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The Dogs of War

Rudolphina Menzel’s canine contributions to the British military campaign in WWII

Lea Lehavi
January 31, 2023
Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York
Rudolphina Menzel and her first boxer dog, Mowgli, early 1920s, AustriaCourtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York
Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York
Rudolphina Menzel and her first boxer dog, Mowgli, early 1920s, AustriaCourtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York
Editor’s note: Rudolphina Menzel (née Waltuch, 1891-1973) was a Viennese-born Jewish scientist whose pioneering research on canine psychology, development, and behavior fundamentally shaped the ways dogs came to be trained, cared for, and understood. Between the world wars, Menzel was known all over Europe as one of the foremost researchers on canine cognition as well as among the most famous breeders and trainers of police dogs. Throughout the 1920s and until the Nazis seized power in 1933, she was a sought-after consultant at Kummersdorf, the German military dog training institute near Berlin. In 1938 she escaped Nazi-occupied Austria and moved to Palestine, where she established the Palestine Research Institute for Canine Psychology and Training and trained hundreds of dogs to serve alongside Jewish forces in the 1948 war. In the 1950s, she created the first guide-dog institute in the Middle East and invented Israel’s national dog breed, the Canaan dog. In 1962 at the age of 71, she was appointed associate professor of animal psychology at Tel Aviv University, where she maintained an active research agenda almost until the day she died. 

During World War II, Rudolphina Menzel played a significant role in the Allied war effort by training mine-detecting dogs for the British army’s use on the North African front. The Allied forces faced considerable challenges in North Africa, where the Germans had been laying hundreds of thousands of land mines since 1939. As the fighting intensified there in the early 1940s, the British had already exhausted their canine reserves on the European front and found themselves with a deficit of mine-detecting dogs.

In June 1942, a meeting of high-ranking British officers was held under the auspices of the British Mandate’s Veterinary Services Department, which was in charge of all the animals in Palestine. The officers discussed the urgent need for mine-detecting dogs in North Africa and agreed that every effort should be made to train and purchase them as soon as possible. Knowing that Rudolphina was an expert in training dogs to detect mines, they appealed to her for help. Rudolphina in turn consulted with Moshe Sharett, Director of the Jewish Agency’s Foreign Affairs Department, to seek his approval before taking any action.

The proposed cooperation between Yishuv leaders and the British was not without its difficulties. On the one hand, as colonial subjects of the mandatory regime in Palestine, leaders of the Yishuv were not eager to help the British. On the other hand, many in the Yishuv wanted to help the Allied forces in their fight against the Nazis. As a compromise, Sharett imposed a condition on the British request: the British must promise not to use the dogs Rudolphina trained for the war effort against Jews in the Yishuv.

With Sharett’s blessing, Rudolphina began selling war dogs to the British in the summer of 1942; Sharett granted Rudolphina full authority to manage negotiations on canine matters with the British and deferred completely to her exclusive judgment. The British appointed a special officer to serve as an official liaison between Rudolphina and the British Army, Colonel E. N. Newman Roger. The Colonel subsequently corresponded and met with Rudolphina often to discuss recruitment and training, as did his deputy, the head of the military police in Palestine and Trans-Jordan.

On July 10, 1942, the first cohort of sixty dogs was ready to be transferred from Palestine to the British Army’s animal unit, located on the outskirts of Cairo in Almaza. Of these, twenty-two dogs were fully operational; the rest were still in training. By early 1943, dozens of dogs were being transported by the British Army’s No. 3 Remount Squadron from Palestine to Almaza on a monthly basis. From there, the dogs were deployed all over the North African front.

From April 2, 1943, until the end of the war, weekly reports on the number of dogs purchased by the British and their conditions were received by the Veterinary Department of the Mandate government. An April 1943 report noted that twenty war dogs were purchased in Haifa and were described as “in good condition.” Though Rudolphina’s name is not mentioned, it is clear from the description that they were purchased from her kennel in Haifa. A report from May 1943 recorded the purchase of thirty-nine dogs and mentioned that the availability of high-quality Boxers remained good and that “breeding is carried out more extensively now ... it is anticipated that there will be no difficulty in purchasing dogs in the future in large numbers.” A December 1943 entry noted that “four dogs—three Boxers and one Alsatian—were purchased from Dr. R. Menzel Kiryat Motzkin.” Rudolphina’s name appears in all subsequent reports on dog purchases. Though the war diaries mention occasional single dog purchases from individual private breeders, those were unusual.

Rudolphina’s institute faced dire financial challenges during World War II, and she desperately needed money to care for and train her dogs. The relationship Rudolphina established with the British was therefore mutually beneficial: they benefitted from her highly trained dogs, and her institute benefitted from the income generated by their sale.

The British Army ultimately deployed over four hundred mine-detecting dogs trained by Rudolphina or according to her methods, and the British war diaries recorded British soldiers of all ranks praising the heroism and excellence of these dogs. One of the officers reportedly remarked that the only disadvantage of the dogs was the fact that they couldn’t get more of them. Articles in the Palestine Post also extolled the virtues of these dogs, which contributed greatly to the sense of pride amongst Jews in the Yishuv for being able to contribute to the fight against the Nazis. Despite Rudolphina’s great success training mine- detecting dogs for the British during World War II, her authority as the supreme expert on military dogs in Palestine was challenged not long after the war ended. In November 1947, the Haganah began to lay the groundwork for an official canine unit in anticipation of its eventual integration into the established army of the new state. At that time, it seemed inevitable that Rudolphina would be put in charge of the unit. In the 1947 annual report for her institute, she wrote:

In November we addressed the Haganah Chief of Staff Yaakov Dori and requested to expand the Institute’s reach of activities to comply with future demands. Yaakov Dori decided that Dr. Menzel would be the sole leader and professional address for all canine issues. Moshe Dayan was sent to us and together we started planning the canine activities and organizational structure for the soon-to-be-formed Army.

Consequently, Rudolphina assumed a commanding tone when she wrote an article for the dog trainers and handlers of Palestine as preparations for war accelerated:

Not every generation is as blessed as ours, for we are lucky to witness the dreams of our youth come true; a hope of two thousand years is coming true. We, the Jewish dog handlers, will see how our own dogs will take their place in the building of our homeland, as they have so far taken their place as our loyal companions. But alas, we do not have time to celebrate, as this is the hour of preparation. Each of us at our post.

Unbeknownst to her, this would be the last time Rudolphina addressed her handlers and trainers as leader and mentor. In February 1948, Yaakov Dori, Chief of Staff for the Haganah, sent her a letter informing her of the Haganah’s revised plans for a canine military unit:

We have decided to found a “Central Military Dog Training Camp” for all of our military unit’s needs. We ask that you be the professional supervisor. We assume these supervising activities will keep you busy for half a day’s work, every day. We hope that with the foundation of the Hebrew State, the Institution will be fully built and your dream and hard work will bear its fruit. As for this “Central Training Camp,” we could not achieve it if not for your hard work and devotion.

This letter was bittersweet; it informed Rudolphina that she would no longer be in charge of the military canine unit as the Yishuv transitioned to statehood. Instead, she would only oversee the educational-professional aspects of the canine issues as a part-time job. While acknowledging her significant contributions to establishing the entire foundation of dog-training in the country, Dori basically sidelined her. In her place, one of Rudolphina’s first students from her 1937 dog-training course, Abraham Zirlin, was assigned to be the commander of the new canine unit. Zirlin’s military expertise as a soldier, as well as his experience as a dog handler for the Haganah, made him the perfect candidate for the job. Zirlin was put in charge of the canine unit’s management and administration, all things Rudolphina used to supervise, and he was also put in charge of Rudolphina herself. It seemed that this move was well-planned by the new Israel Defense Force (IDF) command, as illustrated by the letters of complaint Rudolphina wrote to Moshe Dayan. Rudolphina had been replaced.

Rudolphina’s demotion to part-time educational supervisor in 1948 understandably resulted in a rift between her and the IDF. She retained an honorary title that enabled her to maintain occasional work with military canines and was appointed the Government Advisor for dog breeding and training, in which position she served as a member of a formal, government inter-ministerial committee that addressed the use of guard dogs for security needs. The committee was led by her old Haganah associate Yaakov Pat. This role was primarily an honorary one, given by the new Israeli establishment to thank her for her years of contribution. Thus, when the Israel Defense Force was officially founded in June 1948, Dr. Menzel’s military career came to an end.

In June 1949, the IDF headquarters decided to transfer the canine unit—which was then under the command of the IDF’s animal services—to the military police, as was common in the armed forces of other nations. The IDF’s canine unit was active until 1954, when it was closed for twenty years; it was refounded in 1974 as a special operations combat unit under the command of the infantry corps’ headquarters. The IDF’s current elite canine unit “Oketz,” considered to be amongst the world’s best, continues to use dog-training methods pioneered by Rudolphina. The link she created between Zionism and dog training was essential not only to the Allied war effort during World War II but also to the establishment of the state.

Excerpted from Canine Pioneer: The Extraordinary Life of Rudolphina Menzel, edited by Susan Martha Kahn, copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission of Brandeis University Press.

Lea Lehavi received her B.A. in world history and Israel studies and her M.A. in Jewish History from Tel Aviv University. Her master’s thesis, Rudolphina Menzel and the Military Canine Formation in the “Yishuv” during Mandatory Palestine 1932-1948, was supervised by Motti Golani. She also served in the IDF’s elite canine unit Oketz.