Animals at War

Thousands of our furry and feathered friends performed valuable work during the war, while others simply provided love and comfort to servicemen while they were far from home, diverting their minds from the horrors of war.

Following are photographs of just a few of these enchanting creatures.

Beginning with one of the cutest photographs in history, Corporal Edward Burckhardt poses with the kitten that he said "captured" him on the battlefield of Iwo Jima.

(This photo appeared in a book titled Buddies: Men, Dogs and World War II, by L. Douglas Keeney, published in 2001 and available for purchase on Amazon.)

Straddle, the 422 Squadron RCAF mascot, takes the co-pilot's seat in a Short Sunderland flying boat that flew on coastal and submarine patrols. Straddle went on a number of operations with the crew, and his favourite place was the navigator’s table.

For more information compiled by the Vintage Wings of Canada, click here: Squadron Dogs.

(Photo Credit: Pembroke Sunderland Trust/Boxbrownie3)

A French patrol with a Saint Bernard make their way through a beautiful snowy valley in France, in February 1940. No doubt a St. Bernard was a handy thing to have along on a winter expedition. 

(Photo Credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

There's no information available about this photograph, but you'll note how intently the kitten is watching the soldier take aim! It's an incongruous combination, the cute kitten and the deadly weapon.

American pilot Robert W. Biesecker and his crew posed on October 18, 1943 with not one, but TWO mascots. The pilot is holding a dog named Scrappy, and the guy on his left is holding a monkey named Joe! We may have heard about Squadron Dogs, but Squadron Monkeys?

(Photo Credit: M. McNeill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This life jacket-wearing spaniel is Butch O’Brien, a spaniel mascot of the U.S. navy, on board his ship in the Sea of Japan, taken in 1944.

(Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Judy, an English pointer, was truly a war hero. A ship’s dog on board the HMS Grasshopper, she helped save the lives of servicemen after the Grasshopper was sunk. She then spent three and a half years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, narrowly escaping death many times. She was the only dog to be registered as a Second World War Prisoner of War.

Judy was awarded a Dickin Medal for her heroism. The Dickin Medal was instituted in the United Kingdom in 1943 to recognize the work of animals at war. Fifty-four animals have received the medal, including 32 pigeons, 18 dogs and three horses.

(Photo Credit: Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Oleg of the Glacier, a Samoyed, on a 1941 patrol with one of the Canadian soldiers who adopted him as a mascot.

(Photo Credit: Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images)

Hoy was the dog mascot of a minesweeper HMS Bangor. Here he is being held by a member of the crew on May 1, 1941. 

(Photo Credit: Arthur Tanner/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Size doesn't matter when it comes to saving lives. Smoky, a four-pound Yorkshire terrier, was found in the jungle of New Guinea by American soldier Bill Wynne. During the war, Smoky served as a mascot with the U.S. 5th Air Force in the Pacific. Surviving a parachute jump, air raids, living in primitive conditions and through combat missions, Smoky was awarded eight battle stars for her bravery and devotion. She has six memorials dedicated in her honour.

(Photo Credit: MNN)

While these British anti-aircraft gunners scan the sky for incoming enemy planes, it looks like the dog is keeping watch as well.

(Photo Credit: London Express/Getty Images)

Sergeant Stubby has been called the most decorated war dog of World War One. He's the only dog to be nominated for rank and then promoted to sergeant. He was the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry assigned to the 26th Yankee Division. Stubby participated in seventeen battles on the Western Front. He saved his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks, found and comforted the wounded, and once caught a German soldier by the seat of his pants, holding him there until American soldiers found him!

Here is Sergeant Stubby wearing his medals.

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Coupie, the canine mascot of a squadron in the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, used to visit each aircraft and pilot before take-off. Here he is lending moral support to one of the pilots on April 24, 1944. 

(Photo Credit: Reg Speller/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During World War Two, the United Kingdom used about 250,000 homing pigeons to send messages across enemy lines. The Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valor given to animals, was awarded to 32 pigeons, including G.I. Joe, of the United States Army Pigeon Service; and the Irish pigeon Paddy. Here a member of the crew of an RAF Coastal Command Lockheed Hudson holds a carrier pigeon in 1942.

Royal Air Force Captain Eric Stanley Lock boards his Spitfire on July 31, 1944 with his adorable mascot.

(Photo Credit: J. A. Hampton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Canadian spectators cheer at a baseball game between the United States Army and the Canadian forces, at Wembley stadium in London, on August 8, 1944. Their canine companion is also enjoying the spectacle.

(Photo Credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Gracie Fields hands out tea to the troops in a village near Valenciennes in northern France, on April 26, 1940. One soldier is carrying yet another pet monkey on his shoulder!

This Royal Air Force pilot enjoys the company of a little tabby kitten, just hanging around.

(Photo Credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

This is the English bulldog mascot of a regiment from Quebec based in England. He looks quite at home on the seat of the motorcycle in this photo taken October 11, 1941.

(Photo Credit: Payne/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Another bulldog named Venus was the sassy mascot of the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Vansittart.

(Photo Credit: Lt. H. W. Tomlin/IWM/Getty Images)


It wasn't all dogs and cats and monkeys and pigeons. A Royal Air Force quadron adopted a lamb as a mascot, and named him Aloysius. The lamb and one of the sergeants quickly became best friends. He he is feeding 
Aloysius from a bottle on December 18, 1939.

(Photo Credit: IWM/Getty Images)

One of the most famous mascots of all was a bear!

 In 1942, a young Iranian boy gave an adopted bear cub to the Polish army stationed in Iran. The soldiers fed the bear condensed milk out of a converted vodka bottle, and marmalade, syrup and eventually beer, which became his favorite drink. 

As Wojtek (pronounced VOY-tek) grew, he was unafraid of humans, and became their unofficial mascot. When it came time for the army to ship out, they didn't want to leave him behind. Solution? Enlist Wojtek in the Polish Army.

The army assigned Wojtek a serial number, gave him the rank of Private and put his name on the paybook. Though Wojtek never collected his paycheck, he was allowed double food rations.

The bear lived with other soldiers in their tents and travelled by ship with the army in a large crate. During the 1944 battle of Cassino in Italy, the furry Private Wojtek proved his worth by carrying live ammunition for the troops.

After the war, Wojtek accompanied Polish soldiers to Scotland. Most did not want to return to a communist Poland and stayed there. Wojtek lived out his remaining years in the Edinburgh Zoo.

Wojtek has been memorialized in many ways. In May 2014 the City of Krakow unveiled a statue of him, and the Wojtek Memorial Trust is raising funds for a statue of the bear to be erected in an Edinburgh park.

Wojtek enjoyed playfully wrestling with the men, and apparently never hurt any of them!

A precedent for keeping a bear as a mascot had been established in World War One. As he was heading across Canada by train to the training camp at Valcartier, Quebec, where he was to embark for overseas duty, Harry Colebourn of Winnipeg came across a hunter in Ontario who had a female black bear cub for sale.

The hunter had killed the cub's mother and sold the cub to Colebourn for $20. Colebourn named her "Winnie," after his adopted hometown, and took her across the Atlantic with him to Salisbury Plain, where she became an unofficial mascot of The Fort Garry Horse, a militia cavalry regiment.

Colebourn himself was a member of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, attached to the Fort Garry Horse as a veterinarian. While Colebourn served three years in France, attaining the rank of major, he kept Winnie at the London Zoo which eventually became her home.

It was at the London Zoo that A.A. Milne, and his son Christopher Robin, encountered Winnie. Christopher was so taken with her that he named his teddy bear after her, which became the inspiration for Milne's fictional character Winnie-the-Pooh. Winnie lived at the zoo until she died in 1934.

This is Harry giving his young bear cub a drink.


The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week.

There's a reason that servicemen often chose bulldogs as mascots, for nothing could be more symbolic of the British tenacity than the British bulldog. Here’s an image showing the bulldog tearing apart the Nazi flag.

To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.

                                                         * * * * * 

               STAR WEEKLY UPDATE

I received this email about a Star Weekly cover posted here recently, from Layne Larsen of the Canadian Aerospace Artists' Association:

"The Star Weekly cover showing a U.S. sailor and Canadian soldier rushing into combat is a bit fanciful. At the time, the U.S. Navy did not have any combat 'soldiers' like today's SEALS, but they did provide combat medics to the U.S. Marine Corps. As a medic, under the Geneva convention, they would be forbidden to carry arms. The uniform the U.S. Navy soldier is wearing, with the white gaiters, is the outfit that designated members of the Shore Patrol would wear on duty, or performing security duties aboard ship -- definitely not a form of combat dress! I don't think the artist ever actually saw a colour picture of a U.S. Navy enlisted sailor's uniform -- a conclusion based on him painting it sky blue rather than the actual navy blue."

Thank you, Layne, for this interesting fact!


The below photo of the three women in the navy is one that I have used frequently, both on my blog and in my slide show presentation. You can read the full blog post by clicking here: Hats, Helmets and Headgear.

So you can imagine my surprise when a friend of my brother's was able to identify the women in the photograph -- one of them is his own mother!

Don MacKinnon, a lawyer in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, wrote to tell me how it came about:

"In March 2006 I took my children out of school and went to Europe for three and a half months of travelling with my family. In early June, we made our way to Normandy, where I wanted to introduce my children to the history of the D-Day invasion. We actually ran into a couple of Englishmen who were D-Day veterans at our very modest hotel. My kids were impressed. We visited a number of historic sites, we walked the beaches and saw old pill boxes, and went to the Juno Beach Museum.

"Near the end of a couple of well-spent hours in the museum, I noticed a wall display that featured photos of the Royal Canadian Navy. Just as I was about to try to catch up with my three children and my wife who were ahead of me, I noticed a wall-mounted photograph featuring five WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), training at St. Hyacinthe, Quebec.

"Knowing that my mother had been a WREN during the war, I studied the photo and was struck by one unidentified WREN who I suddenly realized could be my mother. The more I looked at the picture, the more I thought I was looking at my mom in 1944, but I wasn’t certain. I pointed out the photograph to my kids and advised them that they might be looking at a picture of their grandmother taken 62 years ago during the war.

"I carefully photographed the wall-mounted picture. My digital picture looked pretty good, so I felt confident that I could email it to my family back in Canada to see if they would recognize the picture. I couldn’t recall my mother ever having talked about Signal School at St. Hyacinthe; however, I did know that she did do signal work during the war at Halifax and Prince Rupert.  After emailing my younger sister Mary, I waited for a response.

"My sister’s email back to me a few days later was a delight, as she advised that she had shown the picture to mom using her laptop computer and mom confirmed herself in the photo! Apparently mom was also was able to identify all of the women in the picture.

"Mom talked about how a Navy photographer had shown up one day at St. Hyacinthe while she was training, and picked out a number of trainees and took photographs of them in posed locations. My mom showed the photograph to a neighbour, and commented that she’d been pretty good-looking back then!

"My mother had forgotten all about the photo shoot until she saw a picture from it, more than 60 years after it was taken. My mother was nearly 86 when she saw the long-forgotten image of herself taken when she was just short of her 24th birthday.

"My older sister Joan, who is very much the family historian, later contacted the National War Museum and found more pictures from that same photo shoot in the war museum archives.

"When I was at the Juno Beach Museum, one of the issues that kept me from knowing that I was looking at a picture of my mother, was the odds against this chance viewing. I knew that there had been about 9,000 Canadian women who joined the WRNS during the war, and I kept thinking, the chances of this being a picture of my mom are simply too long for it to be true. Learning the truth was for me a revelation. I cannot imagine what a pleasant surprise it must have been for my mother to see an image from so far in her past!"

Below is the photo taken in the Juno Beach Museum, and here are their names: from left to right, Ann Reynolds from Manitoba; Frances VanWart (nee Dougherty) from New Brunswick; Marion Roberts from B.C., Vicki La Prairie (nee Wickham) from Montreal, and finally Don MacKinnon's mother, Marion Elizabeth MacKinnon (nee Smith).

Thank you, Don, for this fascinating update on a historical photograph! Below is a copy of the original photo in the Juno Beach Museum.

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