The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown Tragedy

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown Tragedy

by Hilda Kean


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The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown Tragedy by Hilda Kean

The tragedies of World War II are well known. But at least one has been forgotten: in September 1939, four hundred thousand cats and dogs were massacred in Britain. The government, vets, and animal charities all advised against this killing. So why would thousands of British citizens line up to voluntarily euthanize household pets?

In The Great Cat and Dog Massacre, Hilda Kean unearths the history, piecing together the compelling story of the life—and death—of Britain’s wartime animal companions. She explains that fear of imminent Nazi bombing and the desire to do something to prepare for war led Britons to sew blackout curtains, dig up flower beds for vegetable patches, send their children away to the countryside—and kill the family pet, in theory sparing them the suffering of a bombing raid. Kean’s narrative is gripping, unfolding through stories of shared experiences of bombing, food restrictions, sheltering, and mutual support. Soon pets became key to the war effort, providing emotional assistance and helping people to survive—a contribution for which the animals gained government recognition.

Drawing extensively on new research from animal charities, state archives, diaries, and family stories, Kean does more than tell a virtually forgotten story. She complicates our understanding of World War II as a “good war” fought by a nation of “good” people. Accessibly written and generously illustrated, Kean’s account of this forgotten aspect of British history moves animals to center stage—forcing us to rethink our assumptions about ourselves and the animals with whom we share our homes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226573946
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/16/2018
Series: Animal Lives Series
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Hilda Kean is visiting professor at the University of Greenwich and an honorary senior research associate at University College London. Her many books include Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800 and London Stories: Personal Lives, Public Histories.

Read an Excerpt

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown Tragedy

By Hilda Kean

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31846-2


Introducing Animals, Historians, and the "People's War"

A significant section of Britons, by the way, thought first of their pets.

I never intended to write a book about the war. I say "the war" because in my London childhood of the '50s and '60s this was the only war my family and community discussed — and it was the only war depicted in the weekly visits to the cinema with my parents on a Friday evening. Like many of my generation I grew up on particular images and stories emanating from those years of warfare from 1939 to 1945. Those born after the war have belonged to a generation suffused, as Geoff Eley has discussed, in the effects of war but whose "'memory' of them came entirely after the fact." I can still remember the tales of the church raffle for a slice of banana (a real rarity given the difficulty of importing food); my grandfather refusing to go to the Anderson shelter in the back garden and next morning waking up to find shards of glass from bomb-blasted windows on his bed, having slept through the air raid; my aunt walking through glass-strewn streets of Hackney to check whether her elder sister had survived a bombardment she had heard a half mile away. I experienced none whatsoever of these events but they were nevertheless part of my childhood through the stories relatives told. There would also be food that my parents — normally not fussy eaters unlike their daughter — disliked eating, particularly rabbit and butter beans, since it reminded them of wartime deprivation. Such accounts are not just my own family stories but ones now shared by several generations who never directly experienced the war. This war remains so popular in British national memory and culture that scarcely a week goes by without a television or radio program centered on this time. Such programs include documentaries around the buildup to the war, the evacuation of nearly 340,000 troops retreating from the German advance at Dunkirk in May 1940, or the subsequent role of Churchill as Prime Minister until his defeat in the postwar election of 1945. More recently recollections of the now diminishing numbers of elderly people who had served in the armed forces have been broadcast to sympathetic audiences. Fictional narratives of this time remain popular, including several series of Foyle's War, a Hastings-based detective, or Dad's Army, a humorous series first aired in 1968 and still engaging Saturday night audiences with its gentle satire of the antics of a thoroughly class-based Home Guard. It is no wonder that we think we "know about" the war.

Underpinning such documentary and fictional narratives is the idea that the Second World War was generally, as Sellar and Yeatman might have summarized in 1066 and All That, a "good" war. While obviously it was a war in which millions of military forces, civilians, Roma, Sinti, and, of course, Jews were killed it has nevertheless been reinterpreted, with the benefit of hindsight, as being primarily a battle against fascism (rather than German expansionism) and a war in which Britain was correct to fight (certainly more correct than in recent adventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan). Significantly, the 1939–45 war, particularly on the Home Front, is seen as a "People's War" when, so the story goes, people pulled together and stood firm against the Nazis — despite being isolated in Europe as a consequence of not being invaded or surrendering — and withstood aerial bombardment with resilience. This time is "remembered" as one when the interests of the nation allegedly overrode those of classes. It is recalled as some sort of golden age not only by right-wing extremists hostile towards immigrants but by those distressed by the breakdown in community cohesion caused by aggressive neoliberal politics. There is a search for "lost reassurances." The BBC's creation of its People's War website with requests for "story-gatherers" indicated not only the ongoing importance of the war within national memory and identity but also "the fear of losing this imperative at the death of the last survivors."

The story of my grandfather refusing to go into the shelter was by no means unique: in his own way he defied Hitler to do his worst while he lay in his own bed as shattered glass landed on the blankets. The state deliberately fostered such language and an image of standing firm for purposes of morale. Indeed "by the time war broke out in September 1939 the myth had been all but scripted." The phrase "People's War" at the time applied to the period of the so-called Blitz from September 1940 to May 1941. Of particular significance then (and subsequently) were the first months of the bombing, when Londoners endured bombing for 57 nights in a row. As Paul Addison has characterized the Battle of Britain of 1940, the aerial fighting in the skies in the summer of 1940 that preceded the Blitz, "it was fought over landscapes painted by Constable, churches designed by Wren, and the London of Dickens, Pepys and Shakespeare." At that time London was appropriated for propaganda purposes as a national landscape with which to mobilize the nation. People saw images of St. Paul's Cathedral surrounded by smoke and flames symbolically not only of London and the city but also of the country as a whole. Despite academic debunking, myths of the "People's War" "remain lodged in the public imagination."

All nations, of course, have their own stories about their pasts they wish to remember and pass on to future generations. Scandinavian noir fiction in the hands of Asa Larsson, Hening Mankell, or Jo Nesbo, for example, has foregrounded their respective nations' myths of the Second World War in which, apparently, there were no Nazi sympathizers and the resistance was the dominant force. Jo Nesbo has recently explained that his novel The Redbreast is both his most personal novel and one that undermines "the mythical self-image of the Norwegian people as a nation actively resisting Hitler." It draws on the stories of his own Nazi-supporting father, who was one of some 6,000 young Norwegians who had volunteered to fight on the Eastern Front, as a device to expose the long legacy of this politics in Norway today. Tellingly the unrepentant fascist in this novel compiles his own memoir of the Second World War and includes amongst his victims a historian who promulgates the sanitized version of Norway's past, neglecting the traces of Nazi alignment. The popular memories that need interrogating in Britain are rather different but nevertheless still merit critical attention.

Like adults of my generation and those who have followed us it is not surprising that I thought I "knew about" the war. But this changed several years ago when I was researching for Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800. I came across a phrase in Angus Calder's key work, The People's War, that stuck in my mind as I had never heard of it before. "[At the start of the war] there was no stoning of dachshunds in the streets. But a holocaust of pets occurred as homes were disrupted; outside vets' surgeries 'the slain' lay in heaps." The phrase "holocaust of pets" was not unique to Calder. In his book The Phoney War, analyzing the first months of the war, E. S. Turner also talked of the "holocaust of pets" during September 1939, arguing, "Most of this slaughter was unnecessary, from any standpoint." I would later discover that the term "holocaust of pets" or "massacre" were not post-hoc constructions but contemporary descriptions. The Oxford English Dictionary carefully describes the different meanings of the word holocaust, noting that its modern meaning of the "mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis" did not start to be used until 1942. An earlier meaning of the word meaning a sacrifice or massacre on a large scale was used to describe the unnecessary killing of at least 400,000 "pet" cats and dogs in London in the first week of the war in September 1939. The word may have had a different meaning but it still nevertheless indicated a "great slaughter or massacre" or a large-scale sacrifice wholly consumed by fire. This was no routine killing. The government, state, veterinary profession, and animal charities were all opposed to this "sacrifice." It was not required by the state even at this initial moment of war.

This animal killing is not part of the popular memory of the "Good War," the unified "People's War." Animals' role in the war has not been the focus of scholarly accounts and the popular books that do exist tend more towards human emotions rather than analysis of what companion animals actually did. Missing to date from both popular and scholarly accounts of war on the Home Front is any serious analysis of the role of nonhuman animals (hereafter animals) either in propaganda or visual representations although they performed key functions here. More significantly, animals as beings living and dying alongside — or because of — humans and human decisions have been written out of such history. As I shall explore later there are good reasons for this. Although the killing does not necessarily show human panic, the shocking events that would happen in the first days of the war were the complete antithesis of the promoted spirit of steadfastness and resilience. Scholarly historians are at one in arguing that "there was no evidence of any significant increase in neurotic illness or mental disorder in Britain during the war." These unremembered events do demonstrate the utter disposability of companion animals in what become constructed as times of human crisis. This war act is "forgotten" — but so too are the subsequent animal-human relationships that grew and developed during the war in which the distinction of killer and victim become blurred into common beings sharing hardship and proving mutual support.

However, I am not attempting to simply "add in" animals to the existing trope of the "People's War." I am seeking to do more than that. This book attempts to shift focus away from humans onto animals. It also explores the changing animal-human relationship but not in the spirit of "roundedness" or of some twenty-first-century sense of "inclusion." Rather, I will argue that an awareness of animal presence and activity — and of how humans engaged with this — can challenge and disrupt our somewhat lazy assumptions about the war and the role of our ancestors in this "Good War." In a nation that often chooses to define itself as "animal loving" — irrespective of the reality of the situation — the acts perpetrated in those September days confront the stories we like to tell ourselves and suggest that the term "People's War" is a misnomer.


Certainly, animals existed in the Second World War outside Britain — and were recorded as such in different countries. Thus the anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin reminds us that companion animals in Germany were also sheltering from bombardment — by the allies:

I slept until the bombs woke me up. My hand was dangling over my bed and I felt something licking it — Foxel, our absent landlord's terrier. There, Foxel, good dog, don't be afraid, we're alone here in this front room.

In the accounts of American journalist William Shirer we can read of the plight of both companion and farm animals:

Denmark's three million cows, three million pigs and twenty-five million laying hens live on imported fodder, mostly from North and South America and Manchukuo. These supplies are now cut off. Denmark must slaughter most of its livestock, one of its main sources of existence.

Or we might imagine the sounds of the lowing of cattle, abandoned by human refugees passing from the countryside, heard in Paris as the Germans entered on 14 June 1940.22

The situation in Britain was rather different. The extent — or almost saturation — of the notion of a "People's War" means that we are looking at a "representation" that is (still) an important part of popular and cultural memory. To understand what happened to animals in Britain at that time and the nature of the animal-human relationship in the war we also need to think about these events "representationally" precisely because they occurred within another "representation," that of the "People's War."

It was not a war experienced just by humans: animals were an integral part of the domestic parameters of warfare. They not only suffered (as did humans) but also actively played a role in their own and their human companions' physical and emotional survival. However, in discussing human treatment of animal companions particularly at the start of the war, I will also question whether our assumptions about this being a "good" war can remain when we realize how thousands of people treated the animal members of their families. Philip Howell has noted that in the 1914–18 war, "dogs were uniquely vulnerable to the revocation of their privileged status as human companions." This statement is just as relevant to their position (and that of other companion animals) in the 1939–45 war, as I shall show in later chapters.

As the outbreak of war drew near, animals (and their supposedly benign treatment by British people) were seen metaphorically to represent civilization under attack from Nazi barbarism. This idea was embodied, for example, in different ways in Louis MacNeice's poem Autumn Journal. Here he reflected on losing his dog on London's Primrose Hill and recorded a taxi driver's comments on soldiers gathering in trucks, "it turns me up." But in the police station order was restored with the discovery of his dog:

I found my dog had vanished
And thought "This is the end of the old regime,"
But found the police had got her in St. John's Wood station
And fetched her in the rain ...

Later, in prose, MacNeice expressed similar sentiments of both the human and animal world affected by an impending disaster. While working in the British Museum reading room, he had observed the birds outside, "The colonnade of the British Museum is the quintessence of peace. Many people come in from the streets to eat their lunch upon the steps and the pigeons pick up their crumbs. There are already many refugees beginning to hibernate." Animals were — and would be — seen throughout the war as symbols of fidelity, stability, civilization. Contrasts would continue to be drawn between the righteousness of the allies' cause typified by the apparent British attitude towards companion animals and those of the Nazis. But, as Jonathan Burt has argued, treating an animal only as an icon or image places the animal outside history: "The role is purely symbolic; it reflects historical processes without truly being a part of them." Too often such animals become written out of the actual processes of history.

Certainly animals — or more accurately their representations — did play a part in war stories. Humans appropriated them for different purposes. This happened at a national level — and within families. It is without doubt the case that Chummy, whose paw print "signed" a letter to a child evacuated to Canada, did not understand the contents of the letter. Asta, another dog, regularly "wrote" to the child of the family who was told he had gone to the country, away from the Blitz where he was safe and happy — although the dog had been killed. The little girl's aunt typed "Asta's letter." In particular, images of dogs in the popular press were constructed as peculiarly British devices to boost morale. American journalist William Shirer had regularly reported from Berlin in the late 1930s, watching the behavior of Germans and foreigners alike in the buildup to war. He lamented the sudden loneliness of the Adlon hotel bar in Unter den Linden once the British journalists had left towards the end of August. But even this experienced commentator found the conversations of the British Embassy staff odd once war was declared: "They talked about dogs and such stuff." British journalists found such sentiments entirely understandable.


Excerpted from The Great Cat and Dog Massacre by Hilda Kean. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Chapter One
Introducing Animals, Historians, and the “People’s War”

Chapter Two
Being a Pet in the 1920s and 1930s: A Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold?

Chapter  Three
September 1939: No Human Panic.
400,000 Animals Killed in Four Days

Chapter Four
Disrupting Previous Stories: A Phony War for Whom?

Chapter Five
Building Cross- Species Experience: Eating and Food in the War

Chapter Six
Blurring the Boundaries: Who Is Going to Ground? Who Is Protecting Whom?

Chapter Seven
The Growing Strength of Animal- Human
Families and the Wartime State

Chapter Eight
Emotion, Utility, Morale on the Home Front: Animal- Human Relationships

Chapter Nine
Conclusion: Change and Continuity.
Remembering and Forgetting Animals during the Second World War



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