We're all aware of the phrase 'Dogs of War', and heavy metal fans amongst us will be familiar with 'War Pigs', too.
But Battle Cats? Gun Camels? Sounds like total nonsense, doesn't it.
Well, it isn't.
Behold, ten beasts that really, genuinely, earned their stripes with (incredibly) varying levels of military action. From felines that died in the name of Cold War espionage to war hero bears, these are the members of the animal kingdom that deserve your salutes.
The Imperial Camel Corps was a camel-mounted infantry force introduced to the Middle Eastern and African deserts in 1916, and ridden into battle by 4,150 Australian, New Zealand and British troops during the First World War. The camels were, obviously, pretty decent at lugging machine guns and supplies through the desert, but their main flaws included bad breath, an uncomfortable ride, bad temper and a tendency to bite. There’s even a memorial erected in Victoria Embankment Gardens to the 347 men who died in the corps.
A cool $2million was spent by the US Marine Corps during WW2 to test out whether tiny bats could scatter bomb Japan. The idea, initially thought up by a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams and sent to the White House, involved strapping incendiary bombs to loads of the winged beasts, unleashing them over enemy territory, and allowing them to fly into the nooks and crannies of warehouses and factories where the bombs would go off. "Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped. Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life,” he later justified. The Marine Corps took it seriously enough to spaff a huge amount of money and conduct 30 demonstrations, only to cancel the programme and, instead, make something much bigger – the atom bomb.
Perhaps the most famous of all serving animals, Wojtek the 200kg soldier bear was adopted by Polish troops and helped them lug heavy ammunition across the battlefields in Italy during World War II. Naturally, he also learned how to drink beer with his fellow soldiers and eat cigarettes. Wojtek survived the war, and lived the rest of his years in Edinburgh Zoo until his death in 1963.
One more that didn’t exactly go to plan was Operation Acoustic Kitty, the CIA’s attempt to turn a cat into a spy during the 1960s. It was hoped the feline could allegedly catch the conversations of foreign officials amidst heightened Cold War-era tensions, but instead, the kitty never got its chance to shine. In the book Frankenstein’s Cat, the author Emily Anthes claims the animal underwent “an hour-long procedure to transform the furry feline into an elite spy, implanting a microphone in her ear and a small radio transmitter at the base of her skull.” The cat was then placed in a park and tasked with capturing the conversation of two men on a bench. It cat didn’t reach the two men. Instead, it wandered into the street and got squashed by a taxi. Oh.
Er, yeah, another one that didn’t end too well for the serving animal. In the 1930’s the Soviets trained Alsatians to carry bombs to tanks and then run off to safety. Unfortunately, the method didn’t pan out, firstly because the devices needed to detonate the explosive remotely were too expensive, and secondly because the dogs needed to pull a belt to release the bomb, which proved too intricate for the pooches. So, the trainers decided to cut the middle phase out and build a bomb that would trigger as soon as the canines ran under the oncoming tanks. But there was a problem. A big problem. The dogs were trained with Soviet tanks, so, understandably, often ran under the tanks belonging to their own military to blow up. Eeesh.
Enemy-Clamping Sea Lions
You can imagine the eye-rolling and general tutting that newspapers and magazines threw the US Navy’s way when they claimed to have trained sea lions to scupper underwater enemies dead-set on blowing up allied warships. So, the Navy went ahead and proved it. In 2011, a demo in California saw an ex-Navy SEAL attempt to swim into the San Diego Bay harbour with an unarmed mine. Five times he tried it. Five times he was caught by the trained sea lions, with the beast even attaching a clamp to the diver’s leg so that handlers could reel him in like a helpless fish.
Pigs – cute when they’re little, delicious when they’re big and fat, and deadly when they’re pissed off. Pliney the Elder, a Roman author and philosopher, noted that “elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog”, and with that in mind, the Roman Army recruited angry swine in 275BC to bring down the hordes of trampling war elephants in the ranks of one of Rome’s strongest adversaries, Greek general Pyrrhus. How did they get the pigs to squeal on demand? Um, it’s not pretty. The Romans doused the pigs in tar, set them on fire, and made them run at the elephants while, understandably, vocalising their pain. Eeesh.
Since the 1960’s the US Navy has run the Marine Mammal Program – a training scheme that sees dolphins learn how to detect complex sea mines using their echolocation, both buried on the sea floor and suspended from anchor. “[Bottlenose dolphins] are better than any machine as far as detecting mines,” Paul Nachtigall, head of the marine mammal research program at the University of Hawaii, told Nat Geo in 2014. Pretty good for an animal that’s eared the reputation as “asshole of the sea” thanks to it’s penchant for killing other creatures for fun…
Trench Glow Worms
Alright, a humble worm isn’t going to take down an enemy any time soon, but these harmless suckers still did their part for the war effort during World War I. European glow worms would be collected in jars in huge numbers, thus allowing raking soldiers to study maps, study intelligence or just read letters from home thanks to their bioluminescence.
When the Nationalists serving under Captain Cortes were pushed back into the monastery of Santa Maria de le Cabeza by the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the question of how to get valuable and often fragile supplies to them was answered in spectacular fashion. Turkeys. Instead of conventional parachutes, Nationalist pilots would hurl the Xmas dinner staple, strapped with supplies, from their planes and let the big birds flap their wings as they fell, slowing their descent. Unfortunately, they couldn’t flap hard enough to prevent them from ending up a bloody mess on the monastery floor. Bad news for the birds, good news for the cornered comrades: not only did they get their supplies, but they got a tasty turkey dinner that night, too.