Wynn Wheldon

Pets in the Blitz

A vast cull of pets was organised on the Home Front in 1939 — to pre-empt them being blown to pieces by the Germans

Pets in the Blitz
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The Great Dog and Cat Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy

Hilda Kean

University of Chicago Press, pp. 248, £

War Horse, by way of book and play and film, has brought the role of horses in war into the public consciousness. Even before it, there was the erection of an Animals in War Memorial on Park Lane, paid for by an impressive list of aristocrats under the leadership of commoner Jilly Cooper. But what of pets, or what Professor Hilda Kean prefers to call ‘companion animals’?

Not long ago, in Paddington, I was walking my own dog when accosted by an incredibly old man who said that he had lost his dog during the war. ‘Oh,’ said I, with my eyebrows raised. ‘Yes, we lived on the Wirral peninsula, and since we were close to Ireland, which was neutral, there was a fear that the Nazis would invade from there, so the beaches were mined. My dog was blown up by one. About 30 yards from where I was walking.’

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That was a tragic accident, whereas The Great Dog and Cat Massacre is a drily academic study, quite free of narrative verve or humour, of the purposeful killing of some half a million dogs and cats (and the occasional rabbit and budgerigar) in the days immediately following the declaration of war on 3 September 1939.

Its author is highly regarded in the field of public history, and this book is keen to display its credentials, rather in the way of academic books about pop music. Ten pages of bibliography follow 38 pages of notes.

Still, there is no doubting Kean’s thoroughness as a researcher. We learn that a black widow spider at London Zoo was ‘beheaded’, that the National Mouse Club maintained sheltered quarters for mice of rare breed, and that the blackout brought owls into central London. Orwell had a dog called Marx. Intrigued by the description of one Christopher Stone as a ‘disc jockey’, which seemed to me anachronistic, I probed further and found that he was indeed Britain’s first (on Radio Luxembourg, no less). Major Stone of the Royal Fusiliers was a much decorated soldier and Old Etonian, known for his informal style as a broadcaster. He got into trouble for wishing, on air, a happy birthday to King Immanuel of Italy.

Mass animal deaths are not unknown in the field of animal-human relations. Kean tells us of the 1983 donkey massacre in the South African republic of Bophuthat-swana; and there is a reference to the Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint Severin in Paris in the 1730s. Perhaps more well-known is the fate of Constantinople’s stray dogs in 1910, when the poor mutts were rounded up and deposited on a deserted island, there to starve to death. There are varying reasons for these treatments — but why the slaughter of 1939?

It is said that John Barrymore, the great American stage actor, being persuaded that the Martians had landed in upper state New York, took his two beloved Irish wolfhounds into his garden and, so that they might not fall prey to the alien invaders, shot them. Whether Orson Welles, whose notorious fake news adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds Barrymore had fallen for, ever apologised is unrecorded.

Barrymore’s appears to have been the chief motive of those wishing to have their pets destroyed in 1939. Better to die as painlessly as possible than be bombed to bits or fall into Nazi hands. The various pet charities and vets’ surgeries were overwhelmed by demand; chloroform ran out, and various other means of extermination had to be employed — gas, electricity, prussic acid. For some, however, disposal was a matter of convenience; others were concerned that they would not be able to care properly for their companions.

Kean’s chief grouse is that the Home Front, 1939–1945, is so often called ‘the people’s war’. She thinks a ‘more accurate moniker’ would be ‘the animal-human war’, which unfortunately brings to mind the Planet of the Apes films.

It is easy to be facetious about this book. The author’s habit of putting ‘odd words’ and ‘phrases’ between unnecessary ‘quotation marks’ is to begin with irritating, but becomes comical. The overweening scholarship I have mentioned; and there are sentences you have to read twice:

To even contemplate applying gas masks to cats — assuming that they would be available — would be an act of ‘gross cruelty’.

Professor Kean has written a definitive history of the plight of animals on the Home Front during the second world war, and those who are interested in the subject will no doubt find it essential reading.