Many countries have had famous war animals, one remembered in Great Britain this year was Antis, an Alsatian belonging to Czech airman Václav Robert Bozděch. 60 years ago, in 1949, the animal was awarded the PDSA Dickin medal, the eqivalent of the Victoria Cross, for bravery and outstanding service during World War II. The dog and his owner, part of a six-man crew, flew more than 30 bombing missions over occupied Europe and Nazi Germany, evading formidable German defences, always lucky to make it back. As his and his owner’s fame grew, Antis went from being a valued mascot for his crew, to a symbol of courage for all in the RAF.
March 15th, 1939, German troops entered Czechoslovakia, and Hitler proclaimed Bohemia and Moravia a Nazi protectorate. Many in the Czech air force began fleeing the country with a common purpose: to serve abroad; among them was 27-year-old Czech airman Václav Bozděch. Like many of his compatriots, he escaped first to Poland, then to France, where he served in the Foreign Legion, and later as a flyer. It was on one of his missions over France that he found the dog. The moment is described in Freedom in the Air - A Czech Flyer & his Aircrew Dog, by author Hamish Ross. On a line from Glasgow this week the author told me there two version of the story.
“The earliest version is from a British newspaper of 1942 saying that Bozděch’s plane went down in no man’s land in March 1940. According to the paper, the airman found the puppy in an abandoned farmhouse which had been recently deserted. And he took him. The second version was in Czech, in Rozlet published in 1945: it said Bozděch bought the puppy from a farmer. We don’t really know which version is correct, but certainly the bonding between the two seems to suggest it was something more dramatic than just getting him from a farmer. Bozděch himself subscribed to the earlier version.”
The airman escaped from France with the puppy in tow, eventually making his way to Great Britain. Although strict quarantine laws were in effect, he managed to smuggle his four-legged companion in, and as a result the dog was raised and spent most of his life on air bases. Bozděch trained the dog well within the No. 311 Czechoslovak squadron and their attachment was great, so great that ahead of one mission, the Alsatian (who could no longer stand to be parted form his owner) stowed away on the plane, the C for Cecelia, the crew’s Wellington bomber. Hamish Ross once again:
“He was surprised to find that the dog was not waiting to see him off before the flight and off they went. He just assumed the dog was in somebody’s hut and wasn’t worried. As the plane was crossing the Dutch coast at about 12 thousand feet, he felt this tap at his elbow. He thought it was the navigator asking for a radio fix on their position, but when he looked in his direction, he saw the navigator was busy in his charts. So he stared into the darkness and couldn’t believe it, it was the dog, lying on the floor, his sides heaving as he was struggling to breathe! So he had to share his oxygen mask!
“That flight itself was a difficult raid: they had more than their share of enemy activity and there were also lightning storms and several of the radios and some of the electronics were put of action. When they returned, the Wellington crew came to the conclusion that Antis had brought them luck. And it was the collective decision by the six men in the crew, that Antis would join the combat team.”
Flying with the dog, was of course strictly against regulations, nevertheless, Antis took part in some 30 missions, bringing inspiration to his crew. Twice, he was injured by flak, once a scratch to his ear and muzzle, another time a chest injury far more threatening. Nevertheless, the animal’s nature and training saw him behave exceptionally: it was only on their return from one of the flights that Bozděch realised the animal had even been hurt.
“He said that the dog there showed courage that perhaps a human being couldn’t show. The dog did not panic, it did not whine, it just lay at his feet. In 1949, when Field Marshall Wavell pinned the Dickin Medal on his collar, that he had inspired others through his courage and steadfastness. That was the remarkable thing.”
As the bombing raids continued, rumours of the Antis’s existence began to spread. They were of course denied, even though the dog’s story became something of an open secret. Eventually the truth came out. But rather than being an “embarrassment” for the RAF, Antis with Bomber Command became an inspiration for many. By then his flying days were over, but a dog capable of braving dangerous flights through blinding searchlights and anti-aircraft fire as well as enemy fighters, was a hero and a worthy mascot.
As the conflict wore on, slowly the scales tipped in favour of the Allies. When the war ended in May 1945 it meant that Václav Bozděch and compatriots could now soon return home. It had been a difficult six years of sacrifice. But now democracy in Czechoslovakia could be restored.
But tragically it would be short-lived: the country again descended into darkness in 1948, this time under the Communists. Overnight, men like Bozděch – who had risked everything for their country and endured - became enemies of the state and it was time – again - to escape. For Bozděch that meant a personal tragedy: he left behind a wife and baby son. Hamish Ross again:
“Of course, the thing to note from the start was that Bozděch couldn’t possibly take his wife and a seven-month old child along. But he could take the dog. That wasn’t just sentimentality: he did feel that the dog could alert him to danger in advance.”
“The crossing spot was compromised and the searchlights came on. Machine guns from a fixed position raked the ground and these others were either killed or wounded. So Bozděch and his companions then took a round-about route, and the dog was their ‘guiding light’ and crossed safely over the border.”
Bozděch never returned to the country of his birth. He remarried in England and had a second family. But also he never forgot what he had left behind. The outcome must have haunted him deeply.
“They fought not only for the freedom of Czechoslovakia but for the freedom of the western countries. Then in ’48, when they fled again, those who were able to get out, there was just no hope left. There was just nothing, there was no intervention. For Bozděch it meant complete severance from his country for the rest of his life. He tried very hard to keep in touch with his son Jan, who was by now ten or 12, up until he was around 20, sending him parcels under an assumed name at Christmas. When I interviewed Jan in Prague, he told me that what he loved as a boy were the stamps, the foreign stamps, that put him in a special category.”
As for Antis, Bozděch’s famous dog? The brave Alsatian lived until the age of 13. After the animal died, Václav Bozděch never wanted - and never had - a dog again.