The Soviet Suicide Dogs of WWII

Soviet dog mine in training
Image via Soviet-Empire

While bullets rang out and shrapnel flew on the battlefields of World War II, a new and ethically suspect tactic was deployed by the Russian Army in an attempt to hold the advancing Germans in check. Dogs strapped with explosives were sent out to disable and destroy enemy tanks – and later themselves in the process. The German Panzers were quick and powerful vehicles of war, and dynamic weapons were needed to stop them – so how did they fare against these canine kamikazes?

Soviet anti-tank dog allegedly ‘liberated’ by the Germans
Image via Panzerphotos

Also known as dog mines or dog bombs, anti-tank dogs were a new take on age-old thinking. Dogs have been employed in warfare since ancient times, and the Soviet Union had endorsed their use in the military for a range of less destructive tasks since 1924. It was not until 1930, however, that the idea of using dogs as mobile mines was developed, and with it explosive devices tailored to fit our four-legged friends. In 1935, the Red Army unveiled their first anti-tank dog division.

Soviet military dog training school in Moscow Oblast, 1931
Image: Photographer unknown

The dogs were trained to carry boxes or pouches filled with explosives and fastened onto their backs with a harness. They were initially instructed to seek out a static target, then upon reaching it to drop off their load by pulling a chord with their teeth prior to the bomb being detonated by a timer. However, the mutts could not master the task, and what’s more frequently ran back to their handlers with the undelivered bomb – which in battle would have been ominously ticking down.

Parade in Red Square, Moscow, 1938
Image: Photographer unknown

As a result of this setback, the idea was simplified. The dogs were trained to find any enemy tank, with the bombs detonated on contact with their target. Each hound was taught to dive under the tank so that a wooden lever protruding from their packs would be triggered, setting off the explosives and blowing the tank crew – and dog – to smithereens. The dogs were starved and food placed under the tanks, which conditioned them to home in on the weakly armoured mechanical underbelly.

Russian soldier with dog
Image via Logovo

As conflict escalated on the Eastern Front, so too did the use of dogs, and by the summer of 1941, 30 of the canine tank busters had arrived at the front line. How effective were these mostly Alsatian suicide bombers in battle? Not very. The dogs sooner sought out the familiar diesel-engine smell of the Soviet tanks than the petrol scent of their German counterparts; besides which they refused to dive under tanks that were now moving and were frightened off by the unknown noise of gunfire.

Russian soldiers with Alsatians
Image via Logovo

Persistent dogs that ran beside tanks waiting for them to stop were shot, while those that retreated back to the trenches often jumped in and detonated the charge, killing and injuring Soviet soldiers. These latter dogs had to be shot, making trainers unwilling to work with new ones. Out of the first group 30 dogs, only four managed to detonate their bombs near German tanks, while six exploded upon returning to the Soviet dugouts and three were shot and taken away by the Germans.

Soldiers of the SS Panzergrenadier Division advance in the Battle of Kursk
Image: Friedrich Zschäckel

Partly through their capture, the German army soon learned of the Soviet hundminen and took measures against what they nonetheless saw as a desperately inefficient programme, with orders to shoot any dogs encountered on sight. The dog mines did have occasional successes – in the Battle of Kursk, for example, when 16 dogs disabled 12 German tanks that had broken through Soviet lines, and near Stalingrad airport, where 13 tanks were destroyed – but these were few and far between.

All told – and despite mendacious Russian propaganda to the contrary – the dangerous drawbacks of using the Panzerabwehrhunde outweighed their advantages, and instances of this cruel practice rapidly declined after 1942. It was, however, later to rear its head in other contexts – including among the Viet Minh fighting in Indo-China in the 1940s and unsuccessfully among Iraqi insurgents in 2005.

Sources: 1, 2, 3