The PDSA Dickin Medal (DM) is the highest award that any animal can receive while serving in military conflict. It was founded in 1943 by Maria Dickin, the founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals and it is recognised as the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. It has been awarded 67 times and the recipients comprise of 32 pigeons, 31 dogs, three horses and one cat. The medal is inscribed with the words, “For Gallantry. We also serve.”
All of the awards are richly deserved but the most inspiring stories arguably come from those involving man’s best friend: the loyal dog.
World War II is the most horrendous conflict in human history and countless innocent animals were caught up in the destruction. Nevertheless this did not deter dogs from carrying out amazing feats of heroism and several canines were instrumental in saving lives. One of the first was a little stray mixed-terrier called Rip who was found wandering around bombsites in the East End of London in 1940.
An Air Raid Precaution Warden called Mr E. King gave him some food and the two became fast friends with King’s colleagues in the ARP Station adopting him as their mascot. Despite having no training, Rip had a talent for locating people trapped in bomb-damaged houses, sniffing and scratching for signs of life before barking to attract attention. This instinctive skill led him to become the ARP Service’s first official Search and Rescue Dog and Rip was responsible for rescuing over 100 people between 1940-41. He was awarded the DM in 1945 and wore the medal on his collar until he died in October 1946.
The loyalty of dogs towards their handlers during the war was often exceptional. “Rifleman” Khan was a German Shepherd who lived with the Railton family in Surrey as a pet. Harry Railton offered Khan to the War Office for service and he was trained to find explosives before being assigned to Lance-Corporal James Muldoon of the Scottish Rifles.
In November 1944 Muldoon and Khan were taking part in an amphibious assault to free Walcheren Island in the Netherlands from the Nazis. Their boat came under heavy fire and collapsed, tipping the heavily laden soldiers into the water. Khan swam to shore and immediately started looking for Muldoon but his handler was drowning. Muldoon, who couldn’t swim, was crying out for help, whilst slowly sinking.
Despite heavy shellfire Khan went back to rescue his friend, swimming 200 yards (180m) to get to Muldoon. He seized the soldier by his tunic collars and pulled him to shore before they both collapsed exhausted on solid ground. Like Rip, Khan was awarded his DM in 1945 and returned to the Railton family. However, he was later reunited with Muldoon when they led a parade of DM winners at the National Dog Tournament. When Harry Railton saw the bond between the soldier and his pet he gave Khan to Muldoon as a gift and the pair spent their military retirement living together in Strathaven, Scotland.
One of the most exceptional DM recipients of World War II was an English Pointer called Judy who spent years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Judy was a ship’s dog on HMS Grasshopper. When the Grasshopper was sunk in 1942 the crew were marooned on an island for days but Judy helped save their lives by finding a water source. Judy and the crew became prisoners of the Japanese and were sent to Gloergoer Camp in Indonesia and she soon bonded with Frank Williams, a captive Leading Aircraftman from the RAF. Conditions in the camp were awful but Williams always shared his meagre rice ration with Judy and they became inseparable.
For her part Judy would protect Williams and other prisoners from the brutality of the Japanese guards. She would snarl and growl whenever prisoners were beaten and this led the guards to hit her with their rifle butts. Williams feared for her life and he managed to persuade the camp commandant to make her an official captive by giving him one of her puppies to give to his mistress. Consequently, Judy officially became “POW 81A” and her new status saved her from execution on several occasions.
However in June 1944 the camp’s prisoners were herded onto a ship bound for Singapore. Dogs were not allowed so Williams trained Judy to lie still and hid her in a sack but the ship was torpedoed. Williams reluctantly threw Judy out of a porthole hoping she would swim away, while he escaped through a hatch. For two hours he swam in the water desperately searching for her and feared the worst. However, Judy had been busy rescuing prisoners in the burning, debris-ridden sea, grabbing onto them and pulling them to floating wreckage. She saved four men by this method and even refused help from boats to rescue her while she swam around looking for drowning men. Luckily Williams was eventually reunited with her but they were sent back to a prison camp and even worse conditions than before. Prisoners were overworked and often beaten or starved to death. When Williams fell ill with malaria the guards ordered Judy to be killed and cooked, with Williams to be force-fed the first helping. However, Williams had taught Judy to hide in the jungle when trouble was in the air and she successfully evaded the pot. The plucky dog returned to Williams’s sickbed and miraculously they both survived to see liberation in August 1945.
The pair were finally free and set sail for England, with Judy spending six months in quarantine. They were reunited in early 1946 and both were decorated for bravery by the PDSA. Williams received the White Cross of St Giles Award while Judy received the DM. Her citation read:
“For magnificent courage and endurance in Japanese prison camps, which helped maintain morale among fellow prisoners and also saving many lives through intelligence and watchfulness.”
Judy and Williams stayed together and she accompanied him to Tanzania when he found employment there. She died in 1950 aged 13-14 and Williams buried his friend in a specially made RAF coat and built a memorial and plaque for her. He later said that Judy had given him a reason to live when he was in captivity:
“All I had to do was look at her and into those weary, bloodshot eyes and I would ask myself, “What would happen to her if I died?”
The examples of heroism that these dogs and other creatures demonstrated during the war has continued to the present day, with the most recent medal being awarded in April 2016. The recipient is a member of the US Marine Corps who completed 400 missions and saved countless lives helping to discover improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her name is Lucca and she is, naturally: a dog.