Man's bravest friends: a roll call of non-human heroes

A dog has been posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin medal, the animals’ Victoria Cross. Gillian Orr looks at the animals that have been honoured
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On 24 July 2008, Sasha, a four-year-old Labrador, was returning from a routine search operation in Afghanistan’s Helmand province with her handler, Lance Corporal Kenneth Rowe, when their patrol was ambushed by the Taliban. They were both killed in a grenade attack.

Afterwards, the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) looked into Sasha’s records, and found that she had made 15 confirmed operational finds, including detecting explosive devices as well as mortars, mines and other weapons. While the Corps does not release exact details of each find, it was felt that Sasha’s actions had saved the lives of soldiers and civilians.

Yesterday, it was announced that Sasha was being awarded the PDSA Dickin medal, which acknowledges “outstanding acts of bravery displayed by animals serving in the armed forces or civil defence units in any theatre of war, worldwide”. The medal, known as the animal version of the Victoria Cross, dates back to 1943 when it was introduced by Maria Dickin, the founder of PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals).

“Dickin wanted to recognise and reward animals during the Second World War but there have been other conflicts since so it has continued,” says Jan McLoughlin, the director general of PDSA. “It’s really important to demonstrate the strong bond that exists between military working animals and our soldiers.” Sasha will be the 65th recipient of the medal, a large bronze medallion bearing the words “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve” within a laurel wreath. The ribbon is striped green, brown, and blue to symbolise naval, land and air forces.

“Kenneth always adored animals and loved working with his dogs,” says L/Cpl Rowe’s mother, Lyn. “He took his role protecting his fellow soldiers very seriously. We are so proud of him and he would be incredibly proud that Sasha’s bravery is being recognised.”

Police horse Regal, right (PDSA)

But it’s not just dogs that have been awarded the medal; 32 pigeons and three horses have also been honoured. 

Each animal must be put forward by the RAVC, which presents citations based on evidence and witness accounts. The roll of honour gives details of each animal’s assistance. For instance, Tyke, a pigeon, was awarded for “delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an air crew, while serving with the RAF in the Mediterranean in June 1943”. Regal, a police horse working during the Second World War, “was twice in burning stables caused by explosive incendiaries at Muswell Hill. Although receiving minor injuries, being covered by debris and close to the flames, this horse showed no signs of panic”.

Simon died from his injuries sustained on duty (PDSA)

But perhaps the most heartwarming recipient is the only cat ever to have made the cut. Simon, a mog on board HMS Amethyst, was wounded along with a number of servicemen when the ship came under heavy fire from Chinese Communist armed forces while en route to Nanking in April 1949. Despite his serious wounds, Simon helped save the lives of those on the stranded frigate (which was trapped on the river bank for 101 days) by catching rats that had overrun the ship and were eating its dwindling supplies, as well as keeping morale up. He later died from his injuries.

When news broke that Simon was to be awarded the Dickin Medal, he received so much fan mail that the ship’s captain was forced to appoint a serviceman to deal with all the correspondence. To this day, the navy places a wreath on his grave in PDSA’s animal cemetery in Ilford every Remembrance weekend.

So could any species of animal be put forward for the Dickin Medal? “If it can be demonstrated that they have carried out lifesaving acts of gallantry and devotion to duty during conflict, then I don’t see why not,” says McLoughlin. “Maria Dickin really did want to raise the status of animals in society and this is one way that we can continue to do that.”