Following an ill-judged information pamphlet issued in the UK after the outbreak of the Second World War, some 750,000 pets were killed over fears of food shortages and dangerous conditions in cities.
The UK declared war on Nazi Germany on 3rd September 1939, two days after Germany began the Second World War by invading Poland. At the time, the British Army was small in comparison to many other European nations, including Germany. The British Expeditionary Force, numbering around 152,000 soldiers, was dispatched to France. The French and British would decisively lose the Battle of France, with nearly 340,000 Allied troops evacuated back to mainland Britain during Operation Dynamo, often referred to as ‘the Miracle of Dunkirk‘.
The next phase of the war saw British focus switch to the defence of Great Britain. The Battle of Britain began in July 1940, which saw aircraft from the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm defend against large-scale attacks by the German Luftwaffe. This campaign of bombing by German aircraft became known as ‘the Blitz’.
Across the UK, guidelines known as Air Raid Precautions were issued to try and minimise the risk to civilians posed by air raids. A blackout was enforced, with heavy curtains or shutters fitted to houses and businesses to prevent bombers targeting the light from windows. Air raid sirens and shelters were put in place, and an Auxiliary Fire Service was established to support existing fire crews.
One organisation introduced by the British Government was the National Air Raid Precautions Animal Committee (NARPAC), with the aim of formulating a plan for how to deal with pets following the outbreak of war. One major concern was that if and when rationing was introduced (which eventually began in May 1942), pet owners would be forced to split their rations with pets or leave them to starve.
In response, the NARPAC issued a public information pamphlet titled ‘Advice to Animal Owners‘. While the pamphlet included advice such as relocating pets away from big cities and into the countryside, in reality this wasn’t practical for most people living in urban areas. It concluded that if relocating pets wasn’t possible, that ‘it really is kindest to have them destroyed’. The pamphlet even included an advertisement for a captive bolt pistol that could be used to humanely destroy pets. The suggestion to have pets put down was later repeated on the BBC.
Following the outbreak of war, veterinary clinics and animal homes saw a surge in pet owners looking to have their pets put down. While the PDSA and RSPCA both advised against such extreme measures, they were still flooded with pet owners. Maria Dickin, the founder of the PDSA, later lamented that her officers were forced to perform this unhappy duty and were unlikely to ever forget the tragedy they experienced in those days.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the UK’s most well-known animal rescue centre, refused outright to put healthy animals down. Over the course of the war they took in nearly 150,000 dogs. In addition, they funded a pet cemetery in a field on the outskirts of London that became the final resting place for some half a million animals. Nina Douglas-Hamilton, the Duchess of Hamilton, had both her London mansion house and country estate converted into animal sanctuaries. The sanctuary she established at her Ferne Estate in Dorset endures to this day as Ferne Animal Sanctuary.
In total around 750,000 dogs and cats are thought to have been killed during the panic. Later in the war, having experienced rationing and air raids firsthand, many owners felt that they had acted rashly. Most deeply regretted having their pets killed. Blame was largely leveled at the Government for triggering what became mass hysteria at the start of the war.
Cover image: Blue Cross volunteers feed rescue dogs at Charlton Kennels, 1942