Heroic Wartime Animals

Guest post by Holly Webb

The Runaways was inspired by a tiny piece of information that I came across six years ago, in Juliet Gardiner’s fantastic book Wartime: Britain 1939-1945, while I was researching Return to the Secret Garden.

At least 400,000 pets – mainly cats – were destroyed in the week war broke out.

It’s almost a throwaway moment in a book that’s packed with incredible information, but I was fascinated, partly because it seems to run counter to our idea of Britain as a plucky island nation that showed its true heroic nature during the war – something that’s currently being used as a political message about self-sufficiency during the Brexit debate. 

The official government advice, enshrined in one of the series of ARP handbooks, was that if you weren’t able to send your dog or cat to the country, as you were doing with your children, then “it really is kindest to have them destroyed”. The people of London expected bombs to start falling as soon as war was declared. They also knew that there would be food shortages, as a large amount of Britain’s food at the time was imported from overseas. Pets would be impossible to feed, and they could be become dangerous if they were terrified by bombs falling. 

This seems so different to the popular idea about animals in wartime – as heroic companions. There are so many wonderful stories of dogs and cats who were adored by owners who made great efforts to care for them during difficult times, as well as those who fought alongside humans, in a way that really was heroic.

As a huge cat-lover, my favourite wartime animal story is of a cat with three names. His original name is unknown, sadly, as he was the ship’s cat on the German battleship Bismarck, which sank in May 1941. The cat was found in the sea, floating on a plank, by British destroyer HMS Cossack. He was named Oscar, as the British Navy code for man overboard is O, and O in the phonetic alphabet is Oscar. In October 1941, HMS Cossack was hit by a torpedo and sank, but Oscar was rescued – again, floating on a piece of wood, he seems to have been very good at escaping sinking ships! Oskar was renamed Unsinkable Sam, and this time he was transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal – which was torpedoed in November! 

After that Sam was transferred to a rest home for sailors in Belfast. I do wonder whether no other ships wanted him at that point…

I first wrote about the War Dog Training School a couple of years ago, in Evie’s War, which is set during World War One. Evie’s father sends the children’s beautiful Airedale, Brandy, to be trained as a messenger dog in the trenches. The work of the War Dog School continued in World War Two.

Khan was a beautiful German Shepherd who belonged to the Railton family, who volunteered him to the War Dog School in 1942. He was sent to the sixth battalion of the Scottish Rifles, and his handler was named Jimmy Muldoon. In 1944 the battalion was sent to attack an island in the Netherlands, but their landing craft came under fire and capsized. Khan swam safely to shore and started looking for Jimmy, but couldn’t find him. Jimmy couldn’t swim. So Khan swam back out, about 180 metres into the sea, still being shelled, and dragged Jimmy on to land by his collar. He won the Dickin Medal for bravery. But then at the end of the war, Khan went back to his family, even though Jimmy was desperate to keep him. 

Two years later Khan was invited to a War Dogs parade in London, and Jimmy was invited too as he’d been Khan’s handler. This was the Railtons’ first opportunity to see how much Khan loved Jimmy, and wonderfully, they let him and Jimmy go back to Scotland together. 

This is a story that makes me want to cry – and it’s a perfect story of animal courage in wartime, with an emotional happy ending. Such a contrast to panic and fear that led to so many animals being destroyed at the outbreak of war. Writing The Runaways for me meant exploring a moment of history that has largely been forgotten, and it made me wonder, what would I have done, caught up in those panicked weeks in the summer of 1939?

The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

The Runaways was published by Scholastic on 3rd October 2019.

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