Book Club: Judy – A Dog in a Million

Damien Lewis is a bestselling writer and sometimes war reporter, and the author of the newly-published Judy – A Dog in a Million.

Judy's story resonated so much with him he wanted to share her trials and tribulations with the world, bringing her colourful and heartwarming story to life in his new book.

Here Damien tells us Judy's tale.

Judy’s story concerns a truly remarkable dog and her life at war, and I have been increasingly drawn to such stories over the last eight years. A life-long dog-lover, it all started with a thriller I wrote back in 2007, called Cobra 405 …

Cobra 405 - based-upon-a-true story - tells about the world’s largest ever bank robbery, which took place in 1976 war-torn Beirut, in the Lebanon. Some years later the main protagonist, ex-SAS officer Luke Kilbride, returns to retrieve his loot - a massive consignment of gold bullion - with his war dog, German Shepherd Sally at his side. In the ensuing action and intrigue Sally becomes as much the hero of the story as Kilbride and his team of fellow elite warriors.

I’m happy to say Cobra 405 is being scripted as a movie by some of the team who made the blockbuster Avatar, and Sally rightly plays a pre-eminent role. But it was one of my closest pals, Steve Clarke, a breeder and trainer of racing greyhounds, who really impressed upon me how compelling is the nexus of dogs and war.

In war, the best and the very worst of human nature comes to the fore. And in the extremis of war, we forge some of the closest, most unbreakable bonds with our K9 companions.

I only realized to what a degree this is true when I worked on my next two man-and-dog books, Sergeant Rex, and It’s All About Treo. Both are true stories co-written with military dog handlers who took their bomb-sniffing hounds – more accurately known as Arms Explosive Search Dogs – into the most dangerous areas on earth.

In Sergeant Rex, US Marine Corps veteran Mike Dowling takes his German Shepherd Rex into Iraq’s Mahmoudiah - the infamous Triangle of Death, just south of Baghdad. It is 2004, and he and his dog spend six hellish months sniffing out the bombs and the booby traps, invariably at the head of their patrols. Man and dog save countless lives – both American and Iraqi – and it is a miracle they come out alive.

In It’s All About Treo Sergeant Dave Heyhoe takes his black Labrador Treo into the notorious Sangin area, of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, more commonly known as ‘IED Alley’. Dave and Treo share a bond so close that Dave believes he can talk to Treo and that his dog understands every word, and vice versa. Their time in Helmand is one of knife-edge searches, searing explosions, love like no other, laughter in the midst of hell, and of knife-edge life-saving missions without equal.

Treo went on to win The PDSA Dickin Medal after their Afghan deployment, plus the Sun’s The Millies Award, and numerous other accolades. All absolutely and totally deserved. It’s All About Treo sat on the Sunday Times bestseller list for many months on end. The book is also being developed as a movie, and the story has touched so many people in so many countries around the world.

Treo winning the Dickin Medal got me interested in that unique and highly commendable award, one set-up by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). But it was another ex-soldier – from Britain’s elite Pathfinder Platoon – who alerted me to another dog who won the Dickin Medal, and won it in one of the most extraordinary of ways.

Captain David Blakely and I were working on his book, Pathfinder, when he told me the story of Antis, a German Shepherd who flew and fought with the RAF in World War Two. At first I thought the story couldn’t be true. Everyone knows the RAF would never let a dog fly into action alongside one of its aircrew - not even during World War two. But the more I looked into it, the more the story proved to be true.

Antis flew with the Free Czech 311 Squadron, part of RAF Bomber Command, and he became the mascot for the squadron. Over countless sorties in a doughty Wellington bomber he was wounded over Germany, hospitalized, suffered crash-landings and a near bale-out, but through all of that he would not leave his master, Robert Bozdech’s side. It is a fabulous story and one I was able to write with the help of Robert’s three children, Robert Junior, Nina and Pip. Called War Dog in the UK, and The Dog Who Could Fly in the USA, it’s been published to great acclaim.

One photo I’d studied of the Dickin Medal ceremony just after the war years seemed to show Antis getting his medal, along with two other Dicking Medal-winning dogs. In that photo there was a regal looking liver-and-white English pointer - a simply beautiful looking and striking dog.

There was something compelling about that image and the animal it portrayed – a sense somehow of the dog’s extraordinary courage and spirit that spoke across the decades.

Judy credit TopFoto
Photo: TopFoto

When next I met the Bozdech family I showed them the photo, and asked who the mystery dog might be. We were at Pip’s – the eldest sister’s – lovely Devon farmhouse, having a family get-together to celebrate the publication of the book telling their father and Antis’s story.

Pip took a look at the photo. “I think that must be Judy. Yes, it’s got to be her. Isn’t she lovely? She’s another Dickin Medal winner and she has the most wonderful story …’

Pip told me the little she knew about Judy’s wartime exploits. Indeed, it did sound quite remarkable. My curiosity piqued, I made a promise to myself to try to find out more about the dog … And so I did, meeting a 92-year-old veteran of the war who actually served alongside her, and numerous others who had taken Judy’s story to their heart.

Judy was the only animal to be made an official prisoner of war of the Japanese, in World War two. She was given prisoner number 81A-Medan - Medan being one of the prison camps in which she was held - and those three numbers and letters would go on to save her life many times over.

Born in the English Kennels in Shanghai, China, in 1936, Judy showed her spirited nature as a tiny puppy by escaping and living rough on that city’s streets. Eventually she was rescued by the crew of a British gunboat, HMS Gnat - one then anchored in the Port of Shanghai. Back in 1936 British and Allied gunboats patrolled the mighty waters of China’s Yangtze River, protecting British interests and fighting pirates and shore-based bandits.

Judy became the mascot of the Gnat, and aboard ship she more than proved her worth. Blessed with the acute sense of hearing and smell of a gundog, she was able to detect river pirates long before the crew, giving a barked early warning and saving their lives. As Japan waged war on China in the run-up to the Second World War, Judy detected marauding Japanese warplanes long before they were visible, so warning the Gnat’s gunners to make ready.

But with the outbreak of World War Two the gunboats were recalled to British ports, and Judy set sail with her crew for Singapore. Likewise, on the high seas she warned of Japanese air attacks, performing the role of a canine radar system – so saving the gunboat from destruction numerous times.

But with the evacuation of Singapore in the face of advancing Japanese forces, the gunboat’s luck finally ran out. Escorting a fleet of little ships crammed with fleeing civilians, Judy barked out her warning as a huge formation of Japanese bombers pounced on the diminutive warship and her defenceless charges. The Mitsubishi warplanes bombed and strafed her, plus the flotilla of little ships she was escorting.

The gunboat’s weapons spat defiance to the last, but eventually a lucky bomb found her, piercing her deck aft of the bridge, and in dangerous proximity to her ammunition magazine. As the fire spread, it was only a matter of time before the ammunition caught and the gunboat blew herself to pieces.

The crew abandoned ship, swimming to a nearby tropical island. But in the confusion and mayhem, no one realized Judy was trapped aboard the sinking ship. It was only when a Petty Officer braved the shark-infested waters to swim back to the ship, to retrieve much-needed food and fresh-water, that she was discovered and rescued.

Just repaid the life-saving favour ten-fold. She again saved the lives of the surviving crew by finding the only source of fresh water on the barren island. A long and momentous flight by land and sea followed as she and crew tried to evade the encircling enemy. But eventually, after an epic trek through the jungle of Sumatra, during which Judy fought off snakes and giant crocodiles, both sailors and ship’s dog were captured and taken as prisoners of war.

Overnight, Judy’s fate had become grim indeed, as had that of her human companions. As do many in Asia, the Japanese prison camp guards and their cruel Korean henchmen savoured dog meat as a ‘delicacy.’ Her Royal Navy shipmates, who valued their faithful and courageous dog so very highly, did all they could to protect her from repeated brushes with death - and from those who wanted to stuff Judy in the cooking pot, and eat her.

Finally, Judy and her fellow POWs were sent to labour on the infamous Hell Railroad in the dense tropical jungle of highland Sumatra. When Judy fell pregnant with a litter of puppies, her fellow prisoners seized the moment to ensure her protection. They offered one of the prettiest pups to Colonel Banno, the Japanese Camp Commandant, as a pet for his local mistress.

In exchange, they persuaded the Colonel to give Judy an official letter assigning her POW number 81A-Medan.

Smart, spirited, fearless and loyal to a fault, Judy defended the POWs from the savagery of the guards at every turn – becoming the most famous inmate of the hell railroad camps. It was only the letter from Colonel Banno, produced with a flourish whenever she was threatened with being shot and eaten, that mostly saved her. As Judy was officially ‘POW 81A-Medan’ no guard felt able to risk the Colonel’s wrath or worse by killing her.

The Japanese military was relentlessly hierarchical, and no junior rank would ever dare to go against a more senior. Officers were know to savagely beat and even summarily behead junior ranks who disobeyed an order, or showed the slightest disrespect, which meant in turn that Judy’s greatest protection lay in the status quo.

Miraculously, Judy survived the Japanese labour camps that claimed so many British, Dutch, Australian, American and other Allied lives in Sumnatra. She went on to be adopted by RAF crewman Frank Williams (pictured below), the one prisoner she had come to love the most, and they lived a long and happy life together after the war, for the most part in Colonial Tanzania, running a ground nut plantation.

Judy and Frank Williams c TopFoto
Photo: TopFoto

I had the pleasure and honour of writing her story in large part due to the chance sighting of a black and white photo, which showed Judy winning the Dickin Medal just after the war, more commonly known as ‘the Animal VC.’ The medal rewards acts of valour performed by pigeon, horses, cats, dogs and other animals.

Judy won her Dickin Medal for her many life-saving acts on the Royal Navy gunboats, and in the POW camps, and for the fantastic and crucial role she played boosting Allied prisoners’ morale. Captivated by the little I could discover about her story, I went on to meet and interview some of the last surviving veterans of the Gunboats, and the survivors of the Japanese POW camps.

All those I interviewed – like ninety-two-year-old ex-RAF man Rouse Voissey, in New Costessey, Norwich; himself a former prisoner of the Hell Railroad POW camps - spoke of Judy in the warmest possible terms. So many of them described her as ‘a dog in a million’, from where I take the title of the book telling her story: Judy – A Dog In A Million.


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