In the footsteps of
Military Working Dogs
during the Second World War

An aspect of the Second World War that is less well known is the part played by Military Working Dogs. Lieutenant Peter Norbury, who was one of the platoon commanders in charge of these courageous animals during the Second World War, was interviewed in 2016 by the Daily Mirror when one of the dogs he had been in charge of was named as a finalist in the Daily Mirror's Animal Hero Awards, in association with the RSPCA.

The dog was a black Labrador called Rex that had been one of dogs with which Peter had worked in a mine clearing role and who Lieutenant Norbury had nominated for the RSPCA's For Valour Medal at the end of the war. He had written:

    "Rex has always worked with great zest. Whilst on duty in the Reichswald Forest, he worked under the worst of conditions both overhead and underfoot with complete disregard to the very heavy enemy shelling. He helped to clear a pathway through a thickly sown anti-personnel minefield, so saving casualties that would have most certainly occurred but for his devotion to duty."

Yet Rex never received his award. When the War Office discovered Rex was originally a stray, he faced the same tragic fate as all of the other heroic war dogs that had no owner. He was destroyed the day before he was due to receive his award and his incredible courage had remained forgotten until his story was discovered by historian and writer Christy Campbell.

Military Working Dogs in training during the Second World War

Military Working Dogs in training during the Second World War.

Peter, when interviewed by the Daily Mirror said:

    "It's nice that these remarkable dogs should be remembered, even after 70 years.

    A lot of the dogs would not work if there was a hell of a row because they got distracted. It normally had to be reasonably quiet, most couldn't do their job under heavy gunfire. But there were exceptions."

Rex was one such exception.

A black Labrador in training during the Second World War

A black Labrador in training during the Second World War.

No official records of Rex or his military service survive as the Ministry of Defence destroyed its files on the Second World War working dogs in 2010. As a stray, he was almost certainly recruited from Battersea Dogs Home or a police pound. Others were leant to the Army by families, who were struggling to feed their pets as rationing grew tighter. Rex and the other dogs were sent to the War Dogs Training School, a converted greyhound kennels just outside Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, where volunteers from the Women's Auxiliaries threw bangers and thunder-flashes to teach the dogs not to run from gunfire. He was one of 30 dogs and their handlers that formed No 4 Mine Platoon, Royal Engineers, the last platoon of mine dogs formed by the Allies during the Second World War.

No 4 Mine Platoon, RE was sent to France after D-Day and took part in Operation VERITABLE. Peter, who was the Platoon Commander, said of the Reichswald:

    "The Reichswald Forest was horrible. It was cold, it was wet, it was muddy, and it was infested with anti-personnel mines.

    The Germans were cunning. By the end of the war, they were using wooden shoe mines or glass mines that would blow your foot off. Or they buried steel mines near tramlines so metal detectors were no use."

Rex's finest moments came during 1945, when on 3ed March 1945 he found so many mines in the Reichswald that Peter hailed him as the bravest dog he had ever seen. In his war diary Peter also reveals that on 4th March 1945 Rex and a canine colleague were sent out again to ensure the forest was safe a visit by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

Three weeks later, Rex was in action again as his platoon was sent across the River Rhine as part of Operation PLUNDER. This time it was one of Rex's fellow dogs, a yellow Labrador called Texas, that was singled out for special praise. Peter also cited Texas for the For Valour Medal at the end of the war, saying:

    "He worked under continuous gunfire on the Rhine crossing, detecting mines with complete disregard to the shelling. Through his devotion to duty, he contributed largely to the successful conclusion of the task set."

Sadly Texas never received his medal either, even though he and Rex remained with Peter until the platoon reached Bremen in northwest Germany.

The RSPCA was all set to honour the pair with medals at a ceremony in London in January 1946, but their citations were secretly cancelled by the War Office.

Military Working Dogs were not only used for mine clearance duties, but also for guard and patrol duties as well. Some, like Brian (aka Bing), a two year-old Collie Cross, were even taught how to parachute in behind enemy lines. Brian was one of the most famous of the so-called "paradogs" and was awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal for his service. During the D-Day Landings, Brian and several other animals dropped in to France under heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire. Another was Glen who jumped into Normandy with his handler Private Emil Corteil. They had got separated from their company stick, that had been scattered over a wide area, and Private Corteil and Glen had eventually joined a group commanded by Brigadier James Hill DSO, MC near the village of Varaville. As they made their way to join the rest of the Brigade they were attacked from the air. Brigadier Hill later recalled:

    "We were walking down a lane when I suddenly heard a terrible staccato sound approaching from the seawards side of the hedge. I shouted to everybody to fling themselves to the ground and then we were caught in the middle of a pattern of anti-personnel bombs dropped by a large group of aircraft which appeared to be our own Spitfires."

Only Brigadier Hill and one other survived unscathed, Private Emil Corteil and Glen were both killed. At the insistence of Major Allen Parry, Private Corteil's Company Commander, both he and Glen were buried in the same grave in Ranville CWGC Cemetery.

By the end of the war, 3,300 trained military dogs had been sent to the frontline as guard dogs, mine dogs or messengers. More than 200 of these were killed or vanished, but most survived. At the end of the war those who were deemed safe to go home were returned to their families, but some were considered too dangerous to be returned. They and others who were strays, like Rex, or had been bought by the Army for up to £25, as in the case of Texas, were destroyed.

Of the 17 dogs cited for the RSPCA For Valour Medal only three actually ever received it. Instead, the Dickin Medal, launched by fellow pet charity the PDSA in 1943, became the standard award — the Victoria Cross for courageous animals — and it has been awarded 65 times.

The outstanding work carried out by military working dogs is continued today by 1st Military Working Dogs Regiment and the most recent reipient of the Dickin Medal is Mali, a Belgian Malinois, who was recognised for his work in Afghanistan.

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Last updated: 15th December 2018