The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

On September 3, 1939 the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The population of Great Britain quickly prepared for the bombing raids they expected to receive. They strung up blackout curtains, built bomb shelters, and dug trenches. Many also killed or had their pets killed, with an estimated death toll in London alone of 400,000–700,000. That’s roughly 26% of the prewar population of companion animals. Those who had their pets euthanized did so against the advice of the veterinary profession, animal welfare charities, and even the government-sponsored National Air Raid Precautions Animals’ Comittee (NARPAC). Though the British government already had an ambivalent relationship with pets before, even it had not foreseen mass preemptive killing before the first bombs had fallen. In a sense, these animals were the first casualties of Britain’s war.

It is these September killings which give Hilda Kean’s new book, The Great Cat and Dog Massacre, its title. The phrase is a play on the title of a famous essay by historian Robert Darnton on the symbolic significance of pets in early modern France and a pointer towards how Kean frames her topic. Positioning the book as a contribution to the burgeoning field of Animal Studies, Kean indicates that she is less interested in symbolism and more interested in the two-way connection between pets and their people during the war. More than that, her aim is to bring animals back from the periphery of the story, where they exist as adjuncts to how humans conceive themselves, and to put them center stage as historical actors in their own right.

For those who survived the September crisis, Kean argues, rationing, air raids, and privation brought companion animals and their masters closers together in wartime than they had been in peace – and this despite ambivalent government policy that rarely saw non-working animals as anything other than idle mouths or nuisances.

Despite Kean’s impressive research into official and unofficial sources that shed light on human-companion animal relations – government papers, personal diaries, oral histories, advertisements, and the archives of Mass Observation – its remains challenging to write an animal-centric account of these wartime moments. Still, Kean has more than enough to offer a fresh perspective on the British Home Front. That includes the lives of  the official and unofficial cat inhabitants of the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. The former was “Treasury Bill,” aka “The Munich Mouser,” a rat-catcher. The latter was “Nelson,” who served at least some of the time as Winston Churchill’s foot-warmer. Their lives, at the heart of the British war machine, are good examples of how the Second World War in Britain was more than just a “People’s War.”

Subversive Pigeons

The introduction to Jacob Shell’s Transportation and Revolt (my semi-review here) begin with a précis of pigeon paranoia: the shooting of pigeons in occupied Belgium during the First World War, the systematic slaughter of British pigeons at the start of the Second, pigeon registration in the postwar USSR, a ban on carrier pigeon by the Taliban, the temporary prohibition on pigeon racing during the 2012 Communist Party congress in Beijing. Renowned as a tool of smugglers, criminals, and secret agents – in the imagination even more than in reality – the pigeon is the spur to the question that Shell’s book attempts to answer: “What sorts of carrying technologies have political regimes associated with the movement of weapons papers, or people for political subversion and revolt?”

Pigeon paranoia goes well beyond the examples that Shell notes, wide and fascinating as they are. My favorite anti-pigeon countermeasures remain the Second World War efforts to weaponize birds of prey in both Britain and the United States to hunt “enemy” pigeons. Attempts during the same war by the British to distract German pigeons with British ones (and therefore lead them to British lofts) or to poison the enemy’s pigeon supply with friendly birds (who would fly back to Britain rather than to their expected destinations) can only come a close second.

Pigeons have several advantages as a form of clandestine communications. They are easily concealed, have no electronic signature, and can even be hidden in plain sight where civilians keep pigeons themselves. In fact, the homing pigeon is, to some extent, the living equivalent of espionage’s dead drop. In a dead drop, neither user necessarily knows the identity of the other. The separation between them prevents the capture of one user necessarily revealing the identity of the other. The same is true with a homing pigeon, which is trained to fly regardless of circumstances back to its home loft. Depending on how the pigeon was delivered to its sender, the recipient knows nothing about him or her apart from what they themselves disclose. Likewise, the pigeon’s sender has no way of being sure where the bird is heading.

Perhaps the best example is British intelligence program known as COLUMBA. Starting in 1941, a sub-section of army intelligence (known as MI 14(d)) parachuted homing pigeons with which sympathetic French, Belgian, or Dutch individuals could report back to Britain on the German defenses in their area. As the Telegraph describes it, “Each pigeon came with a miniature spying kit: a bakelite tube to put a message in; sheets of ultra-thin paper and a special pencil; detailed instructions in French, Flemish or Dutch on how to fill in a report.” The attached questionnaire asked about preparations for the invasion of English, troops in the area, military movements, enemy morale, German lodgings, and restrictions on the movements of civilians, among other topics. (Jennifer Spangler has posted many documents related to COLUMBA at her blog, World War 2 History and the WW2 Pigeons. Scroll down in this entry to see the questionnaire.)

COLUMBA relied on the faith of the European resistance that its pigeons were heading for England and the faith of British intelligence that the reports received were genuine. There was, after all, no way to be sure it hadn’t been a German soldier who attached the message to a pigeon’s leg.

In December 1943, MI 14(d) summarized its impact in five points:

1.One out of every nine birds returns.
2. Supplies are ample.
3. Enemy fully pigeon minded.
4. Service worth while.
5. Liaison between 21 Army Group, “I” and R.A.F. to be established for coming operations.

By the middle of 1944, the British had sent more than 13,000 pigeons to the continent. 1,373 returned to Britain, 808 of those with messages. That was only 6% of messages sent out but apparently the resulting information was impressive. The staff of COLUMBA cheerfully reported all evidence of Germans reacting to the Allied operation. Reactions included a 2,000 franc reward for turning out a pigeon with equipment and message and occasional reports that the Germans were dropping their own decoy pigeons to sew confusion among potential correspondents. They also concluded that there had been little or no contamination of the intelligence with deliberate German misinformation.

I don’t know exactly what happened to COLUMBA after the invasion of Normandy, but a summary report a month after D-Day said they were ramping up to deliver 2,000 pigeons a month and that mobile lofts were ready to join the 21st Army Group in France.

Several European countries, including Britain, maintained military or intelligence service pigeon operations after the Second World War. The Swiss had 7,000 military-owned birds in 1995 and the French were still maintaining a cadre of 150 in 2012. The fact the Cold War stayed cold meant none of them saw action, but one homing pigeon did find itself unexpectedly drafted into the propaganda war being fought across the Iron Curtain.

I turned out that it was possible – albeit difficult – to “hijack” a homing pigeon en route and use it to deliver an entirely unexpected message. In 1954, a homing pigeon involved in a race from Nuremberg to Munich got lost and crossed the Iron Curtain, landing in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Found by someone who recognized its West German banding, they attached a message for the US-operated Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against Communist aggression, because Communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.
We always listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat Bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.
We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.
– Unbowed Pilsen

The message and pigeon, delivered to RFE by its owner, were an instant propaganda coup. “Leaping Lena” became the symbol of RFE’s 1955 fundraising drive, then retired to US Army Signal Corps pigeon breeding center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (The story appears on the RFE website, but that seems just to repeat what’s in newspaper articles from the time.)

Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Sleds of War

Transportation_and_RevoltGeographer Jacob Shell’s Transportation and Revolt is a treasure trove of stories of animals in war. Having begun with culls of Belgian courier pigeons by anxious German occupiers during the world wars, Shell moves in quick succession to describe the mobilization of American mules to fight the 1945–49 Greek Civil War, elephant-riding Kachin rebels in 1980s Burma, and camel-borne troops in Algeria, Sudan, and the American West. This use of beasts of burden in war, revolt, and smuggling, Shell argues, are all examples of “subversive” transportation networks that threatened ruling political regimes – a category which also includes Britain’s nineteenth-century canal workers and the New York waterfront’s cargo handlers (or shenanoges).

Shell’s examples of subservice mobility are interesting, as is his general concept, though I’m not convinced when he tries to show that it was a subversive connection with social disorder that led to official disinterest or opposition. (The exception is the most local and most detailed case, that of New York cargo handling.)

My favourite example from the book, though, has to be the mobilization of the dog sled, starting with the sled-borne warriors of Siberia. Between 1697 and the early nineteenth century, the Russian Empire fought a long series of inconclusive campaigns against Siberian peoples like the coastal Chukchi who used dogsleds both for strategic mobility and in battle. Using their sleds the Chukchi could move entire villages out of the path of Russian expeditions, hunting seal on the ice and avoiding the enemy entirely. In the case of the 1697 invasion of Kamchatka, Siberian peoples including the Yukagir, Koryak, and Itelmen used their sleds like ancient chariots: one man driving and the other wielding a bow and arrow.

Nor was the eighteenth century the end of the dog sled’s military utility. Towards the end of the book, Shell points out that sleds were part of the transport of uranium to make the first atomic bombs. In the first stage of moving uranium from the mines near Great Bear Lake in the Canadian North, “dog sled teams, driven by Dené mushers, moved sacks of the pitchblende ore from the seams to Port Radium. Next, wooden barges carried the material down the Great Bear River to Fort Norman, then up the Mackenzie River to Waterways, Alberta. The material then went by rail to the Eldorado refinery plant at Port Hope, on the north shore of Lake Ontario.” That made the humble dog sled one of the first links in a chain whose last connection was the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, one most advanced warplanes of the Second World War.

Plankton on the Battlefield

How small can an animal be, and still shape a battlefield? Very small, it turns out, as long as you’re zooplankton.

In 1942, the US Navy came to a group of oceanographers working in the University of California Division of War Research with an odd question. Navy sonar operators were getting echoes from “false bottoms,” with their signals bouncing back from depths of 1500 feet where the true depth of the ocean was several thousand. The navy was flummoxed, looking for ways to explain the phenomenon, and turned to the oceanographers Charles Eyring, R.J. Christensen, and Russell Raitt.

They turned to Martin Johnson of the Scripps Institute, a marine biologist who had already had success helping the navy recognize that interference with their sonar signals was the work of snapping shrimp (which are, apparently, shockingly loud when you put hundreds of them together).

Johnson was struck by the idea that the source of the reflection might be organic. In the deep ocean, zooplankton and the fishes which feed on them follow a diurnal cycle – staying deep during the day and climbing close to the surface at night. Clustered together, these fishes and plankton were dense enough to generate a sonar return that confused the operator.

In 1945, Johnson had the chance to prove his theory, watching as the false bottom (soon to be known as the “deep scattering layer”) rose towards the surface overnight and sank again in the morning. Once again, he had been able to help explain the environment in which the navy was fighting.

The use of oceanography during the Second World War became the basis for a massive expansion of government-funded ocean research during the Cold War, and Johnson’s discoveries helped ensure that marine biology and the study of the deep scattering layer would be part of that. After all, even tiny plankton could affect the operation of the US Navy’s most advanced sensors.

h/t Gary E. Weir, An Ocean in Common: American Naval Officers, Scientists, and the Ocean Environment (Texas A&M University Press, 2001); Robert L. Fisher, Edward D. Goldberg, and Charles S. Cox (eds.), Coming of Age: Scripps Institution of Oceanography : A Centennial Volume, 1903–2003 (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 2003).

Pigeons at Sea

Here’s an interesting postscript to Project Pigeon, the US wartime effort to train pigeons to guide bombs. In the late 1970s, Project Sea Hunt began training pigeons for a similar task, except that this time they were supposed to recognize orange objects floating in the water – like a life raft or a person in a life jacket. After a rigorous, and personalized (!) training program, the pigeons were deployed in a plexiglass dome on the bottom of a US Coast Guard helicopter, and in tests off Hawaii they proved to be startlingly good at the job.

SARPigeonPosterUnlike humans, pigeons don’t get bored of scanning the waves for hours, and they work like their next meal depends on it (which, with operant conditioning, it sort-of does). In the Hawaii tests, the pigeons spotted the targets (a simulated overturned life raft) before the humans 84% of the time, and frequently at a greater distance.

The project was cancelled in 1983 due to budget cuts, but not before tragedy had struck one team of Coast Guard pigeons. In 1979, one of the test aircraft was on a real Search and Rescue flight off Hawaii when it ran out of fuel and had to ditch. All four human crew were saved, but the pigeons didn’t make it.

More on Project Sea Hunt at the US Coast Guard’s Historian’s Office.

The Paradogs

I think this can be pretty much submitted without comment: Der Spiegel has an article on the dogs who parachuted into Normandy with the British 6th Airborne Division on D-Day:

Bing and the other dogs proved to be very useful, especially for locating mines and booby traps. “They would sniff excitedly over it for a few seconds and then sit down looking back at the handler with a quaint mixture of smugness and expectancy,” [one soldier] wrote, noting that the dogs would then be rewarded with a treat. “The dogs also helped on patrols by sniffing out enemy positions and personnel, hence saving many Allied lives,” he added.

How Many War Memorials to Animals Are There in the UK?

Twenty-six, according to the UK National Inventory of War Memorials (in the process of re-branding as the Imperial War Museum War Memorials Archive). Started in 1989, the volunteer-run project (there is only one full-time staffer at the IWM) maintains a database of more than 60,000 memorials (the definition is broad, including non-combatant deaths of military personnel in both war and peace and victims of terrorism). When the project began, the best estimate was that there were 25,000 war memorials in Britain. After a decade 33,000 had been recorded and the estimate was 60,000. By 2010 the inventory was up to 60,000 and the estimate was around 100,000. The number continues to grow, not least because of an unquiet world: in 2010, the archive had recorded 504 memorials unveiled since January 1, 2000 (though just over 400 were for one or the other of the World Wars).

You can search the inventory at and read about its ongoing work on the archive’s blog.

This Is Just Plain Weird: A Sixteenth-Century Bird Bomb

I never expected to keep writing about animal weapons. That was supposed to just be a one-week special feature. But it just seems that everywhere you turn, you see examples of practical or perverse attempts to make animals into weapons of war. This example from The Atlantic‘s Tech blog is mostly on the perverse side.

Folio 137r of the 1584 Feuer Buch features a bird and a dog with flaming packs racing towards a castle. (Go take a look at the UPenn library site. I’ll wait). In a sweet and optimistic gesture the cataloger has described this as “Cat and bird with rocket packs,” but no, those are almost certainly incendiary bombs.

The real story here, though, is not the insanity of early modern Germans strapping bombs onto birds in the hopes of blowing up their enemies. It’s that UPenn has been able to digitize and put up a full copy of the Feuer Buch. My German orthography is bad enough that I can’t really read the ms., but if I’m reading the cataloging data right this is a sixteenth-century copy of the 1420 Feuerwerkbuch, one of the earliest widespread sources for information on European gunpowder production and for the introduction of corning: which turns out to be an incredibly important step in turning firearms from exotic tools into war-winners. (You can read all about it in Bert Hall’s Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics.)

The Atlantic just posts the link to UPenn’s manuscripts collection, but I think a few thanks are in order: to the National Endowment of the Humanities, without whose grants there’s little chance this digitization would have been affordable; to the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image; and to Edgar F. Smith (1854–1928), without whose belief in the importance of the history of chemistry, who knows where UPenn’s Feuer Buch would have ended up.


Mules, Dogs, Pigeons, Goats, and One Unhappy Rhinoceros

I’m reading a history of US Army cargo ships in World War II that notes, in passing, that in addition to the four-legged passengers on its seventeen specialized mule-carrying ships (mostly modified Liberty ships), the Army also shipped dogs, pigeons, goats, and one unhappy rhinoceros that was en route from Calcutta to the United States aboard the mule carrier Virginian when it died.

There has got to be a story in there, somewhere.

(Wondering how you make a specialized mule-carrying ship? Apparently it involves adding wooden stalls and hay racks, as well as what the report calls “manure ports.”)

Flying Black Bears

Earlier in the year, I did a series on the long and somewhat unpredictable history of animals at war. There were anti-tank dogs, bomb-guiding pigeons, plague-carrying fleas, mine-warming chickens, anti-pigeon falcons, and one ammunition-carrying bear.

Now we can add another story to the list: that of the US Air Force’s parachuting black bears. This one comes from the 1950s and the development of the B-58 Hustler, the first Mach 2 bomber. It turned out that ejection from an airplane at Mach 2 was incredibly dangerous, so the designers came up with clamshell escape capsules that enclosed each crewman and carried them safely clear of the plane. The capsules were tested by a mix of American and Himalayan black bears, who had roughly the same mass and shape as a person. The capsules worked, though the bears had to be heavily sedated during the tests. Also, having survived a Mach 2 ejection, they were euthanized and autopsied to check for broken bones and internal injuries as you can’t just ask a bear “does anything hurt?”

io9 has the story here (ignore the World War II in the title).