Peter The Collie was quite a handful. He fought with other dogs, chewed anything he could get hold of, and generally behaved like ‘a four legged gangster’. In June 1944, in response to an appeal by the Ministry of Aircraft Production, Peter’s then questionable talents were offered to the Government for war service.
His ‘call-up’ came in September and, travelling on a third class War Department Railway Warrant, he duly reported to the Ministry ‘s Guard Dog School at Staverton Court in Gloucestershire for secret training as a Rescue Dog. Under the watchful eye of his trainer and handler, Mr. Archie Knight, Peter soon revealed a hitherto hidden sagacity and a capacity for learning. Having shown an admirable steadfastness under battle conditions on the assault course and a mastery of lifesaving techniques, he was accordingly ‘passed out’ and posted with Mr. Knight to Civil Defence.
From early 1945 until the cessation of hostilities, ‘Rescue Dog No. 2664/9288 Peter’, as he was officially known, served with a team of 15 dogs attached to London Region Civil Defence Headquarters, employed in the location of casualties trapped under debris as a result of V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks. During the course of this valuable work, Peter was credited with ‘six definites’ and ‘scores of probables’. In the case of the ‘probables’ (i.e. fatalities), his speed in locating them saved the Heavy Rescue Squads many hours of fruitless digging, enabling them to move on to other incidents.
However, even an expert team such as Peter and Mr. Knight could be duped. On one occasion, while searching through a blitzed building, Peter gave a strong indication and tunnelling begun. Shortly, a voice uttering a string of curses was heard emanating from the rubble, showing that the casualty was very much alive. The ambulancemen stood to and the digging continued apace. But when the last piece of debris was removed, the victim was found to be a rather large and irate parrot!
One of Peter’s finest performances took place on 23 March. When arriving at a bomb site at 9.20am, he proceeded to give position indications in a designated area. ‘He was then transferred’, according to an official account, ‘to another area where equally good results were obtained’.
The Rescue Parties were continually calling for the assistance of Peter, but it was not possible to deal with everyone immediately. After nine hours of continuous working, during which time Peter had never once refused to do all his handler asked of him, he was relieved by the dogs from another C. D. Group. After a six hour rest, he returned to the incident, where he worked hard for another two hours without rest, giving further definite indications. There is no doubt that the prompt and accurate information given by Peter to his handler resulted in at least three persons being rescued alive by the Rescue Squads.
A confidential report on Peter’s work written by Archie Knight in early April gives further evidence of Peter’s determination: ‘I think one of his finest jobs was on Monday. We were called 20 hours after the incident, and after several hours of heavy rain. Three bodies were missing and he very quickly indicated in a most unlikely spot, but he was right, and they uncovered a man and a woman both on the same spot. After all that rain had packed the debris tightly , I thought this a most praiseworthy effort. The next day we were called to another job.
There were so many calls for Peter, who is well known in this district, that I worked him ten hours and he never once refused to give all he had. All his marks revealed casualties. The next day we returned, and he worked like a hero again, until after six hours, I refused to ask any more of him. I hated to work him like this but I also hated to refuse the rescue parties who were asking for him. He was really played out, but he worked like a Trojan’.
In May , Peter again distinguished himself when, attending the scene of one of the last rocket attacks of the War, he was responsible for saving the life of a small boy.
Peter, however, was no mere canine automation. On arriving at one site right at the very end of the War, he and fellow Chelsea C. D. Dog Taylor sat down and refused to show any interest in the proceedings. Their perplexed handlers tried them at various points, but without success. Finally, thinking Peter and Taylor must be ill, their respective handlers withdrew them. Neither Archie Knight, nor Taylor’s handler, Mr. W. T. Rowe, could find any explanation for this isolated incident of non-cooperation. Then Rowe hit upon the fact that for the last three days, enemy action had prevented delivery of the dogs’ meat ration and consequently they had had to put up with biscuits. As far as Peter and Taylor were concerned, no meat, it seemed, meant no work.
Following V. E. Day, Peter was temporarily retained by the Ministry and in June was chosen to lead the Civil Defence stand down parade in Hyde Park, during which he was presented to the King and Queen, and Princess Elizabeth. By all accounts Peter thoroughly enjoyed the experience, especially meeting the Queen. In July, Peter went on a Mountain Rescue course in the Lake District and thereafter gave demonstrations of that discipline back at Staverton Court. His ‘demob’ finally came through at the end of July and he returned home to resume rabbit chasing activities.
Finally on 12 November, word reached Peter’s home from the Allied Forces Mascot Club that he was to receive the official recognition which he richly deserved and that his award of the Dickin Medal had been approved by the Selection Committee in consideration of his service during the Blitz. Also the Tail-Wagger’s Club of Great Britain further honoured Peter (Tail-Wagger No. 7 85378) by inscribing his name on their Roll of Club Heroes and by presenting him with their ‘For Valour’ Badge. On the 29th, Peter was invested with the Dickin Medal by Sir James Ross of the Air Ministry at the United Charities Fair in Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane. Sir James Stood Back, and Saluted The Dog.
Peter, whose rare service to humanity included saving the lives of six people, breathed his last in November 1952 at the Peoples’ Dispensary for Sick Animals in Nottingham. He is buried in the Animals’ Cemetery in Ilford.
The PDSA Dickin Medal, recognised as the animals’ Victoria Cross, is awarded to animals displaying conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units. The PDSA Dickin Medal is the highest award any animal can receive whilst serving in military conflict.