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Weekdays, 3.45-4.00pm
The Aniamls' VC
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Animals have been used in war for centuries by man but only recently has there been recognition for their bravery and extraordinary commitment to duty in wartime. Since 1943, 60 animals have been awarded The Dickin Medal - the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Presented by Dylan Winter, "The Animals' VC" brings to life through archive and interviews with ex-servicemen or their family members, the stories of pigeons, dogs, horses and one cat - all of which through the course of their duty saved human life and provided vital companionship in times of terrible conflict.

An example of the Dickin medal that is awarded to animals. The Medal came into being in 1943 at the suggestion of a pioneering woman, Maria Dickin, who had founded the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917. During the Second World War she felt inspired by the displays of bravery shown by animals used in active service to introduce a medal to recognise their efforts.

Programme One: Brave Beginnings

Dylan finds out from the current Director General of the PDSA the extraordinary legacy left by Maria Dickin and how she managed to persuade the military to consider giving medals to animals. The first animals to receive Dickin Medals were pigeons. Thousands of pigeons were used as carriers/messengers during the Second World War as during communication black-outs they could carry messages home silently and usually unspotted by the enemy. Winkie was one of the first 3 recipients of the Dickin Medal - she was a messenger pigeon on an aircraft which had to ditch due to engine trouble. As the aircraft hit the water she broke free. Arriving at her loft in Scotland, her owner was able to roughly tell from the state of her oiled and bedraggled feathers how long she had been flying for and how many miles she may have covered - combined with the last known position of the aircraft, this information aided the search party in locating the downed plane and the crew were rescued. Later on in the war, another pigeon called Gustav was to have his moment of glory. Rather fittingly with the 60th anniversary of the D-day landings taking place, Gustav's claim to fame was that he delivered the first message from Normandy to his base at Thorney Island near Portsmouth.

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Programme Two: The Cat Among the Pigeons

Simon the catJust one cat received a Dickin Medal. A Captain's Cat called Simon who was a rat-catcher on the HMS Amethyst. The ship came under attack on the Yangtze River in China, it was holed and the captain killed. The ship was then trapped on the river by the Chinese for 100 days before they managed to make it to freedom. In times of terrible uncertainty, Simon's recovery from his own injuries and presence on the ship gave the remaining crew companionship and a reason to keep going.

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Programme Three: Man's Best Friend

Parachuting dogs? Surely not? But yes, during the Second World War a working farm dog - a collie called Rob - was to play a vital role in being parachuted in behind enemy lines with his SAS unit where he was trained to watch over and protect the exhausted men as they slept inbetween carrying out their undercover operations. He made over 20 descents during his time with Units in North Africa and Italy. In addition to those dogs serving abroad with regiments, some dogs played a vital role at home. Beauty was a wire-haired terrier who led one of the PDSA's Animal Rescue Squads that operated during the Second World War. Beauty's role was to seach for pet animals that had become trapped with their owners in the rubble following bombing raids in London. She came to be thought of as the pioneer dog for this kind of work and in her wartime service rescued 63 animals. She received her Dickin Medal in 1945.

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Programme Four:

Beyond the Second World War there was a break of almost 50 years before the next Dickin Medal was awarded. It went posthumously to a dog which had served with the Canadian Royal Rifles. The dog's story and achievements had lain unknown and unrecognised but to a few surviving men who had served with him in the Second World War.On Hong Kong island, a large Newfoundland dog called Gander was serving with and protecting the lives of Canadian infantrymen in 1941. His final act of bravery was to cost him his own life but saved the lives of the men he was with. It was nearly 60 years later that the PDSA found out about his actions and he was posthumously awarded a Dickin Medal in 2000.

Buster, a Springer Spaniel Dylan also visits 101 Military Working Dog Support Unit in Aldershot to meet the most recent recipient of the Dickin Medal - Buster, a Springer Spaniel who played a vital role alongside the troops serving in Iraq in 2003. In March 2003, the unit he was with were conducting a dawn raid on some premises where caches of arms and explosives were thought to be held by extremists - when a thorough search by the men revealed nothing, Buster was sent in. Within minutes he'd located an extremely well hidden cache of arms which would have been used to devastating effect against the armed forces. Removing this material from use meant attacks on the troops in the area ceased and with this threat removed, they were able to replace their protective steel helmets with berets.

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Programme Five: A Brave New World

While hopefully we are beyond any more full scale world wars, the world is still a troubled place and animals continue to be employed in times of conflict. The events of 11 September were to lead to 3 more Dickin Medals being awarded. Two to guide dogs which aided their owners down more than 70 floors of the World Trade Centre and an all encompassing award was made to Appollo a search and rescue dog employed by the New York Police Department's K-9 unit. His award was to acknowledge the role that all 300+ search and rescue dogs played in searching through the rubble in the days and weeks following the tragedy. The most recent award of the Dickin Medal was made in December 2003. The recipient was the beautiful Buster - a springer spaniel employed by the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in Iraq.

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In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg

Thursday, 9.00 - 9.45am, rpt 9.30pm
Melvyn Bragg explores the history of ideas.
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