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

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.

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