From Hannibal and his elephants to the Red Army and anti-tank dogs, humans have used animals in war for multiple functions. Whether as a means of transportation, rescue, sabotage, as a weapon or even as spies, we have been trying to domesticate animals for centuries to obtain tactical or strategic advantages in war conflicts.
The list of animals used in war is very long and includes horses , donkeys, rats, llamas, bats and even insects. Making a list with only three animals implies leaving in the inkwell many species that would also deserve to be on it. As usual in this type of listings, not all of them are, but they are all of them. So today we will talk about three extraordinary animals that have been used for war purposes.
For most of the history of civilizations, little attention has been paid to marine mammals. Until the 20th century, as far as is known, the use of cetaceans as war animals had not been considered. The US Navy acquired its first Dolphin in the late 1950s , with a mission to learn hydrodynamics to improve its torpedoes. However, the military use of these animals was just starting.
It has been known since 1946 that dolphins use echolocation. The rationale for this process is the same as for sonar. The animal fires a volley of sound waves that bounce off the target. The dolphin receives the echoes and its brain converts them into a three-dimensional image.
The US Navy, taking advantage of this natural sonar, trained dolphins to follow ships, recover ammunition lost on the bottom, and even locate sea mines —without risk to the dolphin, which is not capable of activating them—. They were also used to place tracking beacons and perform surveillance tasks.
It is said that they were also used to deposit mines on submarines and enemy ships , and even transport bombs. But the sources catalog this task as preposterous; For one thing, a dolphin can’t tell which side a ship belongs to, and laying a mine on the wrong ship could spell disaster. Regarding bombs, the use of cetaceans has many disadvantages and no advantage compared to launching them from planes or submarines or with missiles. However, it is less clear whether the US Navy ever used dolphins to lay mines on Vietcong docks. Something the navy denies, of course.
Pigeons are exceptional animals. Not only because of their docility, ease of handling and how quickly they breed, but because they have a trait that has fascinated mankind for more than 6,000 years: the ability to return home.
A pigeon does not need training to return home, it is an instinctive behavior.
Genghis Khan himself already used pigeons in war, in the 12th century. They were a good method of communication between different troops, sharing battle plans between fronts. Since then they have been used with relative frequency, until the beginning of the 20th century, replaced by the most modern telecommunications techniques. However, during the First and Second World Wars , telegraph and radio-based communication systems coexisted with carrier pigeons. One advantage gained was learning to train the animals to return to mobile lofts, used primarily during World War II.
At that time, it is worth noting an episode that occurred in Great Britain. Some infiltrated German spies used carrier pigeons to send tactical information relevant to the conflict. However, there were almost 70,000 registered pigeon owners on the island. The British Army sent soldiers to the lofts with a simple order: release all the pigeons from each loft. Detecting the spies among the simple amateurs was easy; while the British pigeons stayed flying in the area or traveled to other parts of the island, the spy pigeons flew to Germany , without any message, and never returned.
But the most avant-garde use of pigeons in warfare had to do with photography. In 1932 the German Army is said to have developed a small, lightweight aluminum camera that captured up to 200 pictures per flight, although it is not clear if they used them.
However, we do have evidence of the invention of the Swiss watchmaker Christian A. Michel, who patented a camera for 16mm film, with the shutter associated with a watch mechanism. He made 100, and up to 1,000 photographs were part of the exhibition “Des pigeons photographes ?” 2007 at the Swiss Camera Museum in Vevey.
In 2015, a group of researchers led by Professor G. Insacco rediscovered in Sicily a species of snake that was believed to be extinct in the area: Eryx jaculus, also called sand javelin boa. Actually, the species is not native to the Italian island, but was introduced —whether accidentally or deliberately, we do not know— by the Greeks , who frequently transported these and other snakes on their ships. Like any other boa, this species is not poisonous, although they also carried vipers and other snakes that are.
The reason for carrying barrels full of these reptiles was obvious. They used them as a weapon during naval battles. Containers full of snakes were thrown at enemy ships. The enemy ship’s sailors usually had no idea what kind of snakes they were receiving or if they were poisonous. At the very least, there was panic, as one of the most visceral fears of human beings took hold of the crew.
One of the situations in which snakes decided the course of a battle was off the coast of Turkey, in the 2nd century BCE . The Carthaginian general Hannibal had been defeated by Eumenes II of Pergamon . Preparing their counter-offensive, the Carthaginians landed and collected large numbers of snakes, which they enclosed in clay pots. As the catapulted pots crashed to the deck of the ships, hundreds of reptiles were set free, and the Pergamon sailors were easily defeated in panic.
Insacco, G. et al. 2015. Eryx jaculus (Linnaeus, 1758): A new species for the Italian herpetofauna (Squamata: Erycidae). Acta Herpetologica , 10, 149-153. DOI: 10.13128/Acta_Herpetol-17170Kistler, JM 2011. Animals in the military: from Hannibal’s elephants to the dolphins of the US Navy. ABC-CLIO.Mayor, A. 2019. Chemical and Biological Warfare in Antiquity. In Toxicology in Antiquity (pp. 243-255). Elsevier. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-815339-0.00016-0Swiss Camera Museum (Ed.). 2007. Photographic pigeons?Swiss Camera Museum.Windsor, HH 1932. Carrier pigeons take photos automatically. Popular mechanics, 57 (2).