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Meet Brigadier Olav

Penguin inspecting troops

A huge range of creatures have been pressed into service over the years as everything from spies to morale-boosting mascots. Here, we salute their work



The Nazis captured a bunch of penguins at the start of WWII with a view to training them to help the efforts on the cold Eastern Front. OK, we made that bit up. The truth is way more mundane, but no less nutsoid. Nils Olav is a King Penguin who lives at Edinburgh Zoo but enjoys a double life as a Brigadier in the Norwegian Army. No, really this one is properly true, honest! Olav started as a mascot but has been steadily promoted through the ranks in the Norwegian Royal Guard.


Close up of glowworm

Troops in WWI used glowworms to read by in the trenches at night


Thousands of glow-worms were drafted by the Allies in WWI to burrow beneath and undermine enemy trenches. OK, that’s also not true, but they were captured in huge numbers by troops within those trenches and put to good use. Servicemen would capture as many as they could and pop them in a jar; collectively they gave out a glow that could be used to read after dark.

Army elephant mascot on parade

Kandula, the Mascot of the Sri Lankan Light Infantry Regiment


In ancient times elephants were widely used to charge enemy ranks (until, in 266BC, the Megarians released a squad of pigs doused in fuel and set them alight to terrify the opposition’s elephants with their squeals, but that’s a different story). Other than the occasional job carrying a bit of heavy equipment the modern use of elephants in the military is pretty much confined to the realms of Mascot (take a bow, Kandula of the Sri Lankan Light Infantry Regiment).

A pigeon piloted guided missile

Pigeon-piloted guided missiles were tested in WWII


We all know about pigeons being used by the military; they were basically the email system of their day, carrying messages home from the front line. But a scientist named Skinner – a Harvard professor – had bigger plans when he developed ‘Project Pigeon’ in 1937. His idea was to train pigeons to be able to guide missiles toward their target by putting them in the cone of the bomb with a little window allowing them to help steer towards the target. Seriously. Oddly enough Project Pigeon didn’t make it through testing.

Army dog with his handler

It’s not all about mascots. Dogs perform vital combat roles too


Who doesn’t love a dog? Which explains why so many regiments often take on a dog as a mascot, like Brian Boru X of The Royal Irish Regiment (not to be confused with Brian Belo, winner of Big Brother 8). But the Army has also turned to dogs for more functional, military roles. Just last year a British Army dog, Mali, was awarded the Dickin medal (the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross) for his combat role in Afghanistan.

Gerbils can smell fear

Fact: gerbils can smell fear


During the Cold War, MI5 looked into the possibility that gerbils could keep us safe from the threat of terrorists. Seems gerbils possess the ability to smell fear – who knew!? So, the idea was that with a bit of training, gerbils could smell the adrenaline on would-be terrorists at airports. In fact, the plan was put into action in Israel, but not for long as they soon realised that nervous fliers released the same levels of adrenaline as terror suspects. Awkward.

Bat incendiary devices were tested in WWII

Boffins in the US looked into the possibility of making bat bombs


You’re probably imagining vampire bats trained to suck the enemy’s blood and transmit disease in one go: boom! Sorry, wrong answer. In fact, during WWII the US spent $2million researching how to use bats to defeat Japan. The idea was to set thousands of tiny fires across a number of Japan’s cities, whose buildings were at the time commonly made of wood and paper. The fires would be started by thousands of bats, each carrying a small incendiary device. It may well have been used as an alternative to the H-bomb but its development was halted for being too slow.

Dolphins regularly patrol US Navy ports

Dolphins regularly patrol US Navy ports


Hands up if you thought dolphins couldn’t be any more lovable than they already are… How about if you knew they were busy swimming around out there protecting us from the bad guys? For more than 40 years the US has been using trained dolphins to detect underwater mines and also identify and deter intruders at US Navy ports. Nice work, Flipper!

Could bees be used to detect explosives?

Could bees be used to detect explosives?


At one point it looked like bees were set to save the planet, and it had nothing to do with honey. A UK company started training bees to detect explosives. Using Proboscis Extension Reflex response, which is of course a classic Pavlovian device, (You what, mate? Ed) bees would detect the presence of explosives, which it was hoped would come in handy with the military. Sadly, due to reasons too numerous to list, it didn’t work out, so the bees had to revert to their original plan to save the world: cross pollination.

Could cats work as spies?

Cats were trained to go on spy missions behind the Iron Curtain


At the height of the Cold War, the US was keen to get the inside track on the goings-on behind the Iron Curtain. One idea was to wire up a domestic cat as a microphone and transmitter and then send it behind enemy lines – presumably to snuggle up on the lap of a top spy – so the CIA could eavesdrop on their plans. Surprisingly enough the plan failed, though it’s unclear if this was down to the obvious difficulty of training a cat to do anything, or stories of the first deployed cat being run over by a taxi within seconds of being released.


PICTURE CREDITS: Mark Owens/Crown Copyright/MoD; AFP/Getty Images; Sourcenext, Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock; Sourcenext, Super Nova Images, Atomic, Igor Korionov/Alamy Stock Photo