Dickin Medal: Honoring Animals For Wartime Bravery

Jun 7, 2023 0 comments

Animals have been an indispensable part of warfare and combat since ancient times. The ancient Greeks and the Romans trained their dogs specifically for battle, often outfitting them with spiked metal collars and armor. Elephants were widely used in battles in South Asia and North Africa to charge the enemy, break their ranks and instill terror and fear. In addition to combat, animals have also helped in the war effort in all sorts of capacity, from being load bearers and messengers to carrying out espionage.

The question is: how do we honor those animals that display exceptional acts of valor during wartime? The question tugged at the heart of Maria Dickin, a social reformer and founder of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), an organization that provides care for sick and injured animals for free. The PDSA is the UK's leading veterinary charity and until 2009, it was the largest private employer of fully qualified veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses in the UK.

Dickin medal. Credit: PDSA

Maria Dickin founded PDSA in 1917 to provide humane veterinary care to pets whose owners could not otherwise afford it. The initiative became a success, thanks in part to the owner of a limping donkey who did the initial publicity for Dickin by telling everyone he met the incredible service PDSA had done for him. By 1922 the PDSA had opened seven clinics across London, treating up to 70,000 animals a year. Dicken also added a fleet of horse-drawn mobile units to treat more animals and bring public health education to other neighborhoods. Further success allowed the PDSA to open their first clinic outside London in Salford in 1923. By 1926–27, the PDSA was operating 57 clinics and three travelling caravans, and had treated almost 410,000 patients in a year across Britain.

In 1943, with World War 2 raging, Dicken established the Dickin Medal to acknowledge outstanding acts of bravery by animals serving with the Armed Forces. Since then, the medal has been compared to the Victoria Cross,. Between 1943 and 1949, the medal was awarded 54 times. Its recipients included mostly pigeons (32 times), followed by dogs (18 times). Three horses and a single cat have also received the award.

The awarding of the medal was discontinued after the war ended, but was revived in 2000. As of January 2023, the Dickin Medal has been awarded 75 times, plus one honorary award made in 2014 to all the animals who served in the First World War.

Also read:
Heroic War Pigeons
Honoring Animals Used in Research And Testing

Here are some of the heroic animals who were awarded for their bravery.

Sergeant Reckless was a Mongolian pack horse for the United States Marine Corps during the 1950s and 60s. She served in numerous combat actions during the Korean War, carrying supplies and ammunition, and evacuating the wounded. Reckless would quickly learn the routes and travel to deliver supplies to the troops on her own, without needing a handler. During the Battle for Outpost Vegas in 1953, Reckless made 51 solo trips carrying a total of 386 rounds of ammunition (over 9,000 pounds in weight) covering over 35 miles that day. She was wounded twice during the battle: once when she was hit by shrapnel over the left eye and another time on her left flank.

Sergeant Reckless getting promoted to Staff Sergeant in 1959. Credit: Wikimedia

Reckless was reported to have a very gentle disposition, sleeping inside the tents with the troops and eating all sorts of food including scrambled eggs, bacon, buttered toast, chocolate bars, peanut butter sandwiches and mashed potatoes and drank Coca Cola and beer.

For her exemplary service to the Marine Corps, Reckless was awarded two Purple Hearts (for the wounds received during the Battle of Vegas), a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with bronze star, the National Defense Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Korea Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. In 2016, she was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal for her service.

White Vision was a female homing pigeon of the RAF. On 11 October 1943, White Vision was aboard a sea plane when it was forced to ditch in the North Sea near the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. The plane’s radio misfunctioned and the ditched pilots were unable to report their location. So White Vision was released with a message indicating the site of the crash. The weather was incredibly bad when she took off, but despite the strong headwind, White Vision flew 60 miles arriving back at her pigeon loft. The plane was subsequently found and all eleven members of the air crew were saved after they had spent some eighteen hours in the sea.

On 6 June 1944, an RAF pigeon named Gustav was released from a ship to convey message of the successful Allied landing in Normandy. Gustav flew 150 miles to his loft at Thorney Island in five hours and sixteen minutes, while facing a headwind of up to 30 mph. Gustav's message was the first word of the invasion to reach the British mainland, due to the fleet undergoing radio silence at the time. Later that day, another pigeon named Paddy flew 230 miles across the English Channel in four hours and fifty minutes, the fastest recorded crossing, taking the news to the British mainland. Both pigeons were awarded the Dickin medal.

Mary of Exeter was a carrier pigeon who served with the National Pigeon Service between 1940 and 1945 carrying top secret messages and making as many as four trips from France to England. During the many missions she completed, which was wounded thrice by enemy attacks, requiring a total of 22 stitches. In addition, she survived a Luftwaffe bomber attack on her Exeter pigeon loft.

G.I. Joe was a pigeon of the United States Army Pigeon Service. During the Italian Campaign in 1943, the village of Calvi Vecchia, was occupied by the Germans, and Allied air forces were requested to help dislodge the occupying Germans. At the same time, British forces were advancing on land but they weren’t supposed to reach the village until after it was bombed. Yet, the British infantry’s advance was so rapid that they reached the village and liberated it ahead of schedule. The British infantry tried to radio the allies’ airfield to call off their attack, but the message did not went through. Now they were in danger of getting caught up in ‘friendly fire’ if the attack went ahead.

G. I. Joe was released with the message. He flew to the airfield twenty miles away in just twenty minutes, arriving as the planes were preparing to take off to bomb Calvi Vecchia. G. I. Joe saved the lives of at least 100 men.

G. I. Joe receiving the Dickin Medal.

G. I. Joe receiving the Dickin Medal.


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