As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day this weekend, Isabel George takes a look at the courage and loyalty of the dogs who served during the war, including Bing, the Alsatian who became a D-Day hero.
Image: Fellow D-Day dog Monty with handler. The Airborne Assault Museum IWM, Duxford.
D-Day was the largest amphibious operation in history. On the 6 June 1944 a mighty Allied force descended on German occupied France and in a matter of hours determined the freedom of the western world.
On land, in the air and by sea courageous canines served, sacrificed and saved lives.
As the preparations for D-Day got underway the War Office’s request for civilian canine recruits to join-up proved well timed. By 1944 dogs were already distinguishing themselves in battle overseas.
Brian, was just two- years-old when Betty Fetch from Leicester, donated her lively Alsatian pup to the war effort. It had not been an easy decision but the Army promised that its war dogs would have a comfortable bed and regular meals and that, at the time when food rationing was at its height, had eased Betty’s conscience. And besides, he would only be on loan with every canine recruit receiving a safe passage home when it was all over.
Brian left home to serve King and Country and as Betty dried her tears she could never have guessed that her beloved pet was destined to become a D-Day hero.
You’re in the Army now
Lance Corporal Ken Bailey, a dog lover and Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) dog handler, took one look at his new recruit and decided that the woolly, honey-coated Alsatian looked more like a Bing than a Brian.
With a new name and a new career Bing joined the canine ranks at the War Dog Training school in Potter’s Bar. The school was a legacy of the First World War and the persistence of a certain Colonel Ernest Richardson. Richardson’s school opened in 1916 after a long, hard battle with the War Office who were eventually persuaded that military trained dogs could play an invaluable part in the war guarding ammunition depots, patrolling with the troops and running messages in the trenches.
Despite the success of the dog army in the Great War it was again down to Colonel Richardson, in 1939, to remind the Government that dogs could be a serious force against the enemy. By April 1944 the school was just one of many military bases in the south of England preparing for D-Day and in the plans, confirmed just two months earlier, dogs were very much a part of Operation Overlord and its massive military deployment.
Image: Bing with his owner Betty Fetch. The Airborne Assault Museum IWM, Duxford.
Bing was one of several Alsatians chosen for D-Day training but of all of them he was the most noticeable. Every morning as the dogs emerged from the block of grim wooden kennels it was obvious to all the trainers that Bing stood head and shoulders above the others in every way. After a good brushing his long, thick coat, gleamed and even his one slightly flopped-over ear didn’t spoil his good looks.
Ken wanted to get the full measure of this dog and he only had two weeks to get him ready for active service. For dogs that had been living on a few scraps from the kitchen, food was the best incentive during training. The biscuits and off-cuts of meat that Ken begged from the cook-house supplemented Bing’s rations and came in handy as treats especially when he had to learn to walk through walls of noise: repeated hails of rapid fire, shells exploding at his feet and shrapnel slicing the air around him.
Bing passed his initial training with flying colours. Alongside his fellow graduates, Monty, Flash and Rob, Bing became a fully qualified patrol dog but next he had to gain his ‘wings’.
Encouraging a dog to jump out of an aeroplane at several thousand feet was a job that Ken Bailey and his colleagues knew all about.
Ken had developed his own routine from his first ‘jump’ with the only female Para Dog recruit in the team, Ranee. Taking a lump of meat weighing two-pounds in his pocket Ken managed to keep Ranee’s attention the entire time. Without hesitating for a second Ranee followed Ken out of the ‘plane and even wagged her tail as she descended!
First of all the dogs practised ‘jumping’ from the fuselage of a ‘plane on the ground and then, when they got the hang of that, they took to the air. Jump. Land. Eat. That was Ken’s routine and with every jump the dogs made they appeared to enjoy it more!
Bing, like Ranee, never hesitated to follow Ken’s orders and, after several more successful jumps, he officially earned his ‘Para wings’. Now all they had to do was perfect the dogs’ parachutes ahead of the big day.
American Para Dogs, like Salvo, a Fox terrier, wore bespoke harnesses from the start of their training but the first group of British trainees weren’t so lucky. The offer of borrowed ‘chutes from the US was welcomed but the British dogs, Monty, Bing, Ranee, Flash and Bob (a captured German dog) were all Alsatians and far leggier and bulkier in build. Adapting the borrowed harnesses was the only option so close to the landing date until someone realised that the parachutes designed to drop bicycles would work for the dogs too.
The idea had started as an experiment, trialled on a wing and a prayer, but Bing and his canine colleagues had made the dream of the air dog become a reality.
The ‘para dogs’, of the 13th Parachute Battalion Sniper Recce Platoon, would accompany the Airborne Divisions – the first to land in occupied France on D-Day. Flying over the channel in the belly of a Dakota they would parachute in to act as scouts and patrol dogs, clearing the way and warning of the presence of German soldiers.
Over 156,000 Allied forces were poised to travel over the English Channel by sea and air to liberate France from German occupation. The element of surprise was vital to the mission’s success and the safe arrival of troops landing on the Normandy beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
5th June 1944
At 9.45pm on the 5 June, the weathermen cautiously reported a break in the storm. General Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces, considered the moment, drew breath and gave the order: “Let’s go!”
11.30pm: Bing on his feet and, close to Ken’s heels, he makes his way towards one of three US Air Force Dakotas making ready for take-off. The order was twenty men and one sniper patrol Para Dog to each ‘plane and the dogs. Monty and Bing, wasted no time taking their place on board.
It was almost 1am on 6 June when the grey figure of the Dispatcher moved into position. “HOOK UP” he shouted into the dark. Ken reached up and hooked himself and Bing to the wire ready for the equipment check.
“ONE OK” Ken tugged on the hook above his head. “TWO OK” he tugged Bing’s hook and checked his harness again too. They counted on through the ‘plane. “PREPARE FOR ACTION”. The cold, wet air blasted into the ‘plane. “RED ON”. Ken reached down in the deep pink glow and sunk his hand into Bing’s deep woolly coat. He anxiously gripped the dog’s hair for a few seconds…. “GREEN ON – GO”
Man and dog dropped into the darkness. Dark shadows outlined a large mass below and suddenly the shadows took the form of trees. Crash! Tree branches took Bing’s weight and broke his fall but he was stuck fast. German rifles spat at the men still in the sky and Bing took flack in the tree. After what seemed like hours waiting for a chance Ken used a break in the barrage of fire to move in and release his dog who had deep cuts on his face.
They had all landed in different locations within the Bois de Bavent a short distance away from their target, Ranville and the capture the bridge over the River Orne to cut off a main artery to the coast. The roads leading to the landing beaches had to be re-taken or destroyed, at all costs. Caught in a mortar attack Bing took a bad hit but, as he was trained to do, he stayed quiet to protect the position of the men around him.
In the line of fire
Not far from the spot where Ken had lifted Bing to safety, Private Emil “Jack” Corteil and his dog, Glen, landed with 9 Para. Their mission – to disable the German gun battery at Merville and so protect the British troops landing on Sword beach.
Emil and Glen landed with twenty others but isolated and short of their drop zone. Gathered and preparing to link with the rest of their unit the group was spotted from the air and mistaken for enemy troops. In the confusion the RAF Typhoon opened fire and all but two of the men were killed. Emil and Glen died where they fell, together.
Just an hour after the Horsa gliders and paratroopers fell from the sky to the land the troops came in from the sea to take the beaches. From the coastline the sea shone black with warships. The blackness moved in shapes towards the shore and once the advance began it did not stop.
By 00:35 British paratroopers, famously led by Major John Howard, had captured Pegasus Bridge in Bénouville. Shortly after reports confirmed that Bing and the 13th Paras had reached the River Orne and secured the second Bridge. It prompted Major Howard to send his famous coded message to HQ: “Ham and Jam” –both bridges taken. The elite 6th Airborne were working their way to victory.
Victory in sight
Bing, Monty and Bob were among the survivors and despite a few scrapes and scars the dogs had braved the worst of it. He was still recovering from the shrapnel wounds he had sustained in the mortar attack but Operation Overlord wasn’t over and this time it was Bing’s skill as a mine detection dog that was in demand. For the next few weeks he joined No 1 Dog Platoon the Royal Engineers’ team of dogs sniffing out deadly ‘shoe mines’ which had been laid in their thousands by enemy troops during their occupation of the town of Bayeux. After hearing, from Ken, all about Bing’s work protecting the men of the 6th Airborne Division the Engineers knew they were in safe hands.
After 77 days, on 21 August 1944 – the Allies were victorious thanks to their superior stealth and tactics. The Normandy Campaign was over.
Image: Bing receiving his PDSA Dickin Medal. The Airborne Assault Museum IWM, Duxford.
By September the D-Day dogs were heading home and, for the next six-months Bing, Monty and Rob would call the quarantine kennels in Cheshire their home. Parting from their handlers was emotional - they had faced death together and, somehow, survived.
While Bing crossed off his days in quarantine Betty Fetch was planning her surprise visit to see the dog she had called Brian. The War Office had been in touch to say that her brave dog was home and not only had he survived his duties on D-Day but he was regarded by the Parachute Regiment, and his country, as a life-saving hero. In March 1947 Bing (who would be listed under his original, family name of Brian) was awarded the highest honour for his courage in conflict – the PDSA Dickin Medal. The award, instituted by animal welfare pioneer Maria Dickin, is recognised internationally as the ‘Animals’ Victoria Cross’. Bing wore his Medal with pride.
‘Rest in peace brave soldier’
Bing lived out the rest of his life in peace back home in Leicester. When he died he was laid to rest in the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford where his funeral was conducted with full military honours. His inscription on his headstone honours his wartime heroism. Bing’s exploits are still honoured by the Parachute Regiment today. The men he protected ensured that their Para Dog will never be forgotten. Their memorial to him bears the inscription: “Rest in peace brave soldier and companion.”
Perhaps the ultimate memorial to the contribution of dogs to the D-Day landings is the shared grave of Private Emil Corteil and his dog Glen at the military cemetery at Ranville. Man and dog died side-by-side and were laid to rest together. The Army gave special permission for this to happen. Perhaps it was felt the 19- year-old and his faithful dog had died together for their country and should be together ever after. The inscription on the headstone was provided by the soldier’s parents and reads: “Had you known our boy you would have loved him too. Glen, his Paratroop dog, was killed with him.”
Operation Overlord was the most decisive invasion of WWII involving over 150,000 British, Canadian and US troops. Under the cover of darkness they reached the Normandy coast, some by air and others by sea, and amongst them a fearless band of canines trained to do their duty for God and country. The D-Day dogs accompanied the men into battle and helped assure freedom and peace.