Book review: War Dog by Damien Lewis

Wounded in action, shot by an angry farmer, impaled on railings and almost frozen to death… the war really was a dog’s life for one very special and courageous canine.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 17th September 2014, 10:00 am
War Dog by Damien Lewis
War Dog by Damien Lewis

Ant, a German Shepherd plucked by Czech airman Robert Bozdech from French no-man’s-land in the early months of the Second World War, became not just a symbol of survival but a decorated and very British war hero.

His adventures and death-defying dramas under fire have come to represent both loyalty in the face of extraordinary adversity and a shining example of the unbreakable bond between a man and his best friend.

But it is only now that the full story of Robert and his faithful companion Ant, awarded the Dickin Medal or ‘Animal Victoria Cross,’ has finally been resurrected and restored to its rightful place in the annals of British wartime history.

Award-winning author and lifelong dog lover Damien Lewis has spent 20 years reporting from war and conflict zones around the world and is intrigued by man-dog partnerships forged on the frontline.

He discovered that the amazing account of Ant and Robert’s exploits had been effectively silenced in the post-war years by threats of violence and imprisonment from the Communist government in Robert’s native Czechoslovakia on the grounds of his wartime military links with the West.

With the help of Robert’s three children and the airman’s own manuscript, Lewis was able to put together this moving, thrilling and inspirational book about a man and dog partnership that remains unparalleled to this day.

The story of Ant and Robert – their devotion, their loyalty and their mutual trust – is one guaranteed to capture hearts and grip the imagination.

Robert Bozdech fled to France in 1939 when the Nazis invaded his homeland and in the winter of that year he was serving as a turret gunner in a French Air Force fighter bomber when it was forced to crash land in the snow of French and German no-man’s-land.

It was whilst he and the pilot were sheltering in an abandoned farmhouse that he heard a ghostly snuffling which turned out to be a four-week-old puppy, ‘a tiny ball of grey-brown fluff’ unsteady on its feet and peering out anxiously from behind an upturned chair.

When the two airmen left, it was decided that the pup would have to stay but the little fighter had other ideas and set up such a howling that Robert returned to reluctantly ‘do what he must do’ to silence him and prevent him alerting nearby German troops.

Inevitably, he couldn’t go through with it and the puppy, already his slavishly devoted admirer, was tucked inside Robert’s leather flying jacket and set out on both a lifelong friendship and an adventure that would see him taking to the skies over war-torn Europe.

Christened Ant after an old Czech aircraft, Ant sailed to England with Robert who joined the RAF and before long the dog was accompanying his owner on Bomber Command sorties, curling up in the cramped confines of the machine gun glasshouse and dozing through all the anti-aircraft fire around him.

On the ground, Ant, later diplomatically renamed Antis because of language misunderstandings, had a miraculous ability to sense enemy warplanes long before they were detectable by the human eye, and sometimes even before the radar.

‘Radar dog,’ official mascot of RAF’s 311 Squadron, soon became famous, particularly after he was blown up, lost and buried in debris for several days when German aircraft bombed the airbase.

Wounded repeatedly in action, shot, facing crash-landings and parachute bailouts, Ant was eventually grounded due to injury but even then he refused to abandon his duty, waiting patiently beside the runway for his master’s return from every sortie.

Ant died in 1953 and is buried in an animal cemetery in Ilford, Essex, where an inscription in Czech reads ‘Loyal unto death.’ Shortly after, Robert married a British woman and they settled in the West Country and raised a family. But he never got another dog… he had sworn that after Ant, he would never own another.

(Sphere, paperback, £7.99)