The escalation of World War II brought with it an arms race of epic proportions, with each side racing to develop various weapons technologies with which to more efficiently kill each other. This time of frantic weapons research brought about some of the most deadly weapons the world had ever seen, the atomic bomb perhaps being the most notable. Yet it seems that the human capacity for imagination knows no bounds, including in the realm of weapons of war.
While some engineers were designing newer and deadlier aircraft, bombs, missiles, or other mechanical means of devastation, still others worked in the shadows of secret labs perfecting ways to turn animals into weapons. The results, while by no means always successful, were some of the most bizarre attempts at weapons of war ever devised. Here we will look at some of the creative ways in which human beings attempted to harness animals for the purpose of waging war during the Second World War.
Toward the end of World War II, the Air Force was looking for a better way to burn Japanese cities to the ground. They wanted an easy way to cause massive damage as well as shock and awe.
At the time, most dwellings in Japan were still made out of wood, bamboo, and paper in the traditional style, and were therefore highly combustible. In 1942, a dental surgeon by the name of Lytle S. Adams considered this potential weakness and contacted the White House with the idea of strapping small explosive devices to bats and dropping them over a wide area.
According to the plan, the idea was for millions of bats, specifically the plentiful and easily obtainable Mexican Free-tailed Bat, to parachute toward earth in an egg shaped container carrying small incendiary devices strapped to them.
At the designated time, the container would open and the flying mammals would disperse to find their way deep into the attics of barns, homes, and factories, where they would rest until the charges they were carrying exploded. It was hoped that the bats' behavior of seeking out dark places to rest and their small size would serve to make sure they would be able to infiltrate targets easily. Additionally, since most Japanese structures were wooden and therefore highly flammable, it was thought that even a few bats in a building with very small charges would set off devastating fires that would rage out of control.
While it may seem like a far-fetched idea, the project was actually picked up by the government and gained some momentum. Prototypes were made and in the early 1940s, a test with some armed bats went awry when they set fire to a small Air Force base in Carlsbad, New Mexico. It was a set back, but proved that at least the bat bombs had the potential to be effective.
After that accident, the project was turned over to the Navy, which continued it for more than a year. During that time, the Marines conducted a test where they released the bats over a full mock-up of a Japanese city. The test was a success and the critters were able to start quite a few fires.
After this rousing success against the mock up town, more tests were planned for the summer of 1944, and the project seemed like it would come to fruition. Then, after having sunk more than 2 million dollars developing and testing the bat bombs, the project was cancelled since it was considered to be moving too slow. The bombs weren’t likely to be fully operational until mid-1945, and the military didn't have that kind of time to spare. Therefore, the bat bomb project was scrapped to focus on the atomic bomb which would eventually be used instead to horrific results.
The mastermind behind the project, the dentist Adams himself, lamented the ending of the project, and after the dropping of the atomic bombs asserted that his bat bomb plan would have caused just as much structural damage with a fraction of the loss of life.
Anti-tank dogs were dogs that were taught to carry explosives to tanks, armored vehicles and other military targets. They were intensively trained and developed by Russian military forces from as early as 1930.
Originally, the dogs were trained to carry an explosive device to a wide range of targets and then release the bomb, after they would run away and the device would be detonated by timer or remote control. Tests of this system proved unsuccessful. The dogs would become confused about their targets and would sometimes even return to their masters with the explosives still attached to them, a potentially alarming development.
The system of deployment was subsequently simplified. The intended targets became just tanks and instead of releasing the bombs and running to safety, the dogs would now have fixed bombs attached to them which would detonate as a lever was pushed while crawling under the vehicle. The resulting explosion would kill the dog, effectively making them suicide bombers.
The anti-tank dogs actually saw real combat service and were deployed extensively against the Germans in 1940-41, with mixed results. Gunfire tended to scare the dogs and furthermore they were only able to effectively attack tanks that were sitting completely still. Often the dogs would be picked off by enemy fire as they waited for a tank to come to a stop.
Another glaring problem that soon became evident was the fact that the dogs had been trained on the Soviet’s own diesel powered tanks rather than on those of the enemy, which were gasoline powered. The dogs’ reliance on their keen sense of smell ended in the unfortunate result of some of them bombing the tanks on their own side.
The U.S. military also trained anti-tank dogs in 1943, but never used them.
During World War II, the U.S. began developing a missile guidance system under the code name Project Pigeon, which later became known as Project Orcon, for “Organic Control.”
The idea was concocted by an American behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, and involved using pigeons to physically ride within missiles and guide them to their targets. In the plan, the pigeon would ride in a compartment aboard an unpowered, gliding missile as a screen was displayed in front of the bird showing the target. The pigeon would be trained to peck at the target on the touch sensitive screen and the missiles flight control systems would adjust according to where on the screen the pigeon pecked. This was a one way trip for the pigeons but they were seen as cheap, plentiful and fairly easy to train.
Despite initial skepticism at the slightly absurd notion of using pigeons to deliver high explosives, the project went ahead and initial training and tests were conducted. Although 25,000 dollars were spent on the project and some success was seen in the training, the project was later scrapped as it was deemed to be too impractical.
The U.S. Navy later picked up the project in 1948 under the new name Project Orcon, but again the plan was dropped when computer guidance systems became more advanced.
The British, not to be left out of the insanity of using animals as weapons, also developed such devices during World War II against Germany.
The British Special Operation Executive developed a method of delivering explosives that involved the use of dead rats. The rat carcasses were to be filled with plastic explosives and left in targeted locations, namely factories, where it was speculated that stokers tending boilers would dispose of their revolting find in the furnace, thereby detonating the bomb and destroying the factory.
It was thought that since even a small puncture in a high pressure boiler could do extensive damage, only a small amount of explosive would be required. The idea was dropped and never put to use as it finally occurred to those involved that the plan was highly impractical and difficult to implement.
During World War II, the idea of using disease against the enemy started to gain traction. The USSR started developing a way to deliver deadly pathogens to enemy lines using rats as a delivery system.
The disease that was chosen for the project was tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, a very fast acting and acute infection that is spread through contact with infected animals and is also respiratory transmissible. Infected rats were gathered and set loose in enemy held areas in the hopes that they would spread the disease among enemy troops.
The rats proved to be astonishingly effective, particularly at the offensive on Stalingrad. Friedrich Paulus, the commander of the German 6th army, had to take a break on the offensive due to the ravages of the disease, and according to documents, about 50 percent of German prisoners who were taken captive after the battle were reported to be suffering from classic symptoms of tularemia.
Despite these dramatic results, the program was fraught with problems. Since the disease was highly virulent, it inevitably came over the front line with its vectors and infected a lot of Soviet soldiers as well. In addition, the body develops a life-long immunity against tularemia if the disease is properly treated in a timely manner, and infected individuals do not pose a danger to other people as the disease is not passed from person to person. To top it off, antibiotics such as streptomycin, levomycetin, and tetracycline destroy the germ within a very short period of time, and sunlight kills the pathogen within 30 minutes.
These setbacks did not stop Soviet scientists from continuing their research with the tularemia microbe after the end of WWII, and by the end of the 1970s military biologists had increased its destructive capacity.
World War II was not the beginning of mankind's propensity for using animals for war and it certainly would not be the end. The idea of using animals as weapons was around long before World War II and has continued even into the present. For instance, dogs are routinely used for many military applications in modern forces, and the U.S. Navy uses dolphins and sea lions in various capacities. It seems that as long as humans continue to wage war against each other, we will find ways to utilize our fellow creatures of the Earth to help us carry it out.