red Square in Stalin’s own overcoat.

Sixty-five years later, it’s difficult to tell whether this tale is historical reality or pure invention. There are few records and documents remaining that bear witness to the deeds of animals devoted to their masters and their services to the state. Nevertheless, their contribution to victory is undoubted.

Dogs that served on the front delivered messages, laid telegraph wires, detected mines, dug out the injured in bombings and acted as guards or patrol dogs. They battled on despite wounds and in terrifying circumstances to the very limits of their endurance, showing indomitable courage.

According to a Soviet dog-breeding manual published in 1973, more than 60,000 dogs served in the Red Army. In the first years of war, 168 individual detachments, battalions and regiments centered around animal-handling were formed. At first the dogs were trained in special schools and only later were they sent to the front.

Dogs saved the lives of more than 700,000 wounded soldiers. The specially trained animals carried first-aid kits on their backs and a Red Cross band to allow them to be instantly recognized.

“I met lots of intrepid dogs,” Russian author and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote in his notes on World War II. “A Shetland sheepdog in protective white clothing — it was winter — would find a wounded person and lay down next to him. The dog would have a special basket with food and vodka. Then it would take in its teeth the special leather dog tag that hung fr om the man’s collar and hurry off to find a medic. The dog would show her that it had found a wounded soldier and then lead the handler to him.”

A startling ability of these canine medics was to understand whether the soldier was dead or only wounded — a tricky task as many wounded soldiers would not show any clearly visible signs of life.

“A canine medic that found a wounded soldier would nuzzle his face to revive him and to show him ‘I’m with you,’” said Yekaterina Vasilyeva, a researcher at the Military History Museum of the Artillery, Engineering and Signal Corps.

In order not to frighten the soldier, the dog would immediately show him its Red Cross symbol and first-aid medicines. Often animals would drag soldiers back fr om the battlefield on special sledges. Under fire, the dogs could do things that were impossible for the medical orderlies.

“Sledge dogs were used for both carrying away wounded soldiers and bringing ammunition,” Vasilyeva said. “During the war, animals hauled 6,000 tons of ammunition and 3,500 tons of other loads.”

Every sledge was equal to what three or four medical orderlies could carry, and evacuation times were also massively reduced.

The majority of the dogs — about 9,000 — served as messengers.

“During the war, dogs carried more than 200,000 reports and laid about 12,000 kilometers of cable,” said Sergei Paskhin, senior researcher at the Military History Museum of the Artillery, Engineering and Signal Corps.

“The dogs served accurately and reliably,” according to one report from the war. “There were many instances wh ere conditions made it impossible to use other communication tools, but the dogs managed to deliver reports and orders in time. Even wounded dogs would usually crawl to their destination points.”

“Six messenger dogs could do the work of 10 [human] messengers, and the speed of delivery was three or four times faster,” Vasilyeva said.

Archive documents tell the story of Rex, who, under shelling, swam across the cold Dnieper River three times in one day to deliver important military documents. During the Battle of Moscow, animals working on the front line helped stop the enemy offensive from advancing into the capital.

“During the offensive undertaken in December, in conditions of a total absence of roads and freezing temperatures, communication with the many army detachments was only provided by dogs, and it was reliable,” according to a report written by General Dmitry Lelyushenko on March 14, 1942. “A dog called Bulba ran more than 10 kilometers under shelling and delivered orders, receiving nine bullet and bomb wounds.”

Soon after this, a special medal for dogs was established — the equivalent of the Order of Courage issued to soldiers. Nowadays, few remember or know about this award, though the more famous international Dickin Medal was also awarded to animals displaying conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving. The Dickin is a large bronze medallion bearing the words “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve.”

Animals and birds were eligible for the Dickin Medal from 1943 to 1949, and recipients included pigeons, dogs, horses and one cat. Their deeds were recorded, and information about their heroic exploits can easily be found. Nevertheless, the deeds of Soviet animals are almost forgotten, for the most part they only remain as legends.

The archives have preserved a short report related to the bombing of a Nazi train in Belarus on Aug. 19, 1943. Ten carriages were destroyed, and a large part of the railway line was put out of service. The report has a small postscript: “There were no losses on our side.” The blast was the result of a saboteur — a dog named Dina.

“It’s no legend,” Vasilyeva said. “[Dina] was a very clever dog. Canine saboteurs had special detachable harnesses. They’d noticed in training that if the harness with the pack fell off, the dog would pick it up in its teeth and carry it to the destination. This is what Dina did. She let an enemy patrol pass and only then carried the pack that had slipped down from her back to the railway line. And then she went away.”

Dogs revealed some incredible abilities in their military services: History records the deeds of the British Collie, Rob, who made more than 20 parachute jumps during the war.

Animals often gave their lives for victory. Nazi troops dreaded the Soviet dogs that carried mines to the tanks. There were cases when dogs turned back whole enemy detachments.

Sniffer dogs capable of detecting mines played a crucial role. They discovered and deactivated more than four million enemy charges and land mines.

“Nazi troops often left booby traps, for the most part in industrial buildings,” Vasilyeva said. “Metal detectors could only find the bombs if they were in metal casings. Many of them, however, were in wooden casings. Only a dog could discover such a mine at a depth of 1.5 meters — they would be able to smell it.

“The dog would indicate the exact place wh ere the explosive was located. Many lives were saved this way, and even after the war the dogs were used for the same purpose.”

Dogs combed and cleared more than 15,000 square kilometers, including 300 cities and towns — Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Kiev and Odessa among them.

Some tales of the exploits of sniffer dogs exist in a grey area between myth and reality. According to one widely held story, a Collie named Dick saved Pavlovsk Palace — one of the most splendid residences of the Russian imperial family located 30 kilometers south of St. Petersburg. The dog discovered a 2,500 kilogram bomb in the foundations of the palace an hour before it had been set to explode.

Rare documents drawn up by Pyotr Zavodchikov, the commanding officer who created the first battalion of dogs — a team of sapper dogs — mention Dick as being a Red Army dog. In 1943, he was taught to sniff out explosives, and by the end of 1945 he had deactivated 10,500 devices.

The Pavlovsk Palace press service has no record of the incident, though the palace was undoubtedly mined by the Nazis. The Military History Museum of the Artillery, Engineering and Signal Corps, however, has managed to prove the story. Several years ago, a woman — a descendant of Dick’s owners — came to research the dog.

“It’s true,” Vasilyeva said. “There was such a dog. We looked for information about this dog in our archives and found some facts.”

Finding such confirmation, however, is rare. In Europe, animals were treated with greater respect. The Allies not only issued medals but also awarded special ranks to animals. For example, the U.S. Army founded a Pocket Pet detachment for dogs.

“They served as messenger dogs and were given the rank of corporal,” Vasilyeva said. “Soldiers made special dog uniforms and sewed all the dogs’ awards onto them.”

Several years ago a monument in London was unveiled, paying tribute to animals that served intrepidly during World War II.

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