Almost since the beginning of warfare, humans have realized that animals can be used to help them fight their enemies. The roles they took depended on the animal – some were used for mounted combat; others were used to transport cargo or to deliver important messages. But of course, every now and then, some people got creative when it came to the way they employed animals in war.
10. Hannibal’s War Elephants
We might as well start off with the most famous example of animal warfare – the time when Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants to fight the Romans.
This happened in 218 BC, marking the start of the Second Punic War between the two Mediterranean powers of the time – Rome and Carthage. The First Punic War, where Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, served as a general, had ended in a Roman victory. Therefore, when Hannibal decided to wage war, he wanted to do something bold and unexpected – he wanted to cross the Alps and march straight into Italy, thus bypassing the Roman Navy and its allied garrisons.
At the time, it was considered impossible to cross the Alps with an army and, indeed, even Hannibal found the journey incredibly treacherous. During the ascent, they were ambushed and harassed by Gaulic tribes, and the descent was full of narrow, icy paths that caused a lot of people to plunge to their deaths. And if that wasn’t dangerous enough, Hannibal did all of this with dozens of elephants in tow.
The risky gamble paid off, though. In December, Hannibal reached Italy and fought the Romans at the Battle of the Trebbia. The roughly three dozen war elephants fulfilled their role beautifully, terrifying the enemy horses and sowing complete chaos among the Roman cavalry, leading to a decisive victory for the Carthaginians.
9. Genghis Khan’s Fire Cats and Swallows
Humans have been using animals as incendiary devices for thousands of years. One infamous story, which may or may not be true, involves Genghis Khan who reportedly used swallows and cats during his war with the Western Xia Empire in China.
While laying siege on the city of Volohoi during the early 13th century, Genghis offered terms of peace – the Mongols would lift the siege in exchange for 1,000 cats and 10,000 swallows. The Xia agreed to their terms, quickly gathered the required animals, and presented them as tribute. However, the Mongols had other plans. They tied bits of cotton to the tails of the animals, set them on fire, and released them near the city’s edge. In a panic, most of the animals fled back into the city, which was predominantly made of wood. The people inside Volohoi were overwhelmed by thousands of fires cropping up all at once. Meanwhile, the Mongols took advantage of the chaos and confusion and stormed the city.
8. The Explosive Rats of the Second World War
This one comes from World War II, courtesy of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). The basic premise was rather simple – take some dead rats, cut them open, fill them with explosives and then sew them back up. The explosive rodents were then to be given to spies and resistance fighters who could infiltrate German-run factories and other buildings in occupied France and simply leave them on the floor.
The thinking was that workers or soldiers who stumbled upon the dead rats would dispose of them by tossing them in the furnace, causing an explosion. However, the “rat bombs” were never actually used because the Germans intercepted the first shipment and became wise to the plan. Even so, the SOE was ultimately happy with the results because it caused the Germans to spend a lot of time and effort checking other dead rats to see if they had been booby-trapped. The SOE concluded: “The trouble caused to them was a much greater success to us than if the rats had actually been used.”
7. The Trouble-Sniffing Gerbils
We move on now from the world of guerrilla warfare to the secretive world of espionage as we take a look at an attempt to turn gerbils into spy catchers.
The idea started with MI5 during the 1970s. Gerbils have the ability to detect increased adrenalin levels in human sweat, so it was thought that they could be trained to sniff out spies, terrorists, and other subversive operatives. MI5 dropped the idea pretty quick, but it was picked up by Canadian scientists who thought that they could use gerbils in airports for the same purposes. They suggested that the furry rodents could be trained using Pavlovian responses to push a lever when they detected abnormal adrenalin levels. They could then be kept at the immigration lines of airports and have fans discreetly waft towards them the scents of all the travelers.
Believe it or not, the scheme was put into action by Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, who used the gerbils at Tel Aviv airport. Unfortunately, they soon discovered that, instead of spies and terrorists, the rodents were detecting a lot of false positives, consisting mostly of people who were carrying heavy luggage or simply people who were nervous flyers.
6. The Kuwaiti Field Chickens
You might think that something called a “Poultry Chemical Confirmation Device” would be something fancy and high-tech, but you would be wrong. It actually was a chicken in a cage, strapped to the roof of a military Humvee.
The chickens were used by American troops during the Gulf War in order to detect dangerous gases or chemical agents. Even though the soldiers were equipped with advanced detection devices, these sometimes gave inaccurate readings due to the pollution caused by exploded oil rigs. Therefore, the chickens served as a low-tech, but effective alternative. They had a very weak respiratory system, so if they died, they showed the troops that it was time to put their gas masks on, functioning in a similar way to the old canaries in the coal mines.
This strategy was dubbed by the US Army Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken, or KFC, since the poultry were otherwise destined for the dinner table.
5. The Shark-pedoes of the US Navy
The US Navy Marine Mammal Program or NMMP has been around since the 1950s, as marine animals have proven very willing and effective when it comes to offering support to Navy troops, particularly when it comes to mine detection and object recovery. The undisputed stars of the project are the bottle-nose dolphin and the California sea lion. Nowadays, they are pretty much the only animals still used in the program, but in its early years, the NMMP experimented with dozens of species of marine animals to see which ones were best suited for a career in the Navy… and this included sharks.
Their idea was to turn sharks into torpedoes – strap bombs to them, then stealthily guide them to their targets using electrical signals. Known as Project Headgear, this concept was researched during the Cold War but had to be scrapped before ever being put into action. It seems that the sharks simply refused to take orders and none of them ever completed their course during trial runs.
4. The Battle of the Bees
Bees have been used in warfare from ancient times all the way up to now since there are few things that can disrupt a unit of soldiers faster than a swarm of angry bees. It is said that King Mithridates of Pontus used “mad honey” to incapacitate the Romans at the Siege of Eupatoria. King Henry I of England may have used catapults to throw entire beehives right in the midst of his enemy’s army. And during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong placed colonies of the Asian giant honeybees in the paths of American soldiers and unleashed them using firecrackers or small explosives.
But perhaps the insects played the most important role at the Battle of Tanga during World War I, which also became known as the Battle of the Bees. Taking place in November 1914, it was the first major battle of the East African Campaign. An army of British and Indian soldiers led by General Arthur Aitken outnumbered the Germans commanded by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck by over 8-to-1, and yet they suffered a crushing defeat. Part of the reason was the inexperience and lack of training of Aitken’s forces. Another part was the reinforced position of the Germans, but a crucial factor was played by the bees.
All of the fighting disturbed multiple hives located on the battlefield. They attacked with ferocious determination and, even though both sides were stung, they focused most of their wrath on the Indian and British soldiers who were trying to cross the battlefield to reach the Germans. Aitken’s plan of a large-scale assault was scrapped, which allowed Lettow-Vorbeck to launch a counterattack that won him the battle.
3. The Scorpion Bombs of Hatra
Staying in the world of invertebrates, we now examine one effective weapon used against the Romans during the Second Parthian War by King Barsamia of Hatra – the scorpion bomb.
In 198 AD, Septimius Severus laid siege on the stronghold city of Hatra, in modern-day Iraq. But the Romans did not know that Hatra was home to a dangerous species of scorpion called the deathstalker. Nor did they know that King Barsamia had entire terracotta pots filled with these arachnids, as he regularly sent out people to clear the roads and keep them safe for caravans.
You can probably guess what happened next – those pots were turned into scorpion bombs that rained down on the Romans who tried to approach the walls of Hatra. While the sting of the deathstalker was rarely fatal, it certainly was potent enough to debilitate the soldiers and inflict agonizing pain. Ultimately, Severus decided to lift the siege and abandon the city.
2. The Anti-Pigeon Force of MI5
We all know by now that pigeons can be invaluable assets in times of war. Their remarkable homing abilities make them the perfect messengers, able to carry vital information even to and from the frontlines. Hundreds of thousands of pigeons were used in World War II so, unsurprisingly, people also became interested in ways of countering the feathered flyers and stopping them from reaching their destination.
That is where MI5 came in, as the British security agency trained peregrine falcons to patrol the skies and take out any pigeons they encountered, on the chance that they might be carrying important communications between the Germans and their spies abroad. The anti-pigeon force was set up on the Scilly Isles in 1942 and kept a lookout for any pigeons that might have been trying to make their way to France.
But at the same time, Britain employed its own pigeons and, during an intelligence-gathering operation called Source Columba, it air-dropped over 16,000 of these birds in German-occupied France and the Netherlands, in the hopes that the locals would send them back with valuable information. To that end, MI5 then set up a Falcon Destruction Unit, which consisted of snipers who were trained to take out wild falcons and other raptors that might have posed a danger to the pigeons returning home to Britain.
1. The Stampeding Cattle of Songhai
So far, we’ve seen some instances of animal warfare that turned the tide of battle, but we finish with one example which helped bring down a whole empire.
During the 16th century, the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco invaded the neighboring Songhai Empire. The two sides met in combat at the Battle of Tondibi on March 13, 1591. This was the first time that the Songhai encountered gunpowder weapons and they were clearly not prepared for them. In a foolish move, they decided to employ a strategy they had used before, which was to start their attack by unleashing a giant stampede of hundreds of cattle. The goal was to drive the animals through the center of the enemy lines, causing casualties and chaos.
Unfortunately for them, they did not anticipate the effect that gunpowder weapons would have on the cattle. The animals became terrified of the smoke and loud noises. They turned around and stampeded through the Songhai army, instead, leaving it completely vulnerable to the invading Moroccans. The Songhai lost the Battle of Tondibi and their empire collapsed soon after.