National Portait Gallery

The Duchess of Hamilton, 1878-1951

Recently, I was researching my new favourite period of British history, England between the World Wars, when I came across a new aspect of wartime Britain – the question of what to do with family pets during wartime. I hadn’t give this problem much thought and found myself fascinated with the very real personal drama may pet owners had to face and the heartbreaking decisions that they faced.

Writer Alison Feeny-Hart provides an overview of what wartime pet owners faced in an article that appeared in the October 2013 issue of BBC News Magazine:
In the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of war, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) was formed. It drafted a notice – Advice to Animal Owners.

The pamphlet said: “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency.” It concluded: “If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.”
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home opened its doors in 1860 and survived both wars. “Many people contacted us after the outbreak of war to ask us to euthanise their pets – either because they were going off to war, they were bombed, or they could no longer afford to keep them during rationing,” a spokesman says.
“Battersea actually advised against taking such drastic measures and our then manager Edward Healey-Tutt wrote to people asking them not to be too hasty.”
But many owners were able to make do. Pauline Caton was just five years old at the time and lived in Dagenham. She remembers “queuing up with the family at Blacks Market in Barking to buy horsemeat to feed the family cat.”
And even though there were just four staff at Battersea, the home managed to feed and care for 145,000 dogs during the course of the war.

RAF serviceman bringing a dog to the Battersea’s Dog Home

In the middle of the pet-culling mayhem, some people tried desperately to intervene. The Duchess of Hamilton – both wealthy and a cat lover – rushed from Scotland to London with her own statement to be broadcast on the BBC. “Homes in the country urgently required for those dogs and cats which must otherwise be left behind to starve to death or be shot.”
“Being a duchess she had a bit of money and established an animal sanctuary,” says historian Kean. The “sanctuary” was a heated aerodrome in Ferne. The Duchess sent her staff out to rescue pets from the East End of London. Hundreds and hundreds of animals were taken back initially to her home in St John’s Wood. She apologised to the neighbours who complained about the barking.

“People were worried about the threat of bombing and food shortages, and felt it inappropriate to have the ‘luxury’ of a pet during wartime,” explains Pip Dodd, senior curator at the National Army Museum.

“The Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the RSPCA tried to stop this, particularly as dogs were needed for the war effort.”

Authors Clare Campbell and Christy Campbell expanded upon
the wartime pet crisis in their book, Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939-1945, published by Constable & Robinson. The following is from an article written by Ms. Campbell that ran in the Daily Mail on 14 October, 2013:

During the late Thirties, my aunt Lena would walk her beloved wire-haired fox terrier Paddy across a common every evening to a suburban railway station to meet her husband Ernest off the train. Paddy would jump up to greet him joyfully, and the trio would amble home together.

But when war broke out in September 1939, Ernest coldly announced that Lena couldn’t keep Paddy. The very next day, he took the dog from her arms and left the house. She never saw Paddy again.

This might sound like an impossibly brutal response to the war, but Ernest was far from alone. For it was a scene repeated in thousands of family homes – weeping children, sobbing mothers, and stern fathers saying that it was the kindest thing to do. 

As the air-raid sirens sounded for the first time and families hastily covered up their windows with black-out curtains, countless cats and dogs were shooed out into the street, or tied up in sacks to be thrown in canals or dumped in back streets and alleyways.

It is estimated that as many as three quarters of a million adored pets were destroyed in the first week of the war.
You might wonder how the British, a nation of animal lovers, suddenly took it into their heads to kill so many animals. In fact, it was all based on a false assumption that putting down the family pet was a patriotic and humane thing to do.

I came across countless stories like that of Ernest, Lena and Paddy while researching a book about the ‘civilian’ animal experience in World War II. While much has been written about the animals drafted into the war effort – they even have their own national memorial in Hyde Park – little is known about the home-front pets who were killed by their owners in such vast numbers when war was declared.

And, as I discovered, the Government was instrumental in this massacre of beloved pets. 

Not only did the Government set MI5 agents to watch animal rights activists, it also considered the mass euthanasia of all ‘non-essential animals’, sponsored a clandestine anti-dog hate campaign and sanctioned the criminal prosecutions of cat owners for giving their pets saucers of milk.

The massacre of the nation’s pets in September 1939 was foreshadowed by events the previous year. During the Munich Crisis of 1938, when Germany had occupied parts of Czechoslovakia, animal charities had been besieged by pet-owners who were terrified that war could result in mass poison-gas attacks by air on British cities. 

Their fear was that their pets would become hysterical at the sound of sirens and explosions, and run wild through streets contaminated by mustard gas. 

The Home Office formed a special National Air Raid Precautions Animal Committee, with a retired vet as chairman. This ‘Dad’s Army for Pets’ would act swiftly in a crisis, offering refuge to lost or frightened animals, treating injuries or painlessly putting them out of their suffering. 

On the eve of war, a Home Office pamphlet was published which indicated that pets would not be allowed in public air-raid shelters, and featured a do-it-yourself guide to putting animals down. On page two was an advert for a captive bolt pistol. 

The day Hitler invaded Poland, a BBC broadcast confirmed it was official policy that pets would not be given shelter.
The result was panic. A counc
il vet in East London recorded the events of that first day: ‘The sirens sounded  . . .and almost immediately West Ham Town Hall became besieged by panic-stricken people bringing their animals for destruction,’ he wrote.

‘In spite of trying to reason with the hysterical mob, we were soon inundated with dogs and cats whose owners had abandoned them in offices and corridors.’

That night, distressed animals cast out by their owners roamed the blacked-out streets.

Five days of mass destruction followed. A local rendering firm was stacked several feet deep with dog and cat carcasses.
Not even London Zoo escaped the carnage. The black widow spiders and poisonous snakes were killed, as were a manatee (a large aquatic mammal also known as a sea cow), six Indian fruit bats, seven Nile crocodiles, a muntjac and two American alligators. Two lion cubs were put down, too. All were ‘destroyed owing to war conditions’.

After those first few days, the rate of killing slowed – but there was real shock at what had happened, and some animal lovers were appalled by the way the Government had created such a sense of panic.
Nina, Duchess of Hamilton, turned her Wiltshire estate, Ferne, into an animal sanctuary, while one Swedish aristocrat opened her Mayfair mansion as a sort of urban ark.

More menageries sprung up as kindly old ladies offered refuges. The pets from local schools, including guinea pigs and rabbits, were taken in by a farmer in West Moseley, Birmingham. The Canine Defence League dug its own air-raid shelters for dogs in Kensington Gardens. 

City meat man feeding cats at the beginning of 1939

Many thousands of cats were simply turned out to join feral colonies, such as that on Clapham Common in South London, which became home to a huge number of strays. 

But the worst was yet to come. 

When major Nazi bombing began in the autumn of 1940, once again there was a rush to abandon pets by the thousand. The West Ham vet recalled blitzed streets ‘inundated with cats’. 

Municipal parties set out on slaughtering campaigns using a mixture of electric shocks, cyanide and chloroform – 100 animals at a time was not unusual. There were so many animals that mass culling was the only option.

However, the vet refused to give up his own cat, Ginger, who proved staunch even in the midst of an air raid, ‘welcoming me home each night amid the injustice of man’s mad warfare’.

One news agency reported on a collie dog who had become adept at coping when the sirens sounded, ‘preceding the family into the private garden shelter before raids, and returning to the house just before the all-clear’. But the same writer noted: ‘Badly trained dogs however have proved a nuisance, barking loudly and rushing wildly about the place. 
‘If the feeding of dogs becomes a national grievance, such dogs should be the first to be destroyed.’ 

ial tranquilliser mixtures to calm distressed pets were advertised; and ear muffs for dogs. One lady asked the authorities if gas masks were available for bees.

For those without private shelters, the dilemma was dreadful. Some chose to stay at home with their pets rather than go to a public shelter without them. 

The Mass Observation project, which recorded the responses of ordinary people to the war, spoke to a man in Poplar, East London, who said: ‘I know the missus and kids are safe, but if I went to the shelter, too, I’d be thinking about how the animals were getting on.’

As the war continued, the question of what to feed pets became more critical. In August 1940, the Waste Of Food Order was passed, making it an offence, punishable by two years’ imprisonment, to feed animals with food fit for human consumption. 

Dog biscuits disappeared from shops. ‘Chappies’ pet-food factory in Slough, Berkshire, was shut and pets had to be fed on scraps.

One woman, Mrs Winifred Airlie, of Colchester, was fined £5 for giving bread to her pet white mice. But mice were the least of it. Dogs were considered the real enemy within. One official at the Ministry Of Food recorded in the minutes of a meeting: ‘The only solution is that a reduction of the dog population should be secured.’ 

A policy limiting each family to one dog if rationing became worse was discussed in secret, but was never acted on.  
Anti-dog sentiment was to be encouraged: ‘Tell the public they eat 280,000 tons of meat per year!’

The campaign was effective. A ‘mongrel owner’ interviewed in August 1941 said: ‘Those who feed their dogs off the fat of the land should be imprisoned for sabotage. Some of the rich society dames feed their dogs stuff which would be feast to a poor man . . .’

Cats were also a target for the Ministry, and an anti-cat briefing was leaked to journalists: ‘Too many of this country’s 7 million cats are overfed, given portions of meat and fish which, to a man, would be the equivalent of a 3lb joint every lunchtime.’

It was also widely reported that cats consumed 40 million gallons of milk a year. The Chancellor considered a cat tax.
Nothing would deter the most devoted cat rescuers, however. The Animal Defence Society reported ‘a poor old woman who lived in a tiny room . . . swarming with cats who she had rescued and befriended. Most of these people would give their last crust to their cat or dog’.

The Government relented in part, making allowances for cat owners who relied on the animals to keep down mice and rats, such as the owners of large warehouses. 

‘Although no liquid milk could be spared for cats, some damaged dried milk powder might be made available to cats engaged on “work of national importance”’ — in other words, catching rats in industrial production plants.

No such concessions were made for dogs, although from 1942, if a family was struggling to feed a beloved dog, they could lend them to the Army as a war dog on full rations — but many owners feared their dogs might not recognise them when they returned.

In 1949, Brutus, a demobilised German Shepherd from Syston in Leicestershire, was reunited with his master at the railway station after three years in the Army. 

To the dismay of his master, Brutus seemed barely to recognise him. They walked home as strangers. Then, as they walked through the door, Brutus heard the voice of his mistress and at once bounded up to her in transports of joy. It was as if he had never left, and he was soon a friend and playmate to the couple’s two children, the youngest born while Brutus had been away. 

Brutus was one of the lucky dogs who survived. But we should never forget the hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats who were senselessly killed by panicking families and officials in those dark days of World War II.

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