On the eve of the Normandy invasion, three planes carrying the members of Britain's 13th Battalion took off for France. In addition to the 60 men aboard, each plane carried one dog. The story of how these paratrooping canines got there — and what happened next — is nothing short of remarkable.
Lazar Backovic has penned a fascinating article for Spiegel Online chronicling the brief but astounding story of Britain's parachuting dogs, or "paradogs." Much of the information in the article was drawn from a recent book written by Andrew Woolhouse, 13 - Lucky for Some: The History of the 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion.
In the case of the 13th Battalion, the dogs were trained to perform tasks such as locating mines, keeping watch, warning about enemies, and even serving as morale boosting mascots (indeed, dogs were also commissioned at US and British air bases for that sole purpose).
To acquire the dogs, the British War office asked people to "lend" their pets to the war effort. But given the dire situation in Britain at the time — think food rations — many people were happy to send their dogs away. And in fact, the facility became a virtual shelter owing to the large number of donations.
Paradogs were taught to get used to wartime conditions, like aircraft propellers and loud noises. They were also trained to identify the smell of explosives. But getting them to jump out of a plane, well, that was another story. Backovic writes:
The dogs' slim bodies proved to be advantageous because, during their test jumps, they could use the parachutes that had actually been designed to carry bicycles. In order to make it easier to get the dogs to jump out of the aircraft, they weren't given anything to drink or eat beforehand. On April 2, 1944, Bailey wrote in his notebook about the first jump with the female Alsatian Ranee. He notes that he carried with him a 2-pound piece of meat, and that the dog sat at his heels eagerly watching as the men at the front of the line jumped out of the plane.
Then it was their time to jump, which [Lance Cpl. Ken Bailey] describes in this way:
"After my chute developed, I turned to face the line of flight; the dog was 30 yards away and slightly above. The chute had opened and was oscillating slightly. (Ranee) looked somewhat bewildered but showed no sign of fear. I called out and she immediately turned in my direction and wagged her tail vigorously. The dog touched down 80 feet before I landed. She was completely relaxed, making no attempt to anticipate or resist the landing, rolled over once, scrambled to her feet and stood looking round. I landed 40 feet from her and immediately ran to her, released her and gave her the feed."
Jump, land, eat: With each training jump, the dogs started enjoying their job more. In fact, the dogs sometimes allowed themselves to be thrown out of the planes or lept out without any coaxing.
Ah, good ol' Pavlovian conditioning.
But when D-Day finally came, things didn't go according to plan — at least for a dog named Bing. When it was time to make the big leap, Bing turned tail and cowered at the back. Without hesitation, his master disconnected himself from his radio equipment, caught the dog, and literally threw him out of the plane. Things went from bad to worse when Bing landed on a tree. He hung from the branches for two hours until his comrades found him with two deep cuts in his face, likely from German mortar fire.
Eventually things settled down and the dogs proved to be useful, especially for locating mines and booby traps. Regrettably, some of the dogs were victims, including one severely wounded on D-Day, and one who got separated from her battalion.
Bing survived the war and went on to receive the Dicken Medal, the UK's highest honor for animals that have displayed "conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units."
I just skimmed the surface of Backovic's post. Read the entire article : "Britain's Luftwoofe: The Heroic Paradogs of World War II." There's also an incredible photo gallery of military paradogs used throughout history that you'll want to check out.
Top image: A soldier adjusts the parachute harness of "Trixies" at Fort Benning, Georgia — Via Spiegel Online. Inset image: Bing immortalized at a British museum— Via Spiegel Online.