3:15 AM, June 22, 1941. German Wehrmacht forces launch Operation Barbarossa and invade the Soviet Union in what was, and still is today, the largest military offensive in human history. Nearly four million soldiers, 3,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery pieces, and 2,500 aircraft led the charge across Russia’s western border, taking the Red Army completely by surprise and laying waste to all those who stood before.
The Eastern Front of the Second World War witnessed some of the most brutal and ferocious fighting to ever take place in the history of warfare. The fear of annihilation loomed
ominously over Moscow as the German blitzkrieg paved a path of Soviet blood to within a strategic stones’ throw of the Kremlin gates.
The lack of sufficiently available tanks and anti-tank weaponry rendered all attempts to repel the German invasion futile as scores of well-drilled and coordinated panzer brigades carved a B-line for the Russian heartland.
Germany’s initial successes in the East led many to believe that victory was all but inevitable. Every passing hour German armour stood unopposed spelt catastrophe for Soviet ground forces, whom without an immediate and effective countermeasure, could hope for little more than a swift and crushing defeat. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
The solution to the Soviet’s problem presented itself not in the form of a tank or a gun, but a bomb. Only, this was a bomb unlike any seen before, a bomb which far transcended conventional notions of warfare and morality. A bomb with four legs, a tail, and a one-way trip to the great beyond.
Anti-tank dogs, also known as hundminen – literally translating to ‘dog mine’ in German – were specially trained dogs, typically Alsatian German Shepherds that were conditioned to dive beneath advancing German tanks and deliver an explosive payload to incapacitate or destroy the target, and in doing so, make the ultimate sacrifice.
Following the bloodshed of the Russian Civil War and the victory of the Soviets over the White Army, the Red Army was faced with the colossal challenge of reforming and readapting its military for the impending tribulations of 20th century warfare.
In 1924, the Revolutionary Military Council of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics approved the introduction of dogs as military equipment within the Red Army for use in a variety of roles. These included search and rescue operations, delivery of first aid, rapid communications, sniffing out mines, transporting food, assisting in combat, and transporting injured soldiers to rear lines via sled.
The transformation from Stalin’s Little Helper to, well, Sparky, was one that occurred as a result of the then still growing, albeit underdeveloped Soviet military complex.
The Red Army lacked any proper response to the newly developing military tactics of using a mainly tank-based force to break through the enemy line. A response would later come in the form of the infamous T-34 medium tank and PTRD-41 anti-tank rifle, but for the meantime, infantry lacked a consistent and effective way to combat this predominantly mechanical force.
It was during these early stages of the Great Patriotic War that the Red Army was stained a maniacal shade of red in the blood of its fellow comrades. In little under six months, in excess of 800,000 Soviet soldiers and civilians were killed in action. A figure which would skyrocket to 27,000,000 before the wars’ end in 1945.
During the Great Patriotic War of 1941 -1945, some 60,000 dogs were handed over to the Red Army by armature dog breeders who were trained in specialised schools prior to deployment on Russia’s western front.
Training took place at a newly founded dog training centre in the Moscow Oblast, the first of twelve academies that would open in close succession. German Shepherds were the main target of the programme due to their agility, resilience, and ease of training.
Of these twelve new training centres, three pertain specifically to the training of anti-tank dogs – A number which would dramatically increase as the war in the east unfolded.
There was however, one glaring problem. At this time, the Red Army was seriously lacking in personnel with any measure of conventional dog training credentials, and so, they got creative and began recruiting those with varying degrees of dog handling experience.
Police officers, hunters and even circus trainers were soon enlisted to swell the ranks of these all-new cutting-edge canine battalions, which included the participation of several leading animal psychologists.
Now if you’re wondering how the handlers trained the dogs to dive under enemy tanks and subsequently blow everything, including themselves, to smouldering pieces of pedigree chum, the answer is one as simplistic as it was sadistic. Classical Conditioning.
Pavlov’s Theory suggests that you can condition both humans and animals to associate a reward with an action. The example Pavlov used was ringing a bell whenever a dog was fed. The dog would salivate when it heard the bell as it would then associate the noise of the bell with food. This is what’s known as a conditioned response.
Adopting this theory to twisted effect, they would half-starve the dogs and then place food beneath a stationary tank. Over time, the dogs would be conditioned to instinctively search beneath the tanks for food.
The tanks were at first left standing still, then they had their engines running, which was further combined with sporadic blank-shot gunfire and other battle related distractions. This routine aimed to teach the dogs to run under the tanks in battlefield situations.
Numerous prototypes of the mine vests were trialled, with the initial models being detachable. The initial plan was for the dogs to dive beneath the tanks, bite a release mechanism which released the bomb, at which point, the dog would then return to the handler unscathed. The bomb would then be detonated via a timer or remote detonator.
As with many things Soviet, this seemed like a good idea in theory, but in practicality, there stood numerous factors which inhibited the success of such a weapon. A group of dogs practised this for six months, though reports determined that none could perform this task consistently.
The use of remote-controlled detonators proved largely impractical for the scale of operations intended, as early models were both primitive and scarcely available.
To improve the viability of such a weapon, amendments were implemented to make training considerably safer and easier. For the handlers that is.
Depending on your sources, each dog was fitted with a mine weighing anywhere from 4.5 to 12 kg (10 – 26 lbs) that was carried either side of the dog in two adjustable pouches. The device would detonate when a lever protruding from the harness, some 20cm (7.9in) in length hits the low-lying parts of the chassis and is pushed backwards, releasing a safety pin which strikes the detonator.
Putting to one side the blatant barbarity and sadistic opportunism that’s evocative of sacrificing man’s best friend for strategic military gains, there’s reason to believe that Stalin’s canine kamikaze comrades did in fact make a substantially more significant contribution than arbitrary knowledge would have you believe.
Much of the history surrounding the effectiveness of anti-tank dogs is largely fabricated and shrouded in misconceptions. This can be attributed to the anti-Soviet propaganda cultivated by Wehrmacht forces during the war.
Contrary to popular belief, Soviet anti-tank dogs predate the launch of Operation Barbarossa by little less than a decade, with the first dedicated anti-tank dog training schools emerging in 1935. Such a revelation debunks the long-held misconception that the emergence of such a weapon was in fact the result of a short-sighted and desperate attempt to halt the German armoured invasion.
This is confirmed in an address to the chief of the 2nd department of the Main Auto Armoured Directorate (GABTU) and the Armoured Tank Directorate (BTU), a department within the former, dated [date cut off] July, 1941. Military Engineer 2nd grade, comrade Demyanenko writes:
“I report that trained dogs carrying an anti-tank pouch filled with high explosives can be considered a viable method of combat with enemy tanks.
Trials of this anti-tank method were conducted by the Communications Directorate and Engineering and Armoured Directorate in 1939-1940. The results of the trials proved that this method is effective.”
It’s widely speculated that upon deployment to the frontlines, anti-tank dogs proved disastrously ineffective as they would instinctively dive beneath the friendly, familiar smelling Soviet diesel engine tanks which had been used during training, as opposed to the foreign aroma of the petrol engine panzers deployed by the Germans.
This was allegedly the cause of innumerable friendly fire incidents whereby Red Army tankers would fall prey to the explosive payloads of the mine dogs.
In reality, anti-tank dogs were assigned to infantry units that did not receive artillery or tank support, rendering the claim that the dogs blew up Soviet tanks as nothing more than urban legend. Additionally, there were only a few Soviet tank models which utilised diesel engines in 1941, as the vast majority of tanks fielded by the Red Army at this time, albeit outmatched in most regards, ran on petrol.
In further contrast, the diesel-powered tanks and armoured fighting vehicles fielded by Soviet forces at this time – such as the T-34, KV and BT-7M – were relatively new designs that were only deployed in scarce quantities where urgent support was needed the most.
These cutting-edge combat machines allowed the Red Army to face their adversaries on even footing, where previous engagements proved devastatingly one sided. The notion that the Soviets would prioritise this inconceivably important lifeline for dog training over frontline service is outright preposterous and would have been second only in sacrifice to strapping explosives to the soldiers themselves.
Of this, the Soviets were well aware, and rightfully designated the use of their ageing, insufficiently armoured and now largely obsolete T-18 light tanks for use in the training of anti-tank dogs. A tank which, by the way, uses a petrol engine.
This too is confirmed in the previously mentioned address to the GABTU and BTU, stating:
“On the BTU KA proving grounds at the Kubinka station, an MS-1 [T-18] tank moving at second gear was destroyed by a dog carrying an AT pouch, which caused the following damage: torn track, torn out tank side, torn off and destroyed drive wheel, damage to the upper front plate and lower hull, tank turret torn off. During all other trials with dummy pouches, dogs dove under a moving tank without fail.”
It’s also worth noting that where available, captured German panzers would be used in the training of anti-tank dogs.
Fido’s baptism of fire came in late 1941 following the German surge to the Russian capital, codenamed Operation Typhoon. Anti-tank dogs of the 1st Special Battalion were first deployed in battle near Moscow, comprising 212 dogs and 199 handlers.
It’s said that every dog has its day, and this was no exception, only this was a day marked by untold death and cataclysmic disaster.
The dogs’ first major engagement proved utterly shambolic. The lack of cover fire from Soviet infantry proved fatal, as one by one, the charging dogs fell prey to German bullets as they ran towards their targets, resulting in the annihilation of almost all the dogs without so much as a single enemy target destroyed.
Those soldiers who weren’t killed surrendered with their dogs. During interrogations, the captive handlers revealed the Soviet methods used to train their four-legged companions.
Such information was utilised as propaganda among German troops who vilified the Soviets as cowards, claiming they would rather sacrifice their own dogs than fight like men.
Despite the decimation of the 1st special battalion, the Soviet Union doubled down in their efforts and continued to use dogs against the Germans. By the end of 1941, over 1,000 anti-tank dogs were engaged in frontline combat. Just a year later, that number would rise to more than double.
Future encounters, however, would prove more successful. On July 21, 1942, anti-tank dogs would help determine the outcome of a major battle near Taganrog on the Sea of Azov.
When 40 enemy panzers smashed through a battery of anti-tank guns and compromised the position of the naval infantry brigade, the 4th company of anti-tank dogs was the only thing that stood between the command post and the advancing German armour.
Simultaneously, 56 dogs launched an attack that destroyed a significant number of enemy tanks. Not only did those dogs stop the offensive, but they also forced the Germans to flee the battlefield.
In other instances, it’s reported that in the sector of the 160th Infantry Division in the vicinity of Glukhovo, six anti-tank dogs managed to destroy a total of five enemy tanks. At Stalingrad, in the vicinity of the airfield, a squad of tank-destroyer dogs destroyed 13 enemy tanks. At Kursk, in the zone of the 6th Guards Army, 16 dogs destroyed 12 tanks that had broken through into the depth of the Soviet defences in the area of Tamarovka.
With figures like these in mind, it’s difficult to dispute the viability of such a weapon, especially when considering the financial and logistical benefits when compared to more conventional anti-tank weaponry.
Official Soviet figures estimate that the adoption of anti-tank dogs contributed to the destruction of over 300 enemy tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, though the true figure is likely unknown, especially considering it’s equally as likely that Soviet authorities may have inflated these figures in an effort to justify such morally obtuse actions in the aftermath of the war.
There were also, however, grievous psychological issues for Soviet soldiers. The dog trainers and handlers began to rebel at the cruelty involved in what was essentially the intentional, cold-blooded murder of the dogs they had served with and often formed an emotional bond with.
If, as was sometimes common in a particularly fierce battle, a dog turned away from the tank and started to run back towards the Soviet trenches, to prevent injury to the soldiers should the bomb detonate, returning dogs had to be shot, often by the very soldiers who had cared for them.
And even if the dog was successful in destroying an enemy target, the trainers had to watch an animal they were fond of, and perhaps grew to love be blown to pieces right before their eyes, never to be seen again.
For many Soviet dog handlers, this was simply too much, resulting in many of them being unwilling to work with new dogs. Some questioned the morality of their superiors, complaining that the Army was not content with merely sacrificing people to the war, but felt that it was necessary to slaughter innocent trusting dogs as well.
Those soldiers who openly criticised the anti-tank dog programme or voiced concerns over the integrity of such inhumane treatment towards the animals were often reprimanded in the harshest of ways, more often than not, sent to the gulag.
From late 1941 onwards, German forces were well aware of the hundminen peril and took precautionary measures to defend against them.
The machine guns mounted on armoured vehicles proved generally ineffective due to the relatively small size of the dogs, not least to mention the speed of the Alsatians and their low proximity to the ground. The solution, you could say, was no less moral than the problem that birthed it.
Orders were eventually issued to all German soldiers on the front lines to shoot any dog that they saw in combat areas. In some cases, the entire canine populations of Russian villages were apprehended, taken from families against their will, rounded up outside, and simply shot dead.
By mid-1943, the war in the east was beginning to change. At long last, the Red Army was finally starting to receive the sufficient quantities of vitally needed anti-tank weapons which they had been so urgently lacking in the early years of the war.
As a result, Soviet forces had stopped using dogs for suicide missions and began the process of reintegrating and retraining existing dogs for use in a variety of more conventional roles such as mine-detection.
With our modern, more enlightened sensibilities, it’s easy to look back in condemnation of the actions of wartime Russia, to deem those who decreed such moralless actions as cold-hearted monsters, void of any semblance of compassion and empathy for our canine companions.
While the Soviet Union is the only nation who utilised anti-tank dogs on a practical and industrial level, there were in fact other countries who at the very least considered the viability of such a weapon, going so far as to train specialised dog units for such an occasion in a remarkably similar fashion to that of the Soviets. Namely, the USA.
Instead of blowing up tanks and AMVs like the Soviets, the targets of the hundminen’s American cousins were instead Japanese bunkers.
Thankfully however, the Americans saw the danger in this programme before they approved it. In the limited simulations they ran, many dogs returned to their masters with, what was quite literally a ticking time bomb still attached, as opposed to remaining in the enemy bunkers which would have caused numerous friendly fire incidents.
Anti-tank dog training continued in Russia until 1996, but there are no reports of them being used outside the limited window of the second world war.
The latest account of bomb laden animals being used in a military conflict was in July, 2014, when Hamas militants attempted to attack Israeli troops in Gaza with a donkey carrying concealed explosives.
Unfortunately, many Soviet dogs laid down their lives in the line of service during the war, and perhaps, given the ultimate conclusion of the conflict and the triumph of the Russians over Nazi Germany, there’s reason to believe that the sacrifices made by man’s best friend made a considerable difference, and in doing so, inadvertently saved countless Russian lives.
But nonetheless, the events that unfolded in those turbulent years of conflict will forever remain a stain on the garment of human morality, and serve as testament to limits of human depravity, and hopefully act as a reminder to the evolution in sensibilities we’ve since attained, and will hopefully never again repeat.