This image is the cover for the book Doing Their Bit

Doing Their Bit

The first in-depth study of the role of canines in WWII Britain, an “important but hitherto under-represented subject,” with photos included (Society of Army Historical Research).

The Second World War allowed for the use of an unprecedented number of dogs for military duties, both internationally and among the British Armed Forces. On the British Home Front, civilians responded to calls from the British Army’s War Dogs Training School and the Ministry of Aircraft Production Guard Dog Training School by donating their canine pets for military training and employment “for the duration.” As dogs were instructed in roles with the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the London Civil Defence Region, the distinction between pet and trained working animal became increasingly unclear. While civilians and servicemen alike continued to view military dogs as pets, many also saw trained canines as human-like soldiers “doing their bit,” a depiction promulgated by both the military and the wartime press. Yet, historians have paid little attention to the subject. 

In the first comprehensive scholarly account of the employment of British military and Civil Defence dogs in the Second World War, Kimberly Brice O’Donnell traces the story from the belated establishment of the short-lived War Dog School and the Messenger Dog Service of the First World War to the more recent employment of canines in Iraq and Afghanistan. With a focus on WWII, Doing their Bit examines why and how dogs were trained and employed, and how humans shaped and perceived their use.

Using archival material, O’Donnell analyzes the performance of guard, military police, patrol, mine detection, and rescue dogs in training and on operations by considering the advantages and disadvantages of canines in such roles. Military and Civil Defence dogs offered a number of advantages over humans and technological equipment, and the experience gained by dog trainers and handlers led to the continued employment of canines in the postwar period. While the use of horses and other animals has since diminished, World War II marked a turning point in the history of the British military dog, ushering in the seemingly permanent training of dogs for police and military roles.

Kimberly Brice O'Donnell

Kimberly Brice O’Donnell is a military historian specialising in the employment of dogs by the British Armed Forces in the twentieth century. O’Donnell earned her doctorate in History from King’s College London in 2017. She has written for the National Archives and 10 Downing Street History of Government online publication and has appeared on BBC Radio.

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