May 27, 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) began the long journey along the the north-east coast of France. 300,000 Allied troops were ordered to evacuate from occupied Europe; however, the troops weren’t the only ones to flee the war-zones. Domesticated animals had been adopted by many of the soldiers, and they too began the journey. This was dubbed the Miracle of Dunkirk.
Second Lieutenant E J Haywood recalls the trek during May of 1940: “We passed through village after village. Dogs were whining and running about, vainly looking for their owners. Other dogs had been left tied up, and barked furiously at us, or howled dismally. To my great annoyance, a contingent of dogs of all shapes and sizes decided to join the procession. These wretched dogs were obviously strays and were evidently prepared to forget their newly acquired problems of food and shelter in the transient joy of a walk that had a more canine flavour than usual to enliven it. I cursed them all bitterly and fruitlessly, for, as they yapped and frisked about, they advertised our approach.”
Granted, not every animal who joined the in the journey made it to the beach. The men boarded small boats to get to the Royal Navy destroyers and the dog’s natural instincts kicked in. Each dog dived into the sea and swam to the awaiting ships. It was said that “the men who had so far befriended them in their appalling need would not desert them at the last”, by the RSPCA’s post-war history.
There was one story told of a bulldog named “Boxer” that was brought to France by his owner, Captain C Payton-Smyth. When BEF shipped out, Boxer became separated from Smyth because the dog hated water. The dog had to be thrown onto a rescuing ship and was later reunited with Smyth.
There were many other touching stories where dogs would not leave a particular seaman and they went on to become family pets.
The RSPCA recorded: “All along the Thames Estuary and the south and south-east coast where the little ships of all kinds landed wearied men, equally wearied and homeless dogs were also brought ashore. The danger to this country’s animals resulting from an outbreak of rabies in such circumstances is too obvious to be stressed and RSPCA inspectors did a great work by caring for these animals until something could be done for them. Frequently soldiers would leave the ships and their dogs would still be aboard. In such cases the inspectors would have to round them up.”
The sad reality to the story is that not every animal would live. Of the animals that were quarantined, many had to be put down due to no fault of their own. Many of the animals were severely wounded or were suffering because of the trauma they had endured. When the news broke about these dealings, many wondered if the soldiers could keep the pets. The RSPCA wasn’t very sympathetic to the cause. They insisted the animals be under a six month quarantine at an approved kennel. The cost for this would be thirteen guineas each animal.
Our Dumb Friends’ League (an animal welfare charity that was formed in 1897) sent out a notice asking for some of the dogs to help out. The League had up to 107 dogs in quarantine.
Allied civilians also made animal friends, roughly 95 dogs and one cat had made it to safety. These animals were also quarantined, and while most of the animals were able to be reconnected with their owners, there were some who could not be reunited.
One RSPCA report told the tale of an RAF Squadron Leader’s dog. The dog was lost somewhere in northern France. It had a collar and a tag and “Inquiries were set on foot although it seemed doubtful if the dog could have reached England unaided, but in the end she was found being cared for in a south coast kennel. Somehow, no one knows by what route or vessel, Nora had come over alone, guided by her own instinct and sagacity.”
Another group who was helping to care for dogs during their quarantine was the National Canine Defense League. The Dog’s Bulletin stated, The dogs from Dunkirk are the latest canine sufferers from Nazi terrorism whom the League has helped”