Furred and feathered set have wartime heroes, too

April 23, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- People need heroes. But Winky? Rob the Para? Simon of the Amethyst?

Well, one must take heroes where one finds them.

Winky was a bird. Rob was a dog. Simon was a cat. A credit to his species was each and every one.

The exalted status they enjoy proves beyond doubt what everybody knows: that the British affection for animals is sometimes taken to extraordinary lengths. It may even be considered a product of that thin thread of eccentricity that runs through the fabric of life here.

These animals are all dead. But they, and 50 other "animal heroes," are being honored posthumously in a special exhibit at the Imperial War Museum, a huge pile in Lambeth that once housed the Bedlam lunatic asylum -- formerly known as the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem.

All of these animals -- 18 dogs, 31 pigeons, three horses and one cat -- are winners of the Dickin Medal. You will be excused if you have never heard of it. Most Britons haven't, either.

The medal was instituted in 1943 by Mrs. M. E. Dickin, the founder of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals. It is awarded to animals "serving under the direction of the armed services or civil defense organizations, and a state of war had to exist."

The medal bears the inscription: "For Gallantry. They Also Serve."

The green, brown and blue of the ribbon suggest grass, mud and sky. It is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

So what did these animals do? A lot, actually.

Winky was one of a million carrier pigeons mobilized by Britain against the Germans during World War II. They carried messages across enemy lines. Winky flew on a Beaufort bomber forced to ditch in the North Sea in February 1942; the sea was deadly cold.

The bird flew 150 miles back to the Royal Air Force base in Scotland. As a result the entire crew was rescued. At a party afterward, the bird kept blinking his eyes, which ornithologists said was a sign of his exhaustion. And hence his name.

Rob was a Welsh border collie who joined the paratroopers, or rather was volunteered by his owner, Edward Bayne, a Shropshire farmer. Rob's achievement was to survive 20 jumps (in his own parachute) behind enemy lines in North Africa and Italy. He was a watch dog.

After the war, Rob went back to the farm.

Then there was Judy, the pointer who survived the sinking of two ships, and was the only official canine POW held by the Japanese. Judy's closest call was when she almost became dinner at the prison camp.

Rifleman Khan, a German shepherd, saved his drowning master under fire during a 1944 beach assault in the Pacific.

Cat lovers may suspect the inclusion of Simon was less on merit than an exercise in feline tokenism.

All Simon did was to survive, with singed fur and whiskers, the shelling of the HMS Amethyst in the Yangtze River in 1949 while it was trying to rescue British citizens during the Chinese civil war. The captain and crew were killed, and the pounding of the ship brought forth a horde of frightened rats, which Simon attacked as if they were the enemy, which in fact they were, to a cat.

Simon killed so many rats he broke the record, drew a lot of fan mail and was awarded the Dickin medal posthumously.

The most recent member of this peculiar pantheon of heroes was Rats, a dog which allied itself to the British Army in Northern Ireland against the Irish Republican Army.

Rats was blown up by bombs, shot at, hit twice by cars. It was rough duty, and nobody ever called him Lucky, though they should have, for in 1980 he retired to Kent, far from the blasts of Ulster.

Rats did not actually get the Dickin Medal. They stopped giving them out in 1949.

Instead Rats got the "Pro Dogs Gold Medal" for outstanding devotion to duty, from a pet food company.

Some of these animals will live again, in a way, later this month when Angela Goodwin and other organizers at the museum put on a program about the adventures of the animal heroes. Animal "actors" recruited from the general public -- "No professional show animals," she said -- will play their roles, while human actors tell the stories of the adventures of five of them.

There will be a display explaining the exploits of all of them, and of the role of animals in war.

Everyone expects a barking good time.

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