Book review: Judy: A Dog in a Million by Damien Lewis

Judy of Sussex, a liver-and-white English Pointer, wasn’t just a pretty face… she was also one of the most extraordinary dogs ever to grace this earth.

Tuesday, 24th June 2014, 10:00 am
Judy: A Dog in a Million by Damien Lewis
Judy: A Dog in a Million by Damien Lewis

The Dickin Medal winner – the animal world’s VC – was the only dog to be made an official prisoner of war of the Japanese, spending three years in one of the ‘hell’ camps of Sumatra and bringing inspiration and hope to men living through the 20th century’s darkest days.

Her awe-inspiring and humbling story of bravery, endurance, loyalty and love has been brought to life by author Damien Lewis who has spent twenty years reporting from war, disaster and conflict zones around the world and is on a mission to put remarkable dogs in the spotlight.

And Judy, whose long list of amazing feats includes dragging men to safety from the wreckage of a torpedoed ship and scavenging food to help feed starving POWs, really was a one-in-a-million dog.

Her story has mainly been assembled from the secret diaries (which if found could have cost him his life) of Stanley Russell who was in the same camp as Judy and one of her many POW companions.

Judy was born in 1936 into a litter of puppies at the English-run Shanghai Dog Kennels which bred the animals to serve as gundogs for Englishmen living in the city. Her adventurous spirit was clear from the start when she escaped and had a brief and dangerous period of freedom on the bustling streets of a city of three million people.

Luckily Judy was saved from becoming a meal for the native population who were partial to dog meat and then plucked from her cosy berth at the kennels by the crew of HMS Gnat, a British gunboat completing its annual refit at Shanghai.

The Gnat lacked a ship’s mascot and Judy, then six months old, fitted the bill… she was distinctly feminine, she was easy on the eye and she was more than capable of earning her keep.

Thus ‘Judy of Sussex,’ a title in keeping with her purebred, aristocratic attitude, became the responsibility of store keeper Able Seaman Jan ‘Tankey’ Cooper who doubled as the ship’s butcher and could provide a regular supply of bones.

It was the start of five years of service on the Royal Navy’s Yangtze River gunboats at a time when Japanese Imperial aggression was sweeping through China.

Judy survived bombs, torpedoes and shipwrecks but her greatest test began in March 1942 when she and the men who loved and depended on her to keep their spirits high were caught by the Japanese and forced to work on the Sumatran ‘hell railway.’

Judy, POW number ‘81A-Medan,’ was adored by the British, Australian, American and other Allied servicemen who fought to survive alongside her under horrific conditions. Viewed largely as human, Judy’s uncanny ability to sense danger, matched with her quick-thinking and impossible daring, saved countless lives.

She was a close companion to all the men who became like a family to her, sharing in both the tragedies and joys they faced and offering friendship and protection amidst the unforgiving and savage environment.

Judy’s unique combination of courage, kindness and fun helped to sustain the prisoners’ morale and gave them a tiny slice of the familiar… of faraway home.

By the end of the war, Judy had chosen just one man to be her best friend and ‘master.’ He was fellow POW Leading Aircraftman Frank Williams with whom she spent the rest of her life until she died in Tanzania in 1950.

Lewis’s heart-warming and often harrowing account of Judy’s incredible life is a tale of bravery and comradeship, and of the inspiration that comes from the indissoluble bonds between men and animals.

An unforgettable dog and an unforgettable story…

(Quercus, hardback, £18.99)