‘Animal VC’ Celebrates 75th Anniversary

To mark the milestone 75th anniversary of the PDSA Dickin Medal* – the animals’ Victoria Cross – vet charity PDSA has, for the first time ever, gathered animal and Armed Forces representatives to commemorate the actions of the Medal’s recipients  – and the countless lives they saved.

A dog, pigeon, horse and cat – proudly wearing PDSA Dickin Medals – stood alongside members of the RAF, Army and Royal Navy at the Imperial War Museum, London, to honour those animals ‘who also serve’.

Seventy-five years ago, at the height of World War II, a messenger pigeon named Winkie became the first ever recipient of the PDSA Dickin Medal, which is awarded to animals that display conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in military conflict.

Corporal Daniel Hatley with Military Working Dog Mali who is wearing his Centenary PDSA Dickin Medal

Since then, the life-saving actions of 72 incredible animals have been honoured by the charity; 71 animals – 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, four horses and one cat have received the PDSA Dickin Medal. An Honorary PDSA Dickin Medal was also bestowed to ‘the real war horse’, Warrior, on 2 September 2014, on behalf of all 16 million animals that served in the Great War.

Jan McLoughlin, PDSA Director General, said: “Today we honour the animals who also serve: those noble creatures whose skill and courage have saved countless military and civilian lives. The face of armed conflict has changed beyond recognition over the last 75 years, yet we rely on these gallant animals as much as ever.”

The PDSA Dickin Medal was instituted by Maria Dickin, CBE. Maria founded PDSA on 17 November 1917 to relieve poverty in a very unique way; by alleviating the suffering of animals through the provision of free veterinary treatment to the pets of people in need.

A quarter of a century later, she saw the vital, life-saving roles animals were playing in the war effort – both on the home front and Front Line – and wanted to ensure they were recognised. She sought to raise the status of animals in society – believing that would improve their care. So, with the support of the War Office and Imperial War Museum, the PDSA Dickin Medal was born.

Recipients of the prestigious Medal hail from histories deadliest warzones.  From the battlegrounds of World War I and II, to the Korean War and Chinese Civil War, and the more recent conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

First recipients

The inaugural Medal was presented on the 2 December 1943 to Winkie, alongside fellow RAF pigeons, White Vision and Tyke.

Winkie – the first PDSA Dickin Medal recipient

Winkie (Pigeon No. NEHU.40.NS.1) was on board a Beaufort Bomber that ditched in the sea after coming under enemy fire during a mission over Norway. Unable to radio the plane’s position, the stranded four-man crew released Winkie in an attempt to raise the alarm.

Despite horrendous weather and being covered in oil, she flew more than 120 miles home, where her owner was able to pass her message onto RAF Leuchars in Fife.  A successful rescue operation was launched within 15 minutes of her return. Her actions saved the lives of her crew.

The most recent Medal was awarded on 26 October 2018 to Special Operations Military Work Dog, Kuga, from the Australian Army, for ‘unstinting bravery and life-saving devotion to his handler and his unit while on patrol with Operation Slipper in Afghanistan, 2011.

Jan McLoughlin added: “Our founder, Maria Dickin CBE, instituted the PDSA Dickin Medal to recognise the vital role animals were playing during World War II.

“Seventy-five years later and the Medal is as relevant today as ever.  From the wounded messenger pigeon whose determination saved the lives of an RAF air crew to the horse the Germans couldn’t kill. From the world’s only Prisoner of War dog to a life-saving ship’s cat. Their stories are incredible and unique. PDSA is proud to continue her legacy of honouring animals in war.”

Colonel Neil Smith QHVS, Chief Veterinary and Remount Officer, said: “Animals serving in the Armed Forces make a massive difference to the lives of so many. Not just those men and women they serve alongside, but the civilians whose lives our military are protecting.  They fulfil a role humans cannot replicate.  The PDSA Dickin Medal is a fitting tribute to their extraordinary contributions.”

The PDSA Dickin Medal is a large, bronze medallion bearing the words ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We Also Serve’ all within a laurel wreath. The ribbon is striped green, dark brown and sky blue representing water, earth and air to symbolise the naval, land and air forces.

For more information on the PDSA Dickin Medal visit www.pdsa.org.uk/DM75.

Over a century after it was founded, PDSA is the UK’s leading veterinary charity and strives to improve the wellbeing of all pets’ lives through providing preventive care, educating pet owners and treating pets when they become sick or injured. Today, PDSA treats around 470,000 pets in need a year, helping around 300,000 of the UK’s most vulnerable families through its nationwide network of 48 Pet Hospitals. For more information about the charity visit www.pdsa.org.uk.

Cologne (pigeon) – DM26

Owned and trained by William Payne, World War II messenger pigeon Cologne was a veteran of more than 100 operations with the RAF. He ‘homed’ from crashed aircraft on a number of occasions, but Cologne is renowned for one truly astonishing mission.

Carried by a Lancaster Bomber crew downed on a mission to attack the German city of Cologne to use the official National Pigeon Service title, survived the crash. Five of the seven crew died, and the remaining two crew members were captured.

Cologne, despite serious injuries thought to have been sustained during the crash, managed to escape and headed home to Nottingham – a distance of more than 450 miles. The flight took two weeks in all and Cologne was discovered to have completed this phenomenal journey with multiple injuries, including a broken breastbone.

Cologne was the 26th recipient of the PDSA Dickin Medal in recognition of the fortitude, endurance and devotion to duty he’d displayed during the mission.

Simon (cat) – DM54

Simon – ship’s cat aboard HMS Amethyst – who received the PDSA Dickin Medal

In the summer of 1949, at the height of the Chinese Civil War, HMS Amethyst came under People’s Liberation Army artillery fire while cruising along the Yangtze river. The ship received more than 50 direct hits and despite the efforts of a passing Navy Frigate to pull it to safety, the ship and crew members were stranded mid-river for almost 10 weeks.

Hot, humid conditions were the perfect breeding ground for a rat infestation. The already-limited food supplies were in danger of being completely destroyed. Despite shrapnel wounds to his legs and burns to his back and face, ship’s cat Simon was all that stood between the rats and the crew’s essential supplies.

The rats were bold and had even attacked crew members, but this didn’t stop Simon from hunting them down.  For protecting supplies and lifting his injured shipmates’ morale when accompanying the Maintenance Officer on his daily rounds, he was promoted to ‘Able Seaman’ in recognition of his achievements.

The only feline recipient, Simon received his PDSA Dickin Medal posthumously in 1949 and was buried with full military honours.

Sasha (dog) – DM65

Sasha and her handler, Lance Corporal Kenneth Rowe, were scheduled to return home from their tour of Afghanistan in July 2008. However, Corporal Rowe was aware that no dog team would be available to replace them and volunteered to stay to help protect their colleagues. It was a decision that, tragically, cost both their lives the very next day.

Four-year-old Labrador Sasha and Corporal Rowe were a highly successful specialist arms and explosives search team. They worked alongside the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment stationed at the Inkerman base in the Kandahar region. During their tour they were credited with 15 confirmed finds, including mortars, mines, ammunition and explosives.

On 24 July 2008 the unit was on patrol with Sasha and Corporal Rowe leading at the front, looking for IEDs when they were ambushed by the Taliban. Sasha was shot and injured by a sniper yet, despite her injuries, managed to make it back to her handler. Sadly, this revealed Corporal Rowe’s position and he was subsequently killed by a volley of rocket-propelled grenades.

On return to Britain, a parade in their honour took place in Royal Wootton Basset following a private repatriation service held at RAF Lyneham.

Sasha was posthumously awarded a PDSA Dickin Medal on 21 May 2014.

Sgt Reckless (horse) – DM68

The Korean War included some of the fiercest combat in military history. Originally bred as a racehorse, Sgt Reckless – called after the nickname used for the ‘Recoilless Rifle’ she carried ammunition for – joined the Anti-Tank Division of the US Marines in October 1952.

She completed gruelling missions in mountainous terrain and often freezing conditions. Despite constant enemy fire and numerous hazards, including shell craters and barbed wire, Reckless carried out her duties and quickly became a much-loved, morale-boosting comrade.

During Battle of Outpost Vegas in March 1953, she made 51 supply trips to the frontline in five days – carrying more than 386 rounds of ammunition weighing around five tonnes in total – through steep mountains and open paddy fields. Constantly under fire and facing up to 500 rounds per minute, Reckless was wounded twice.

She bravely transported multiple casualties to safety on her return trips. After loading up with ammunition, she repeated the process: again, and again and again. How many lives she helped save is unknown.

On 15 June 1957 she was promoted to ‘Sergeant Reckless’ in recognition of her combat record. She was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal on 27 July 2016.

Warrior (horse) – DM (Hon)

Known to many as ‘The horse the Germans couldn’t kill’, Warrior’s story is one of the most remarkable tales of animal bravery and endurance to emerge from the Great War.

General Jack Seely left his home on the Isle of Wight in 1914 to take command of the Canadian Cavalry Corps. His beloved horse Warrior, a thoroughbred stallion, travelled to the Western Front with him. Over the next four years, Warrior witnessed the full horror of war during major battles, including the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the muddy hell of Passchendaele.

Trapped in burning stables twice, buried in rubble and mud, and regularly subjected to intensive attack from machine guns and mortar shells, Warrior survived it all. In March 1918 he led a cavalry charge against the Germans at Amiens, which proved to be one of the most crucial battles of the whole campaign and helped bring the end of the conflict closer.

Warrior was posthumously awarded the Honorary PDSA Dickin Medal on 2 September 2014 to mark 100 years since the start of the Great War. The only recipient to pre-date the Medal’s institution in 1943, he received the Medal on behalf of all animals that served.

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