Hitler’s forgotten four-legged victims: Two million beloved British pets were slaughtered during WWII now CLARE CAMPBELL backs calls to give the animals the memorial they deserve
- From the start of the conflict, families began to have their beloved pets put down
- Incredibly, over the course of the war, well over two million pets perished
- The government even plotted to get rid of all ‘non-essential’ animals
- For all their suffering, nowhere is the fate of all these animals commemorated
From the Blitz to rationing and the threat of invasion, World War II was a torrid experience for the British people — and their pets.
From the start of the conflict, families up and down the country began to have their beloved cats and dogs put down.
Incredibly, over the course of the war, well over two million pets perished.
The government even plotted to get rid of all ‘non-essential’ animals, launching a clandestine anti-dog hate campaign and backing the criminal prosecutions of those who gave cats so much as a saucer of milk.
From the Blitz to rationing and the threat of invasion, World War II was a torrid experience for the British people — and their pets
It’s a miracle any survived at all, as I discovered while researching my book, Bonzo’s War, on what happened to the nation’s pets when bombs fell and food was rationed, so that every drop of milk and mouthful of meat really did matter.
For all their suffering, nowhere is the fate of all these animals commemorated. But with luck that might be about to change.
This summer, artist Nicola White found a corroded dog tag bearing the name ‘Bonzo’ while she was searching for artefacts on the muddy banks of the Thames. As she traced the wartime Bonzo and his family via the address on the tag, she became fascinated with the story of what became of those millions of cats and dogs who paid the ultimate price for Hitler’s aggression.
Together we have launched a campaign to raise £25,000 for a bronze memorial to commemorate the pets that suffered so much.
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There is already a fine memorial to service animals in London’s Park Lane. But we hope a new War Pets Memorial can serve as a simple, dignified monument to remember ordinary, domestic pets.
Some may feel it’s all a little frivolous given the extent of the human suffering. But thousands of families forced to say goodbye to their beloved animals felt an intense sense of grief at the final parting.
So how did such a brutal cull — and on such a massive scale — come about?
A dog called Wendy teaches evacuee boys to catch moles in 1941
The initial stages of the war were the most dangerous for British pets. In the first week alone, 750,000 animals were killed — all because of the mistaken assumption that they would go barking mad at the first wail of an air raid siren.
On the eve of war, a National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee was formed. It published advice to pet owners that said: ‘If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency.’ It added: ‘If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it is kindest to have them destroyed.’ This alarmist advice was given validation when it was broadcast on the BBC.
There were, of course, practical concerns. A Home Office pamphlet stated that pets would not be allowed into public air raid shelters, which often became crammed with hundreds of desperate families.
The same pamphlet featured a do-it-yourself guide to putting animals down. It also carried an advert for the captive bolt pistols of the kind still used today to stun animals before slaughter.
One London vet’s account recalled the bloodletting on the day Britain came under attack: ‘The sirens sounded . . . and West Ham Town Hall became besieged by panic-stricken people bringing their animals for destruction.’ The bodies were removed to a marshy field behind an animal welfare clinic in Ilford, East London, and buried in secret.
The animals who had survived the initial wave of deaths, faced a new threat when the Blitz started in the autumn of 1940.
One vet in the capital recalled streets ‘inundated with cats’ abandoned by their owners to roam the blacked-out districts. Municipal parties set out on slaughtering campaigns, sometimes killing 100 animals a time with a mixture of chloroform, cyanide or even electric shocks.
My own family had direct experience of this ruthless campaign. When I was eight, I was horrified to discover, while eavesdropping on my parents, that my uncle ‘had killed a dog’. It was terrible to hear my mother describe how distressed her twin sister, Lena, had been during the early days of the war when her husband, Ernest, had put down her beloved wire-haired fox terrier, Paddy.
Then, as now, the emotional bond between most families and their pets was fierce. Every evening, Lena used to walk Paddy to meet Ernest off the train, the dog jumping up to greet him in joy. But when war was declared, he announced Paddy ‘had to go’.
A lucky escape! A live pet rabbit discovered in the bomb debris after a raid in Cambridgeshire in June 1940
When I discovered this, I decided my kindly uncle must be a monster. ‘It was the war,’ my mother explained. ‘Food was going to be rationed, and he decided Paddy was one more mouth to feed.’ Many wartime children still recall such traumatic memories.
Tony Weeden, a retired company director now 84 and living near Marlow, Bucks, was five when his pet dog, Fluffy, was killed in 1939.The family lived in London’s East End, and he remembers walking the Welsh Collie cross to the vet with his mother.
When they arrived, the waiting room was full of other owners and their dogs, all waiting for the animals to be destroyed.
He says now the horror of seeing a bucket of blood (so many animals were destroyed that vets cut their throats to save time) haunted him for years.
‘Clearly my parents had heard the government advice and thought it was the right thing to do,’ he said. ‘But it is sad to think Fluffy need not have been killed.’
Those deeply distressing scenes were repeated in thousands of British homes. Animal welfare charities were overwhelmed. Many more pets were simply turned out into the street.
However, to general surprise, most dogs stayed calm even as Britain was bombed. Meanwhile, the bravery of mother cats rescuing their kittens amid the carnage touched all who saw it.
Of course, the companionship between owners and their pets worked both ways. I found many stories of animals who brought aid and comfort to humans — and some humans who sacrificed everything for their pets in return.
One housewife wrote: ‘I am suffering through raids and am am often alone till midnight, as my husband is a bus-driver . . . I find the little female pup, banging her little nose on my knee. She will not leave me until I am all right.’
In October 1940 the story of ‘Nelly’, buried for five days in the rubble of her home, emerged: ‘Underneath her, covered by her body were her five puppies, she whined now and then to guide the rescuers. Starving herself she had fed her puppies throughout.’
But, despite the panicked slaughter that accompanied the start of the war, it was food (or lack of it) not bombs that decided the fate of pets.
In August 1940, the ‘Waste of Food Order’ was passed. This Draconian directive, introduced a few months after the Dunkirk evacuation, meant giving animals food fit for human consumption could carry a sentence of two years in prison.
Pets had to be fed on scraps and fish-heads, if you could get them. Dog biscuits disappeared.
Indeed, dogs came to be portrayed as the enemy within, eating — so the public were told — an estimated 280,000 tons of meat a year. Anti-cat stories were fed to journalists. ‘Too many of this country’s cats are given portions of meat and fish which, to a man, would be the equivalent of a 3lb joint every lunch time,’ it was duly reported. So-called ‘official cats’ were granted a dried milk allowance if they were ‘engaged in work of national importance’, mostly hunting rodents in factories.
Winston Churchill was reported to feed his cat, Nelson, with salmon scraps off the supper table. By the letter of the law, he should have gone to prison.
The Canine Defence League (today called Dogs Trust) noted late in the war: ‘Dogs have dug into wrecked homes looking for their owners. Cats have mewed for days outside piles of rubble, telling rescuers their owners are buried there. Animals have quietened frightened children. Yet when the history of the war is written, these things will not be recorded.’
And that is exactly as it turned out. That’s why I believe a memorial to all those devoted cats and dogs would go some way to marking the lives snuffed out amid Britain’s fight for survival.
Did your family lose a beloved wartime pet? Write to [email protected] To donate to the memorial, visit justgiving.com/crowdfunding/ww2petsmemorial. Bonzo’s War by Clare Campbell with Christy Campbell (Constable, £7.99)
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