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Polish scouts stand next to a Wojtek the Soldier Bear memorial in Edinburgh in 2015

6 stories of animals that went to war

For thousands of years, we’ve looked to the aid of animals to help us in a variety of ways in the field of combat.

Image Credit: Fotokon / | Above: Polish scouts stand next to a Wojtek the Soldier Bear memorial in Edinburgh in 2015

Since the dawn of mankind, humans have been at war. Fighting one another has been an unchanged constant throughout the centuries. However, we’ve never been doing it alone. For thousands of years, we’ve looked to the aid of animals to help us in a variety of ways in the field of combat.

Here are six unbelievable stories of animals in war:

1. Cher Ami

The homing ability of pigeons made them a perfect tool to deliver messages during the two world wars, especially when communication lines were down or had been cut.

Of the millions of pigeons deployed, perhaps the most famous was Cher Ami. During WWI, around 500 men of the U.S. 77th Division became cut off and trapped behind enemy lines. With rations depleting and friendly fire bearing down on them, the ‘Lost Battalion' (as it later became known), placed all their hopes in one final Hail Mary.

A note reading, ‘We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!’, was attached to the foot of a Black Check homing pigeon named Cher Ami (‘dear friend’).

The bird took just over an hour to fly 25 miles back to its loft. It arrived shot, partially blinded and with one leg hanging on by a tendon, however, the message it carried was received and reinforcements were sent to recover the men of the 77th.

The bird was nursed back to health and even given a wooden leg. You can still see Cher Ami today, preserved and on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C..

2. Bat bombs

There have been some bizarre examples of animals being used in war but surely none rank higher than the infamous bat bombs of WWII.

A short while after Japan had launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, American dentist Lyle S. Adams pitched an idea to the White House that he hoped would bring their new mortal enemy to its knees.

The idea was to strap timed incendiary bombs onto Mexican free-tailed bats and then drop the creatures over various Japanese cities just before dawn. The bats would then roost under the eaves of buildings before exploding. Most Japanese dwellings at that time were constructed of wood, bamboo and paper.

The hope was the exploding bats would create widespread fires, causing mass destruction and ultimately forcing Japan to surrender without having to put American boots on Japanese soil.

Project X-Ray, as it became known, cost the American taxpayer $2 million (equivalent to $35.5 million in 2023) and nearly got to deployment. It was mothballed at the last minute in favour of the development of the atomic bomb, known as the Manhattan Project.

3. Wojtek the Bear

Adopted as a cub by soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish army during WWII, the Syrian brown bear known as Wojtek became a morale-boosting symbol of hope for many soldiers.

Whilst in the Middle East, Polish soldiers traded a Swiss army knife for the bear cub and subsequently raised it within their ranks. They fed it condensed milk from an empty vodka bottle, taught it how to salute and march, and drove it around in their army trucks.

Wojtek trusted his human companions and they trusted him, often engaging in fun boxing and wrestling matches together. The bear was allowed treats of cigarettes and beer and one of his favourite activities was long cold showers, which often led to water shortages.

Wojtek grew into a 40-stone adult and was officially enlisted into the army to secure his rations. Starting at the rank of private, Wojtek rose to that of corporal due to his actions during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in May 1944. He allegedly helped carry ammunition crates to the soldiers on the frontline.

Wojtek survived the war and lived out his days at Edinburgh Zoo.

4. Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken

There isn’t a more fitting codename in the history of warfare than Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken, aka KFC. Someone in the ranks of the American military had fun dubbing that one.

During the start of the Iraq War (2003-2011), the U.S. military planned to attach caged chickens to the top of their hummers as they entered the country. The reason? Like the canary down the mine, the Americans hoped the chickens would act as an early warning system to any dangerous chemicals or nerve agents in the atmosphere.

The operation never actually got off the ground after 41 of the 43 chickens died within a week of arrival in Kuwait.

5. Dogs of war

For 14,000 years, man’s best friend has been by our side and for almost as long we’ve exploited their intelligence, heightened sense of smell and undying devotion to help us.

The Romans used them as sentries to deter and detect any marauding bandits, whilst Attila the Hun put giant Molosser dogs on the front line, sending them in packs to face his European enemies.

Stubby, a bulldog terrier with a short tail, became the first dog in U.S. military history to be awarded a rank. During the trench warfare of WWI, Stubby alerted the troops to incoming shells or gas long before any humans could detect them. He also located wounded soldiers in No Man’s Land, standing by their side and barking until a medic arrived. By the war's end, Stubby outranked his own handler, had participated in 17 battles and had been wounded twice.

During WWII, the Soviets trained anti-tank dogs to carry bombs and charge at tanks or other military targets. The tactic was unsuccessful as the dogs were often too afraid to run at the vehicles.

It was in 1943 that the PDSA Dickin Award was created in Britain. It recognises animals that display 'conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty in the field of military conflict’. It’s been awarded 75 times since its inception with dogs being the majority recipient at 38.

6. Military dolphins

Similarly, the heightened intelligence of dolphins has led to their deployment in warfare in a variety of ways. From search and rescue and mine clearance to guarding boats and equipment delivery, dolphins have been utilised by both the American and Soviet militaries.

The Americans first deployed dolphins during the Vietnam War before once again utilising them in both the Gulf War (1990-91) and the Iraq War. The U.S. Navy has also trained sea lions and beluga whales alongside the dolphins to operate similarly. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP) continues to operate out of San Diego, California.