If you would be asked to name animals helping the soldiers during wars or even on some of their other missions and tasks, perhaps you would say dogs, or horses, maybe pigeons. All of which are correct and common. The help from the animal kingdom is not limited to them, though, as there are other species helping us perform these military duties. Here are some military animals that you might not have expected.

War Elephants, Pachyderms For Peace

Army elephants of India
Army elephants of India. (Wikimedia Commons)

If horse-mounting soldiers are called cavalry, there is also such a thing as elephantry, which, as the name suggests, are military units riding elephants.

War elephants were specifically known to be used by Ancient India and Ancient China during battles to charge the enemy, break their ranks, and crush their enemies with foot, trunk and tusk. Some were even armored. Their greatest weapon against most enemies was the sheer shock effect of a foe seeing for the first time such a huge beast coming at them. Other armies in Southeast Asia also used them to carry heavy supplies, equipment, and weapons. With their maximum speed of up to 16 MPH, they could also be valuable means of transportation. Both in India and Sri Lanka, they would attach heavy iron chains with steel balls on these elephants’ tusks and train them to whirl them at enemies. When rockets and some other firearms became prominent in battles during the late sixteenth century, elephants were no longer used as these weapons were effective against them. Turned out they were deathly afraid of fire and would panic and crush the troops on their own side in flight.

The last known use of elephants in the war was in Iraq in 1987, when they used them to carry heavy weapons going to Kirkuk. Meanwhile, the US Special Forces field manual issued in 2004 classified elephants as field animals, although they are not being used since they are endangered animals.

If You Smell A Rat, It May Be Because The Rat Is Sniffing For Bombs

Magawa was awarded the PDSA medal for gallantry
Magawa was awarded the PDSA medal for gallantry. (PDSA/BBC)

We know that there are bomb-sniffing dogs and that these good boys and girls are doing a fantastic job in finding bombs, maybe even faster if you have a piece of chicken on hand. In Cambodia, where three decades of war left as many as four to six million mines still buried on their lands and caused 77 casualties per year, the government and other organizations were making huge efforts to clear all landmines and other unexploded ordnance. A nonprofit organization called APOPO trained African giant pouched rats with impeccable sense of smell. They were cheaper and easier to handle than dogs, plus their lighter weight is ideal for the task, too.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “When fully trained, a rat can search over 2,000 square feet in 20 minutes. It could take a human with a metal detector as much as four days to scour the same area.”

One of the rats that they trained was named Magawa. He helped clear more than 2.4 million square feet of land found 71 landmines and 38 pieces of unexploded ordnance in four years before he retired. Magawa even received one of Britain’s highest animal honors in 2020 before he died last January 8.

Weapons With A Porpoise

Do you know that the US has trained Bottlenose dolphins to help them with tasks like rescuing lost naval swimmers, guarding navy ships against enemy divers, locating mines, and fetching equipment lost in the seabed? Well, now you do.

Navy marine shows how a trained dolphin reacts to different hand gestures
Navy marine shows how a trained dolphin reacts to different hand gestures. (US Navy Photo by Illustrator Draftsman 1st Class Pierre G. Georges/Wikipedia Commons)

Dolphins are known to be intelligent creatures with big brains (literally). While we can’t ask help from them for our math or language assignments, they are quick learners and have this superpower called echolocation— an ability that’s perfect in locating underwater mines. The US Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, California, worked with dolphins, sea lions, sharks, and some other mammals to see which of them would do the job best. So far, the bottlenose dolphins and California Sea Lions are acing it with their echolocation and excellent eyesight, respectively. The Soviet Union was also reported to operate a facility to research the use of marine mammals for military purposes in the past.

A B-type passenger bus from London converted into a pigeon coop on wheels used in northern France and Belgium during the First World War.
Niva (Russian magazine), 1916

Let Slip The Pigeons Of War

We typically think of Carrier Pigeons of the English variety being used to carry messages from the front in the First and Second World Wars but Pidgeons used as messengers dates back to the Egyptians more than 3,000 years ago.  They were also used by the ancient Greeks and even the Mongols.  These birds had the innate ability to find their way home over distances up to 1,000 miles.  During WWI, they suffered terrible casualties in the field and some were even awarded medals for bravery in delivering their messages even when injured.  During WWII, more than 80 messenger pigeons were dropped into the Netherlands during Operation Market-Garden with the British First Airborne Division.  They remained in use in some parts of the world until 2002, when a police department in a remote part of India finally retired its Police Pigeon Service.