Seventy years ago this month the first PDSA Dickin Medal – the animal version of the Victoria Cross – was awarded, to three humble pigeons.
The citation stated that White Vision, Winkie and Tyke delivered a message "under exceptionally difficult conditions, so contributing to the rescue of an aircrew while serving with the RAF in October 1943."
Since then, the famous medal, which bears the inscription, "We Also Serve", has been awarded to 64 gallant animals. It is the highest award any animal can receive in recognition of conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in military conflict.
To date it has been awarded to 32 pigeons, 28 dogs, three horses and one cat.
This week the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, the family of a fallen serviceman whose dog posthumously received the medal and prominent animal-lovers are paying tribute to the many brave animals that have been honoured for helping save countless human lives in military conflicts over the last 70 years.
All recipients of the PDSA Dickin Medal have been acknowledged because of their dedication and devotion to duty in the field of conflict.
They include Sadie, a labrador serving with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, in Kabul in 2005, and assigned to the Royal Gloucesteshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry. She was deployed with handler, Corporal Yardley, to search for secondary explosives after a fierce attack on international forces.
Despite obvious danger the pair completed their search, and Sadie discovered a hidden device designed to cause maximum damage, saving the lives of many civilians and soldiers.
Paddy the pigeon was one of the first birds to reach England with a coded message from the war-torn beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Dogs parachuted into occupied Europe with their handlers, fought with the SAS in North Africa, and in the case of Sheila, a Northumbrian sheepdog, helped save the lives of a bomber crew whose plane crashed in a blizzard.
The most recent award was made to springer spaniel Theo. He was given the award posthumously in October last year after making a record 14 confirmed finds of weapons, improvised explosive devices and bomb-making equipment while working with the Army in Afghanistan.
Theo died of a seizure in March 2011, hours after his handler Lance Corporal Liam Tasker was killed by enemy fire.
Other recent recipients include Apollo, a German shepherd with the New York police, who received the award on behalf of all the search and rescue dogs at Ground Zero and the Pentagon following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Jan McLoughlin, PDSA director general, said: "PDSA's founder, Maria Dickin CBE, instituted the PDSA Dickin Medal to recognise the vital role animals were playing during the Second World War. Seventy years later, the medal continues to honour animals in war, and although the nature of conflict has changed, the courage and devotion shown by animals remains the same. Each remarkable story demonstrates just how much animals help their human friends."
Also honouring the medal's anniversary is Jane Duffy, mother of the late Lance Corporal Tasker, who said: "The work of these animals is so important. Liam thought the world of Theo and, shortly before he died, Liam wrote and said that he wanted Theo to be put forward for the PDSA Dickin Medal.
"You see, to the men and women whose lives are at risk day in, day out, these animals are trusted comrades that can mean the difference between life and death. At the time of his death Theo had the highest number of operational finds ever recorded in Afghanistan, which made a massive difference to the work and lives of the soldiers whom he served alongside."
Colonel Neil Smith QHVS, the director of the Army Veterinary and Remount Services, said: "Animals serving in the Armed Forces make a massive difference to the lives of so many men and women, not only those serving, but also civilians whose lives our military are protecting. It is testament to the countless lives animals have saved that their role is honoured in this unique way with the PDSA Dickin Medal."