The Explosive Dogs of War

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Release the hounds!

An anti-tank dog in training.

Once upon a time in the Soviet Union, the Anti-tank dog was invented. It was a simple idea, but not so simple a process. In 1924 the Revolutionary Military Council permitted the use of dogs within the military: to assist with this a special military dog training school was founded in the Moscow Oblast. It was then realised that they had a school but no teachers, and so a motley crew of animal trainers was assembled from such varied persons as hunters and circus performers.

Leading animal scientists produced a wide-scale training program for the dogs. For a while it was the ‘normal’ stuff; rescue, delivery of first aid, enemy attack and carrying messages. Then came the 1930’s and the big idea. Why not make the dogs… blow up?

A further 12 regional military dog training schools were built and three of them produced these rather unusual weapons. There were some teething problems.

A dog sporting the harness

The initial plan was for a dog like a German Shepherd, to run at a static target and pull on the self releasing belt. This would deposit explosives on the ground and then the dogs would return to handlers, leaving the explosives to be set off either by an inbuilt timer or remote control.

This complicated plan muddled the mutts. After six months of doggedly working at the problem little progress was made. Once they had released the hounds they got confused by moving targets, either running in circles or worse, return to their owner with the explosives still attached. Something that would kill both the dog and the handler if it happened on a live battlefield. So, they simplified.

The explosive trigger mechanism.

Strap explosives to a dog and let it run at a tank. Upon impact the explosives ignite, damaging the dog and the tank as well. They were trained by hunger, the trainers wouldn’t feed them enough, instead they would place the food beneath static tanks. Slowly they moved up to moving tanks and tanks surrounded by soldiers firing blank rounds. This conditioned them to be fearless in any battle. They were formidable.

The explosives were specialised too. Special harnesses were designed that could be adjusted to each individual dog, they carried a 10-12 kg mine in the harness. Above their backs stood a wooden stick 20cm in length. When a dog jumped under a tank, the wooden lever would be knocked back by the tank and trigger the explosion. As the chassis was the weakest part of a tank severe damage could be dealt by the canine combustibles.

In 1935 the Anti-tank dogs became an official part of the Soviet Army, though they were a shockingly underused resource. Their first real calling came about in World War II on the Eastern front where every effort was undertaken to stop the German advance. The training schools increased their output volume, focusing on anti-tank dogs. A total of 40,000 dogs, both anti-tank and otherwise were deployed for work within the Soviet Army.

Many handlers, distressed at having to shoot their dogs, refused to train any more.

Summer 1941, 30 dogs and 40 trainers arrive on the front line for war, the day began, and they let slip the dogs of war. Immediately there were problems. This second generation had been trained during times of fuel and ammunition shortages, so had only ever been trained on static, silent tanks. This contrast to the battlefield had a marked effect upon the dogs. Most dogs simply refused to move, whilst the persistent ones ran beside the tanks, waiting for them to stop. Those dogs were shot. This was not the worst part.

Additionally there were scared dogs. Those dogs ran from the gunfire and leaped into the trenches, accidentally detonating; maiming and killing Soviet soldiers. This was not good, so the dogs had to be shot on the battlefield before they found the trenches, often by their own handlers.

Of the initial 30 dogs only 4 managed to detonate near tanks, 6 dogs exploded upon returning to the Soviet trenches. Three were shot by German soldiers and taken away so that they could copy the technology. The Soviets fought hard for them but the Germans successfully retrieved the dogs. Upon later analysis the Germans thought the plan was ‘desperate and inefficient’ and they left the designs alone. The only thing Germans took from the project was the idea for a propaganda campaign ridiculing Soviet soldiers for sending dogs into battle instead of soldiers.

Another failure of the training became apparent in later battles. The Soviet tanks were diesel-powered whereas the Germans used petrol. The dogs, dependent upon their sensitive noses sought out the familiar smell of the diesel tanks, blowing them up in the process whilst leaving the German tanks unscathed. The training, quite literally, had backfired.

It was an unmitigated failure, whilst dogs were near impossible to hit with a tank gun, German officers were then instructed to shoot any and all dogs on sight. In fact one of the first tasks any German soldier would perform upon the entering and occupation of a town or village, was the searching for and shooting of dogs to secure German safety.

A Soviet dog training school

Thanks to their failings no Anti-tank dogs were used after 1942. All of the schools shifted their focus to producing the other types of dogs such as the mine-seeking dogs and delivery dogs. The Soviet Union claimed that around 300 tanks were damaged by the dogs during operational use, but modern historians claim that it was merely propaganda produced in an effort to justify the dog-training program. The records show just over 50 enemy tanks were damaged.

Regardless of the cost, training continued. The last set of Anti-tank dogs were trained in 1996 before the program was discontinued. Since then no-one else has produced their own versions of the explosive dogs. The closest attempts were used… unsuccessfully by Iraqi insurgents in 2005.

Nowadays the Anti-tank dog is dead, a faint memory and a full-blown failure. Not that dogs are complaining.

Further Reading

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