Military animals

From anti-tank dogs to exploding rats, discover history's failed attempts at drafting animals into the armed forces

Throughout history, humans have enlisted the help of animals to conquer countries, defend territories and defeat adversaries. From gallant horses pulling the chariots of ancient Roman soldiers to the humble homing pigeon sending secrets between nations, animals have played a vital role in securing military success. But during the Second World War, a wave of military innovations saw animals used not as allies but as potential weapons.

Anti-tank canines

Loyal to the end, man’s best friend played a vital role in the armed services during the Second World War. From sniffing out landmines to transporting equipment, our four-legged friends were tasked with an array of duties during wartime. However, the Russian military saw an opportunity to utilise a dog’s trainability and turn them into weapons. Also known as Hundminen, Alsatians were trained as ‘anti-tank dogs’ delivering bombs to invading German tanks in an attempt to hold back their advance. At several facilities in Moscow, they were trained to recognise the underside of a military tank as a place to find food. Hardly a threat to an armoured tank alone, when in close contact, these dogs became an active bomb. Strapped to the dogs was a protruding wooden lever mechanism that, once forced back by the dog scurrying under an invading tank, would release a detonation pin in two sidesaddle bombs, destroying the tank and killing the dog. It’s estimated that only around 50 tanks met their end at the hands of a kamikaze canine: German soldiers quickly became aware of the animals and their destructive duties, and shot them down before they reached the tanks.

Bat bombs

Following the devastation that rained upon Pearl Harbour in 1941, plans to find new and frankly, bizarre ways to retaliate began to emerge from the US. One such military oddity came in the form of weaponised bats. Strapping small incendiary bombs to captured Mexican free-tailed bats, military researchers postulated that these small winged mammals could be deployed over Japan and descend into the nooks and crannies of their buildings. Once roosting, the incendiary bombs would be detonated, causing mass destruction across the country. In order to drop the bats into Japan, a crudely constructed cylindrical chamber, holding around a thousand bats, would be launched by army aircraft, breaking apart before reaching the ground and releasing them. Known as Project
X-Ray, this animal exploitation was short lived. During a test run of the collapsible chamber, captured bats escaped and fled into a mock military hanger. Due to the automatic 30-minute detonation following release, both the bats and their bomb accessories exploded, burning the hanger to the ground. The evident security risk the bat bombs posed along with a growing focus on the development of the atomic bomb meant that R&D has its bat bomb project cancelled.

The canisters would house the bats, ready to be deployed (Image credit: U.S Air Force)

Exploding rats

In 1941, hundreds of dead rats stuffed with plastic explosives were sent by British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents with the aim of distributing them across Germany. The principle behind concealing bombs in these critters was to prey upon man’s natural disgust when encountering the dead vermin. They were to be placed near coal heaps in German factories, and the novel idea depended upon German workers scooping up the rodent corpses and throwing them into their boiler furnace. Once exposed to the roaring flames, the internal bomb would explode causing a catastrophic chain reaction. However, the delivery of rodents was intercepted by the German military and the British attempt at deception was thwarted. The foiled plan was still seen as a success among the SOE, due to the German paranoia that followed when encountering a recently perished rat.

The ballistic bear

One unlikely soldier to join the military ranks of the Polish armed forces was a Syrian brown bear named Wojtek. Bought from a young boy in Iran, this bear cub became Poland’s secret fury force against invading German militants. Fed from a vodka bottle filled with condensed milk, Woytek grew to weigh 400 kilograms and stood at more than 1.8 metres tall. Intended as a mere mascot for the fighting soldiers, Wojtek travelled with his squadron reaching Monte Cassino, Italy, in 1944 where he witnessed the worst of the Second World War. It is reported that during the conflict Wojtek assisted fellow comrades – not by mauling military invaders, but by proffering his paws to help ferry crates. Unfazed by the booms of gunfire, Wojtek continued to offer support in maintaining the flow of ammunition to the gunmen. On capturing Monte Cassino, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company’s dedicated their badge to the depiction of a bear carrying an artillery shell, in Wojtek’s honour.

Wojtek sits in front of soldier (Image credit: Imperial War Museum)

Insect infiltrators

The use of chemical or biological warfare is strictly prohibited under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, however, it is believed by some historians that during the later years of the Second World War, German forces executed a plan to spread malaria among invading troops. Swamps and marshland are the perfect breeding grounds for the malarial mosquito, Anopheles labranchiae. Before Italy was overthrown by German forces in 1943, one such mosquito oasis the Pontine Marshes, had been drained to control malaria outbreaks among Italian civilians.
However, now under new management, the order was given to refill the swamp, creating a deadly biological barrier to slow any opposing advances. These insects were successful in their mission, however, in a war between men, the mosquitoes held no allegiance to either side. In the battles around Pontine Marshes that followed, soldiers in both German and Allied forces fell as outbreaks of malaria spread.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 127, written by Scott Dutfield 

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