While researching for ‘The Adventures of William Brambleberry: Aviator Mouse,’ I found several fascinating pictures of a German Shepherd dog called ‘Sprog’ in photos of 453 Squadron pilots just before they relocated from Perranporth, Cornwall to Skaebrae in the Orkney Islands. Sprog was apparently the 453 Squadron Mascot and belonged to Squadron Leader D.G. Andrews.
For some reason, they were not able to take the dog with them and I don’t know if they had the dog before moving to Perranporth. I was not able to find any mention of Sprog in official records of that time and would love to find out more about this dog. Please do forward this on to anyone who might be able to shed some light on Sprog.
In Praise of the Squadron Dog
While I haven’t been able to find out much else about Sprog, I did find this lovely article by Dave O’Malley from Vintage Wings of Canada about the important role Squadron dogs have played throughout the history of aviation, and especially during the World Wars. Here is an excerpt below:
“Every dog has its own cosmic assignment. Some snarling and unhappy German shepherds are to be chained to an engine block in a Pennsylvania junk yard, some bloated spaniels comfort lonely octogenarian spinsters while dining on marshmallows and cashews, some Pekingese change for the better the lives of shut-ins with requited affection while some pit-bulls are slated to bring menace and a degree of unearned security to mullet-headed reprobate dope dealers. Every dog has an assignment, every dog has his day.
While canines have roamed the planet for eons and shared the company and shelter of man over millennia, one powerful latter-day assignment is but a century old – the squadron or hangar dog – perhaps the highest calling any dog can have for he or she will provide anchorage and embrace for those in peril in the air.
We now know that the appearance of the first squadron or aviation dog dates to the crack of dawn of flight, to Kill Devil Hills North Carolina where the Wright brothers were still experimenting and preparing their machine for their now seminal flight. The dog is there, but his name is not recorded – just a nameless black dog accompanying a man and a boy. It is interesting to note that, in this photograph taken prior to that flight, this dog had accompanied four men from the Kill Devil Hill Lifesaving Station who were helping the Wrights move the aircraft. So, quite possibly, the first dog to frequent the halls and fields of flight had life-saving DNA – how very, very appropriate.
The Wright brothers flight was only eleven years before the half-decade-long misery and meat grinder that was the First World War. By that time, the Squadron Dog was already part of the culture of aviation and in particular, military aviation. Many a group photo or image of pilots relaxing included a four-legged aviator standing mutely with his or her pilots and ground crews.
Over the years of storyline research for our website on the web and in books, I constantly ran across these images of smiling pilots and their dogs. In almost every image, the pilots appeared to be relaxed, confident, positive and even laughing. It got me to thinking about the role of these hangar hounds, these unit pooches, these squadron dogs. What is their universal appeal for the aviator? You never see dogs hanging around race car drivers or lawyers or locomotive engineers, so why the abundance of pooch ‘n pilot imagery throughout the history of aviation?
The connection, I believe, is found in three of the most important factors impacting a combat pilot’s life – youth, fear and loneliness – a potent mix that finds a semblance of balance and normalcy in a four legged animal with no animosity.
Firstly, fighter pilots and bomber crews are, if anything, young. Boys really, just a couple of years past high school, first dates, harvest time and field sports. And boys love dogs, and dogs, as they do, return that love in a never-ending do-loop of unconditional affection. Growing up, they see dogs as companions in adventure, non- judgmental listeners and surrogates for youthful love. It’s just natural.
Secondly, combat airmen were facing repeated peaks of ungodly stress, horrific personal losses, endless deprivation and, in what has to be an understatement, an uncertain future. These strains and bombardments on their psyches caused extreme degradation in their confidence and overall mental state. The squadron dog provided momentary release from these responsibilities, and in the same way that today, dogs are used to help comfort, ground and bring relief to patients with Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression, air crew will found solace in a dog and a link to a real world without the stresses they face.
Thirdly, and most importantly, most combat ground and air crew, despite the bravado and squadron camaraderie, were profoundly lonely. They longed for mail from home, their mothers and girl friends, a home-cooked meal, high school buddies, and some semblance of the way it was before they found themselves in their predicament. While stories abound of pub-fueled exploits with NAAFI girls and London “birds”, the great majority of these young men spent their months and years of hardship without the simple blessing of affection. Mothers were not there to stroke their hair. Fathers were not there to lay a hand upon their shoulders. Sweethearts were not there to fold them in their arms. It is a known phenomenon that one sure way to feel the warmth of affection is to give affection. Enter the scrawny, floppy, slobbering, squadron puppy whose affection meter (sometimes called a tail) is always pinned at “Happy To See You”.
The squadron dog had an important role in squadron life, and some dogs were given official status as “Squadron Mascot” such as the spaniel Straddle of 422 Squadron or the Vietnam Thud drivers’ legendary Roscoe, of the 34th TFS. But the vast majority of these welcome creatures were simply the stray puppy or the starving cur that haunted the chow line or the flightline. I have always wondered what happened to these dogs as the unit got transferred or the war wound down or their masters failed to return from a mission. I know in many cases of the death or capture of the pilot or crewman who owned the dog, that the little guy would have been adopted by a fellow airman. In rare cases, the dog emigrated to Canada upon the return of the squadron. The vast majority, unfortunately, were victims of the war.
I have this maudlin image in my head of the fate of most of these lovely dogs, especially those adopted in theatre. I see the desert of North Africa. The last aircraft is fading into the haze, trucks filled with equipment and ground crew are raising a cloud of dust in the low light of a late afternoon as they too fade into the distance. I feel a growing silence. I see the detritus of war blowing and flapping in the desultory breeze, flies buzzing over middens of cans and boxes. I see heat rising from the desert floor and a single whimpering dog, standing, looking… waiting. War is hell, even for dogs.
The Squadron Dog… long may the little guy live!”
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