Judy, the heroine dog in a million

She was one of the bravest and most decorated dogs of the Second World War - and even had her own POW number when she was captured by the Japanese. Here, Damien Lewis tells Judy's remarkable story
Judy was a beautiful and regal-looking liver-and-white English pointer, who served as a Royal Navy mascot with distinction in the Second World War, going on to became the only animal to be made an official prisoner of war of the Japanese. She was given prisoner-of-war number 81A, and those three numbers and letters would save her life almost as often as she saved the lives of her much-loved fellow – human – companions.

By the war’s end, Judy had also become perhaps the most heroic British dog of that epic conflict.

Judy was born in the English Kennels, in Shanghai, China, in 1936 – Shanghai then being a Treaty Port that hosted British gunboats protecting our trading interests far up the mighty Yangtze River and deep into the nation’s interior.

China at that time was an insecure place – a country torn apart by banditry, piracy and a near-civil war. But when Judy’s puppyish curiosity got the better of her, as it often would, she squirmed under the kennel wire, disappearing on to that city’s chaotic streets, ones teeming with danger.

It was then that she first showed the spirited, steely nature that lay beneath her graceful feminine exterior, by surviving on the Shanghai streets for long enough to be rescued by the crew of a passing British gunboat. This was no mean feat, especially considering that many Chinese, as with other Asians, viewed dog meat as a delicacy.

HMS Gnat – then anchored in the Port of Shanghai – was preparing to set sail up the Yangtze River, deterring pirates and protecting British trading posts and shipping. But unlike her sister gunboats – the Bee, Cricket and Cicada – the Gnat was bereft of a mascot. Those other gunboats had dogs, cats and even a monkey. The Gnat had nothing. Deciding that their mascot would have to be feminine, useful and decidedly easy on the eye, the Gnat’s crew chose Judy as their ship’s dog. But barely had the Gnat left Shanghai, when a curious Judy tumbled off the deck and into the muddy waters of Asia’s longest river.


Many a man had fallen to his death in the swirling waters of the Yangtze. The alarm was raised, the ship’s captain ordered an immediate stop, and the ship’s launch sped downriver, searching desperately for the missing dog. Wugle, the Gnat’s Chinese boatboy, would end up being pulled into the river in the struggle to rescue her, but finally Judy was brought safely back aboard.

Twice, now, curiosity had almost proven the death of her. The ship’s crew was starting to doubt whether Judy would fulfil her duties of having a ladylike usefulness.

It was then that the Gnat entered the massive, steep-sided Xiling Gorge, and there Judy would more than prove her worth. Blessed with the acute sense of hearing and smell of a gundog, her first life-saving act was to detect two shiploads of river pirates long before the Gnat’s crew was able to, so warning them and saving their lives.

It was the depths of night when Judy sensed the two Chinese junks packed with river pirates drifting silently downstream. A thick bamboo hawser was slung between the pirate boats, with the intention of snagging the Gnat and taking her by complete surprise. Instead, the crew was called to action stations by Judy’s barks, and they met the pirates with a fusillade of fire, raking their vessels from stem to stern.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the gunboats were recalled to British ports, and Judy set sail with her crew for Singapore. On the high seas she warned of Japanese air attacks, long before the warplanes became visible and audible to human ear – so repeatedly saving the gunboat from destruction.

But luck finally ran out for the small vessel and her crew when a formation of Japanese warplanes pounced, bombing and strafing her and the flotilla of little ships that she was escorting, as they tried to escape from the advancing Japanese.

JudyDog-Jul18-03-590-NEWJudy and Frank Williams, the RAF crewman who adopted her after the war

Shipwrecked on an arid desert island, Judy again saved those who had survived by finding the only source of fresh water. A long and momentous flight by land and sea followed as she and her Royal Navy fellows tried to evade the encircling enemy – but eventually, both sailors and dog were captured and taken as prisoners of war.

Overnight, Judy’s fate darkened. Both the Japanese prison camp guards and their cruel Korean henchmen savoured dog meat. But Judy’s British prisoner-companions, who valued their faithful and courageous dog so very highly, did all they could to protect her from repeated brushes with death.

Finally, she and her fellow PO Ws were sent to labour on the infamous Death Railway in the dense tropical jungle. This was the worst of all. But when Judy fell pregnant with a litter of puppies, her fellow prisoners seized the moment – offering one of the prettiest to Colonel Banno, the Japanese Camp Commandant, as a gift for his local mistress.

In exchange, they persuaded Colonel Banno to give Judy an official document assigning the dog her own POW number: 81A.

Smart, brave and loyal to a fault, at every turn Judy defended the POWs from the savagery of the camp guards – becoming the most famous inmate of the camps.

It was only the letter from Colonel Banno, produced with a flourish whenever she was threatened with being shot and eaten, that saved her. As Judy was POW 81A, no guard felt able to risk the Colonel’s wrath or worse by killing her.

Miraculously, Judy survived the Japanese camps that claimed so many British, Dutch, Australian, American and other Allied lives. She went on to be adopted by RAF crewman Frank Williams, the one prisoner she had come to love the most, and they lived a long and happy life together after the war.

I had the pleasure and honour of writing her story in large part due to the chance sighting of a black-andwhite photo, which showed Judy winning the Dickin Medal – more commonly known as ‘the Animal VC’ – just after the war. Awarded by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), the Dickin Medal rewards extraordinary acts of valour performed by pigeons, horses, cats, dogs and other animals.

Judy had won hers for her many life-saving acts aboard the Royal Navy gunboats and in the POW camps, and for the role she played everywhere by boosting 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 themselves.

All, like 92-year-old ex-RAF crewman Rouse Voisey, in New Costessey, Norwich, 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.

Judy: A Dog In A Million by Damien Lewis is published by Quercus, priced £18.99.