FunNature & AnimalHow can rats be useful in a war?

How can rats be useful in a war?

Rats are extraordinarily intelligent animals, capable of learning the most diverse tricks , carrying out orders and manipulating objects with their front paws. They develop mental maps that make them excellent explorers, capable of orienting themselves without difficulty and solving mazes.

In addition, they are omnivorous animals that feel a great affinity for human agglomerations , from where they can obtain a large amount of food in a short time. And, depending on the conditions, they can attack people, especially while they are injured or resting. This, added to the ability to transmit diseases , also makes them fearsome enemies.

These characteristics make the rat one of the most surprising animals in the war landscape, whether as a pest in the trench, as a weapon or as a tracking device.

The rats in the trenches

During World War I , soldiers spent weeks and even months in the trenches. Under these conditions, it was common for rats to invade the areas, eating everything they found. There is an extensive photographic record of all this, and, however, very few written sources attest to it. However, it was a significant problem, to the point that there were soldiers who made a kind of dense cage to sleep in , avoiding the attack of rats, which fed on the piled-up bodies, and which could transmit diseases to living soldiers.

Dogs were generally good allies . With proper training and under the guidance of their handler, some dogs hunted up to a hundred rodents a day in the trenches.

However, not everything about rats was bad. For example, some soldiers observed rats fleeing the trenches when the enemy approached, which served as an alarm to prepare for combat.

Bomb rats for sabotage

Regardless of the problems that rats caused soldiers or their usefulness as an alarm system, during World War II the allied army began to use rats as a weapon.

But in this case it was not live rats, but dead ones. It was the brainchild of the British special operations team. They stuffed the abdomen of the dead rodents with a small explosive charge. The plan was to leave the dead rats in the factories, power plants or locomotives, so that when the operator who took care of the boiler found it, he would dispose of it by throwing it into the fire. There, the rat would explode, sabotaging the build.

Apparently, the plan did not go well at all. Although, according to some sources, nine boilers were sabotaged in Belgium , the first shipment of rats was soon intercepted by the German army and the plan was abandoned. The British, on the other hand, considered the result a partial success; they had forced the Nazi army to invest resources in searching for and learning to recognize the explosive rats.

The rat as a biological weapon

While the British stuffed dead rats with explosives, the Soviets used live rats as a biological weapon. The Red Army captured large numbers of rats and infected them with turalemia, only to release them against the forces of Friedrich von Paulus at the Battle of Stalingrad. Initially the strategy was successful, up to half of the German soldiers fell ill with turalemia; however, the rats, which continued to roam freely, also infected a good part of the Soviet soldiers.

Although the Germans baptized that battle as Rattenkrieg, “war of rats”, in reality the origin of the name does not seem to be related to the event of the rodents.

The rats that save human lives

But not all uses of rats have been destructive. Antipersonnel mines can be a great danger, not only for soldiers. A mine can remain in the ground for years, only to be activated when a civilian steps on it, decades after the conflict has ended.

Detecting and neutralizing these mines is a very complex task that entails serious risks for those who carry it out. One misstep, one undetected or accidentally missed mine, and it’s over.

However, a rat is smart enough to learn to detect it, and light enough not to cause accidental explosions.

The southern giant pocket rat ( Cricetomys ansorgei ) is used for this task. The Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (Development of Antipersonnel Mine Removal Products), or APOPO , was the organization that trained these animals to detect TNT, an explosive that is part of antipersonnel mines, by smell. It has been used successfully since 2003 in Africa, and since 2015 in Cambodia.

Thanks to its capabilities, a giant rat can travel and detect mines in a field of 200 square meters in just half an hour; work that would take one person up to four days.

The rat that has helped deactivate the most landmines was Magawa , born in 2013 in Tanzania. Since 2016, he searched more than 22 hectares of Cambodian soil, and managed to find more than 71 mines and 38 explosive objects throughout his life , allowing local communities to return to their lives. Such a feat earned him the PSDA Gold Medal in 2020 for his heroism. A medal that is awarded to animals that stand out for their bravery and devotion to duty, and that until 2020, had only received dogs. From June 2021 she was retired from service, until on January 11, 2022 she died due to her advanced age. I was 8 years old.


APOPO. 2021. PDSA Gold Medalist Magawa Retiring. APOPO – Saving lives.
BBC. 2014. British Special Operations Executive (SOE): Tools and Gadgets Gallery.
BBC – History.
Bull, S. 2009. Special Ops, 1939-1945: A Manual of Covert Warfare and Training.
DeAngelo, D. 2018. Demilitarizing disarmament with mine detection rats. Culture and Organization, 24(4), 285-302. DOI: 10.1080/14759551.2018.1488848
Hamilton, J. 2004. Trench Fighting Of World War I. ABDO.
Leitenberg, M. et al. 2012. The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History.

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