The daring dogs of D-Day
Stripes Europe January 30, 2024
Who Dares Wins… or Who Dares Woofs? The eightieth anniversary of the D-Day Landings and Battle of Normandy in World War II is this June. While commemorations highlighting the sacrifices and heroism of Allied Soldiers are sure to be a momentous occasion, not everyone who contributed to victory walked on two legs.
In the early pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, over 10,000 American, British, and Canadian paratroopers took off from airfields in southern England. Within a few hours, they were engaged in fierce combat as the first step in liberating Nazi-occupied France. The men of the British 6th Airborne Division had one of the most arduous tasks of the entire operation. However, on the morning of Deployment Day (D-Day), they had unusual help from a team of highly trained special forces. These troopers could run twice as fast as any normal man, find minefields and booby traps with ease, and had an almost superhuman ability to know when the enemy was nearby. How you may ask? This team consisted of German Shepherds.
The Parachuting Dogs (“Para Dogs” for short) were one of the strangest but also most successful uses of canines in combat during World War II. The dogs, all German Shepherds (known as Alsatians in Britain), had spent months before D-Day training at the Royal War Dog Training School (yes, a real thing). There, they received training in bomb detection, tracking enemy soldiers, and more. They did this while being exposed to aircraft, explosions, and gunfire. The German Shepherds Glen, Monty, Brian (nicknamed Bing) and others who completed this first phase of training, proceeded to accomplish something unprecedented in dog training: They were trained to perform individual parachute jumps.
The handlers outfitted these daring dogs with full solo-dog harnesses and parachutes. In exchange for a treat, they persuaded the daring dogs to jump out of airplanes. The Para Dogs first accomplished this during spring training in 1944, and then in combat on D-Day. They provided invaluable service: sniffing out hidden German positions, finding mines and giving early warning to Allied troops. The Para Dogs also provided a morale boost to the troops they were with, of course!
Parachuting Dogs may have been the most dramatic example of animals taking part in the D-Day invasion, but they were not the only ones. The Allies extensively used carrier pigeons to send messages throughout the war. While modern technology had all but replaced the birds in common use, pigeons allowed soldiers to keep radio silence and avoid detection by the enemy. The first report of the successful D-Day landings arrived in the U.K. via Gustav, a pigeon released at 8:30 a.m., just forty minutes after the first troops hit the beach.
The Germans themselves made use of both carrier pigeons and pigeon-hunting falcons in the Normandy campaign. Horses had an extensive role during the battle as well. Despite the Nazi Wehrmacht’s reputation as a mechanized force of Panzer tanks and trucks, they used thousands of horses and mules to transport men and material.
Most of the animals that served in and survived the Battle of Normandy disappeared from military records and the history books after the war. Some of them, such as the Para Dog Brian, did receive recognition through the Dickin Medal. This ‘Medal of Honor’ for animals presented by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, or PDSA (a leading British veterinary organization),f was awarded to several animals involved in D-Day. You can see these medals and learn more by visiting museums that tell their story, including the Mémorial de Caen and Arromanches Museum in Normandy, the Imperial War Museum (London and Duxford branches) in Britain, and the National World War II Museum and American Pigeon Museum in the United States.
Editors Note: This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Dicken Medal and the PDSA honored it with a special wreath-laying ceremony. The PDSA has free e-books available that tell the stories of five World War II Medal recipients, including Bing (Brian).
References and Additional Reading
Clare Campbell. Dogs of Courage: When Britain’s Pets Went to War 1939–45. London, Corsair 2015 .
Andrew Woolhouse. Lucky for Some: The History of the 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion, CreateSpace 2013.
Laurie Goldstraw. “The Paratrooper and his Dog.” Pegasus Journal, December 1989.
“PDSA Dickin Medal.“ www.pdsa.org.uk