The German tank men would well be forgiven if they thought that every living creature in Russia was against them, particularly in view of the telex message from Army Operations Section of OKH and sent to all Army Groups. This read: "A panzer division on the Eastern Front which had placed its vehicles under cover and in a warm place, in accordance to standing orders, found that when an alarm call was received only 30 percent of its vehicles were ready for action. Mice had gnawed through the electric leads on the engines of the tanks."
A Staff Officer with a sense of humour had annotated the document with the words "Soviet mice!!!!"
-"War on the Eastern Front 1941-45"; James Lucas
When I first read the above, it seemed just an amusing anecdote from the OstFront, but the chance discovery of previously restricted Soviet files, and a fluke of luck during an interview with a former Waffen-SS member, put me onto the trail of that most secret of secret wars within WW2. Initially following the lead on Soviet mouse detachments, this led to revelations about SS cat operations, and eventually to the untold story of what really happened to the disbanded antitank dog units of the Red Army. This is the story of animal heroics amidst the carnage and brutality of the OstFront. Battles fought in cellars and engine-compartments, away from the prying eyes of the better-known human combatants.
Formation of the First Soviet Mouse Units
During the bleak days of "Barbarossa" in 1941, the beleagured Soviet Union was struggling desperately for survival, and all non-essential tasks were put to one side to concentrate on the defeat of Nazi Germany and her allies. One such area of non-essential work was the "Mouse Research Unit" at the University of Smolensk, led by Dr. Igor Valenkho. He had pioneered Pavlovian methods for teaching tricks to laboratory mice, and intended to use his mice for fine repair/recovery in industry and engineering - allowing work to be carried out without need to strip down machinery. But it was not regarded as realistic, and (especially with the approach of the Wehrmacht) Valenkho was re-assigned to the newly created anti-tank dog training unit. While despairing of his new work, the mouse-expert secretly continued with his old research, but with a new goal - anti-tank mice! Combining the two areas of research with which he had become involved, he spotted a niche for his trained mice. With their ability to get inside engines and destroy wiring and other small components, they were ideal for the task of disabling tanks and other vehicles. But there was a problem - how to get the mice to their targets?
A flash of new inspiration came to Valenkho - the Polikarpov light bomber aircraft were famously making low-level nuisance raids on the Germans. They could drop his mice directly into action!
After some persuasion, he was allowed to carry out an experimental drop on a German Panzer unit near Kirov in early April 1942. The results must have impressed the Red Army, because further drops were authorised, and in particular the mouse attack on 22 Panzer Division, 18-19 November 1942 which had a dramatic effect on the Stalingrad Campaign...
The German Response
Following this successful operation, Valenkho examined one of the disabled tanks (recovered by the Soviets) and discovered one of his mice sleeping in the engine compartment. This was the famous "Mikhail", who was honoured with a special "Hero of the Soviet Union" medal for his part!
However, the easy days for the mouse specialists were drawing to a close. Apart from the awareness of mouse activity (as represented in the quote at the start of this document), the shooting-down of one of the specially-equipped Polikarpovs gave the Germans a clue as to what was going on...Thus, in late 1942, there developed the use of cats in Panzer units to combat the Red Army Mice. In Wehrmacht units, a random collection of cats were unofficially added to the ration list, and gave sterling (if unrecorded) service. But, in typical style, the SS would only allow pure black cats into their "Katzesicherheitabteilungen" (KSA - Cat Security Units). While showy, these units were often inferior to their scruffier Heer contemporaries (where the cats were chosen as mousers, rather than by how they looked). But Germany could not seem to supply enough cats.
In desperation, the SS then organised special "Handschar" and "Hiwi" units of non-German cats, with some success. (It has been noted that, in the immediate post-war period, due to intelligence gleaned from former-Wehrmacht and SS officers, the US and UK both organised provisional cat units to protect their armoured units from possible Soviet sabotage - this was later rendered unnecessary when British scientists discovered a wire-coating inedible to mice).
Every Dog Has His Day?
With the reduction in success of his rodent legion, Dr. Valenkho despaired again - until another flash of inspiration struck him. The anti-tank dogs had proved a failure, and dogs were now being reassigned (mainly to Gulasch or Vivisection duties!). Realising a use for limited numbers of these already trained dogs to escort his mice into action. If one or two dogs could be dropped in conjunction, these would chase off or distract the cats and allow the mice to infiltrate the AFVs. It was a desperate measure, but given the options a number of dogs did "volunteer" for duty. The resulting actions were of limited success, however, partly as the new Tigers were virtually proof against mouse attack - the petrol fumes tended to kill/overcome the mice before they could chew through the wiring.
Anyway, by now the Soviets were on the upsurge, and had less need of such tricks...