Animal heroes: The cat who killed 'Mao Tse Tung', the pigeon who saved 1,000 lives and other incredible stories

The PDSA Dickin Medal - regarded as the animals' Victoria Cross - has been awarded to just 63 animals. Here are five heart-warming tales of gallantry and devotion.

For most of history, animals were often the forgotten heroes of war.

But, since 1943, courageous creatures, which have over the years saved the lives of thousands of men, have had their gallantry recognised with the Dickin Medal.

The honour, introduced by the British veterinary charity PDSA, has also been nicknamed the animal Victoria Cross.

Since its inception it has been awarded to 63 animals - 27 dogs, 32 birds, three horses and one cat.

Now in a new book, Animal Heroes, David Long tells the incredible stories behind each medal and the amazing animals who so gallantly earned the honour.

Here are just some of the tales of courage, which could surely inspire even the hardest of human hearts…

Judy, English Pointer, Prisoner No 81A, Gloergoer camp at Medan, Indonesia 1942-1945
Date of award: May 2, 1946

Navy dog Judy earned her Dickin Medal after suffering harsh Japanese treatment as the only official canine prisoner of war during World War II.

The English Pointer also helped save the crew of gunboat HMS Grasshopper by finding water after the stricken boat was marooned on an Indonesian island in 1942.

Japanese soldiers, who had conquered the country, eventually captured the men – who took Judy with them into Gloergoer PoW camp in Medan.

Brutal guards regularly beat her and threatened to kill her. But she bought her life by providing the camp commandant with puppies.

Judy helped raise morale among the men and, in particular, struck up a touching friendship with Leading Airfcraftman Frank Williams.

He smuggled her aboard a Japanese prisoner transport ship, which was torpedoed and sank en route to Singapore in 1944.

She was able to swim to safety – saving men as she did by providing debris to keep them afloat - and after a few days was reunited with Frank at another PoW camp.

When the war ended in 1945, Judy, who was born in Shanghai in 1937, was taken to Britain and a year later she was awarded the Dickin Medal.

She died from a tumour aged 13 in 1950, two years after beginning a new adventure with Frank in east Africa.
G.I. Joe, Pigeon No USA 43 SC 6390
Date of award: August 1946

 American Pigeon G.I. Joe helped save up to 1,000 lives during World War II by halting a planned American bombing on an Italian village held by British troops.

In October 1943, the messenger flew 20 miles across enemy lines from a British HQ to a U.S. air base in just 20 minutes to deliver a warning note after radios failed.

The blue-checked bird arrived ‘just as our planes were warming up to take off’, revealed Otto Meyer, a former commander of the U.S. Army Pigeon Service.

G.I. Joe’s note said the village of Calvi Vecchia, 25 miles north of Naples, had been abandoned by the Germans and the British 169th Infantry Brigade had occupied it.

The U.S. had originally planned to use bombs to ‘soften up’ the village, which they believed was a German stronghold, before another British regiment launched a ground offensive.

So, in the face of a breakdown in radio communication, a humble pigeon spared Allied soldiers and Calvi Vecchia’s residents from what could have been one of the worst incidents of ‘friendly fire’ during the war.

G.I. Joe, who had been born that year in Algiers, was flown to the U.S. at the end of the war.

But, in 1946, he crossed the Atlantic again so he could become one of the few foreign animals to be honoured with a Dickin Medal.
Able Seaman Simon, Stray cat, Yangtze Incident, China, April 1949
Date of award: December 1949 (posthumous)

Former stray Simon became the only cat to win the Dickin Medal after heroically continuing to catch rats despite being wounded aboard a Royal Navy ship during a 101-day siege by Chinese communists.

The intrepid feline, who sadly died in British quarantine before he could receive the honour, was praised for his courage and support during the 1949 Yangtze Incident.

Seventeen sailors were killed during the standoff after HMS Amethyst sailed up the Yangtze river from Shanghai to Nanking to protect the British embassy there during China’s civil war.

Simon suffered severe shrapnel wounds and burns after the captain’s cabin was hit by a shell, which killed Lieutenant Commander Bernard M. Skinner.

Yet somehow the scraggly black and white cat who was discovered stray in Hong Kong, fought through the pain and was able to recover from his injuries by licking his wounds.

According to the citation he received for his Amethyst campaign ribbon, Simon, who was also given the rank able seaman, rid the ship “of pestilence and vermin with unrelenting faithfulness”.

This task became particularly important because the men were strictly rationed during the long, hot months aboard.

He was best known for killing a rat the sailors nicknamed Mao Tse Tung after the Communist leader.

Simon and the rest of the crew made a daring escape as the Amethyst limped back down the river under the cover of darkness. Sadly, he died from an infection after arriving in British quarantine.
Theo, Spaniel cross, Royal Army Veterinary Corps arms and explosive search dog, Afghanistan

Date of award: October 2012

Army sniffer dog Theo was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal for his life-saving bravery that saw him uncover a record number of bombs and weapons.

Tragically, the 22-month-old springer spaniel cross suffered a fatal seizure hours after his handler, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, 26, was shot dead by the Taliban in 2011.

The pair made 14 discoveries in five months on the front line and have been hailed by military chiefs for saving the lives of countless British soldiers in Afghanistan.

Theo was said to have died of a broken heart after Lance Corporal Tasker was killed taking part in a mission in the Nahr-e-Saraj district in Helmand.

Their role had been to help search and clear roads and compounds, uncover hidden weapons, improvised explosive devices and bomb-making equipment.

The soldier “used to joke that Theo was impossible to restrain but I would say the same about Lance Corporal Tasker,” revealed Major Alexander Turner, who at the time was the commanding officer No 2 Company 1st Battallion Irish Guards.

“At the most hazardous phase of an advance, he would be at the point of a spear, badgering to get even further and work his dog.’
Three horses, London Blitz
Date of award: April 1947

Despite horses suffering huge casualties during historic conflicts – eight million died in the First World War alone – only three have been awarded the Dickins Medal.

Perhaps this is because, despite being trained to be steadfast in the face of crowds, they can be notoriously nervous, often whinnying at the slightest loud noise.

So it is all the more impressive that a trio of Metropolitian Police horses should earn their stripes during the Blitz.

Among them, Olga initally bolted 100 yards when a German V1 flying bomb destroyed four houses in Tooting, south-west London in July 1944.

But she returned with her rider PC J. E. Thwaites to the scene and helped control crowds who wanted to see the landing site of the unusual ‘Doodle Bug’.

A month later, another V1 hit the East End district of Bethnal Green.

Upstart, whose stables had already been destroyed, held fast and assisted his handler DI J. Morley with the rescue effort despite the animal being showered with debris.

Regal, the third horse, was unlucky because his stables in leafier Muswell Hill, north London, were twice burned down by incendiary bombs in April 1941 and July 1944.

But the easy-going equine ‘once again lived up to his name… and was not duly perturbed,’ according to one witness.

All three working horses received their awards together in London’s Hyde Park in April 1947.
* Animal Heroes by David Long costs £7.99 and is available from all good book stores.