Seventy years on from the end of the Second World War, we remember the role of our charity in one of the world’s darkest times…
As soon as Neville Chamberlain’s declaration sounded over the wireless in September 1939, we knew our services would be in great need at a time of war once again.
Our Charlton quarantine kennels in Blackheath were put to work providing shelter for the animals of war, just as they had done two decades before. During the First World War they had housed dogs who had become faithful friends to soldiers on the battlefields and were brought back to the UK as pets, until their new owners could collect them.
Now, we took in the animals of European refugees whose pets were often all they had left of their former life, and looked after them until the six-month quarantine period was up and they could be reunited with their loving owners.
Once again we looked after animals belonging to servicemen and women – some could not afford private kennelling fees and others had no one to leave their pets with while on active service overseas.
When they came home on leave, owners were welcome to come and visit their pets and we witnessed many happy meetings, as well as joyful reunions after the war ended.
Those we looked after, fed, comforted and treated while their owners were away on duty included a little dog called Judy, who had travelled with her sailor owner on ships and was torpedoed twice.
Understandably, she was described as a “frightened young lady” when she arrived at our kennels in 1942, but within a few days she made friends with our staff and other dogs and was much happier.
Throughout the war, there was a huge surge in demand for our Victoria animal hospital in central London, with staff working day and night to relieve suffering and treat sick, injured and frightened animals.
The Blitz devastated the city and staff and volunteers worked long, exhausting hours to rescue animals from the rubble and take in those made homeless. During the blackouts, pets arrived for treatment by candlelight.
By the end of 1940, over 150,000 animals had been taken in, treated, found new homes or painlessly put to sleep if nothing more could be done.
Although our Victoria hospital in central London was built to treat sick pets, we opened our doors to considerable numbers of pets each night during the Blitz so their owners would know they were cared for as they made their way to air raid shelters.
Our other branches offered this service too, and owners often made heartfelt pleas to us to find loving new homes for their pets if the worst should happen to them overnight. Sadly, our Hammersmith shelter alone had to do this for 16 animals.
We set up foster schemes too, and many people outside London volunteered to take in dogs from inner-city areas, offering them safe homes for the duration of the war.
We also opened a veterinary clinic at a Salvation Army centre in the East End, offering free treatment to pets who needed it.
Keep calm and carry on helping pets
Throughout the six years at war, many of our facilities suffered bomb damage.
One particularly powerful blast tore down the walls and fences of our kennels at Blackheath, but against the backdrop of falling bombs and defensive gunfire, we managed to round up all of the animals that had become loose – while at the same time taking in more pets to be looked after until daylight.
In Portsmouth, we answered the cries of a small boy who was weeping because his kitten was buried in the rubble of a house. We moved the fallen bricks away and found the young cat alive and well, and his young owner was thrilled.
The final year of war in 1945 saw a record number of over 200,000 animals helped by Our Dumb Friends’ League – the former name of Blue Cross - nationwide.
Among these were two cats aged 15 and 12, who were buried alive when our Birmingham shelter was bombed. Ivy Slater, who ran the branch, kept digging and after nine and eleven days respectively, rescued both cats.
We will remember them
Today we’re known as Blue Cross, but when our charity was founded in 1897 we were called Our Dumb Friends’ League (ODFL).
We changed our name in 1950 in recognition of our vital work of our Blue Cross Fund, which was first set up to collect donations from the public to help horses on the frontline during the 1912 Balkan War - in the same way that the Red Cross aided sick and wounded men – and provided vital assistance to animals on the battlefields and back home in Britain during the two world wars.
We are immensely proud of our heritage and each year we take part in official remembrance services to honour the brave men, women and animals who have fought and died in conflict.
Read more about the role of Blue Cross from 1914 and 1918, and between 1939 and 1945 in The Blue Cross at War.