When people pause to remember on the 11th hour of November 11th, most reflect on the many sacrifices made by the men and women who serve our nation. Rarely is thought given to the animals that have accompanied our soldiers into the dangers of war. Yet many animals have first hand experience with the horrors of the battlefield.
Gander, a black Newfoundland dog, was mascot for the Royal Rifles, a regiment of the Canadian Army stationed at the Gander International Airport during the early part of World War II. He was acquired in the summer of 1941 from the Hayden family who gave him away due to fears he would be put down because of some inadvertent, deep scratches he made on a child’s face while trying to put his paws on the child’s shoulders.
Pal, as he was known to the Hayden’s, quickly became an integral member of the regiment and was renamed Gander. His days involved patrolling the perimeter of the grounds as a guard dog along side members of the regiment. When not working he liked to take naps on the tarmac or runways, causing more than one pilot to remark about the ‘bear’ on the runway. He proudly led the regiment during church parades and ceremonial events. He even had a soldier’s kitbag, containing his blanket, brush and food bowl. At one point the regiment decided a promotion was in order and he became known as Sergeant Gander. His harness was updated to include his red sergeant’s stripes, along with the regimental badge.
Canada ordered the Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers to Hong Kong on October 27th, 1941. Known as C Force, they sailed from Vancouver on the troop ship Awatea as well as its escort, the HMCS Prince Robert. The unit consisted of 1877 men, 96 officers and one dog – Sgt. Gander. As the Globe & Mail reported on November 18, 1941, “Apparently as happy as the Canadians to reach their new station was the contingent’s mascot, Sergeant Gander, a black Newfoundland dog.”
Upon arrival at the barracks, some Chinese tried to lure Gander away although he managed to escape after a struggle. Thereafter Gander developed a dislike of Asians, which the regiment members encouraged. Rising up on his hind legs to his full 6-foot height while snarling and snapping was not discouraged, although it meant Gander had to be placed in a separate room whenever Asians visited the barracks. These circumstances perhaps explain Gander’s ferocious response to the Japanese in the midst of the battlefield.
The defense planning for Hong Kong was poorly executed. Neither the Royal Rifles, nor the Winnipeg Grenadiers were seasoned fighters, yet they were expected to provide protection from an experienced Japanese force. The heavy equipment and transport necessary to support the troops never arrived because of the attack on Pearl Harbour. The colony also had no significant air defense. The Commonwealth force in Hong Kong, a combination of Canadian, British, Indian and local troops totaled 14,000, against a force of 52,000 Japanese soldiers. The loss of Hong Kong was not surprising given the obstacles facing the Commonwealth troops. Their subsequent internment into POW camps is infamous for the cruelties suffered.
It was during the Battle of Lye Mun on December 19th, 1941 that Sgt. Gander rose to hero status. Earlier in the battle, Gander had twice attacked the enemy for diversion purposes thereby protecting his troops. As Rifleman Reginald Law recalled, “Gander appeared to hate the Japanese on sight. He growled and ran at the enemy soldiers, biting at their heels. And what amazed us all was that they did not shoot him then and there.” In what was to be his final act, Gander picked up a live grenade thrown by the Japanese and ran it back towards the enemy to protect a group of seven wounded soldiers. Without Gander’s sacrifice many more lives would have been lost.
Unfortunately this act of heroism was lost in the aftermath of the war and it wasn’t until 1995 when Sgt. Gander’s story began to emerge from obscurity. In a casual conversation after an awards ceremony for Hong Kong veterans, Bob Manchester and Robert “Flash” Clayton spoke of Gander’s actions to Jeremy Swanson of the Canadian War Museum. It took five years of subsequent research to piece together Gander’s military history and the result was a Dickin Medal, considered to be the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
This award was created in 1943 by Maria Dickin of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), the United Kingdom’s largest veterinary charity, in recognition of acts of bravery and devotion to duty while serving in military conflict or civil emergencies. There were 54 medals awarded from 1943 to 1949. It wasn’t until 2000 that the 55th medal was awarded, and that medal went to Sgt. Gander.
The late Fred Kelly of the Royal Rifles, and Gander’s primary handler, proudly accepted the Dickin Medal at the British High Commissioner’s official residence in Ottawa on October 27, 2000. Thirty-five Hong Kong veterans/POWs attended the ceremony.
Past Chairman of PDSA General Sir Roland Guy, just before presenting the award summarized, “Finally let me say that, in my personal judgment, having read the citations of all 55 Dickin medals, I regard Gander’s award as one of the most deserving of them all.” Sgt. Gander’s medal and award certificate are both housed in the Canadian War Museum now.
Gander continues to receive his long overdue recognition. In 2009, the Hong Kong Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Ottawa. At the insistence of the veterans, Sgt. Gander’s name appears alongside the 1975 men and two women who were lost during the battle.
Gander remains Canada’s only decorated military animal. Gone, but not forgotten. Sgt. Gander, we salute you.
© Fran Wallace 2013
Primary Source: Sergeant Gander, A Canadian Hero by Robyn Walker; Dundurn Press 2009