There are many amazing untold tales of World War II. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary is that of the Airborne Lions, a British parachute regiment commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery. They only flew one mission before they were disbanded, but that mission was to prove critical to the war's outcome.
The idea for the mission came from Churchill himself, who believed that air-dropping a number of heavily armed big cats into enemy territory would inflict an enormous shock to German morale, and in his own words "scare the shit out of the Bosch". He gathered together his finest generals and ordered them to make it happen.
There was little trouble finding the lions. Numerous zoos throughout Britain were happy to lend their animals to help the war effort. Indeed, many local press photographs of the time show lions queueing to join up.
However, training the lions to be combat-ready proved to be much harder. Despite using the country's best lion-tamers, none of the cats could be made to handle a rifle, never mind fire a field gun or drive a tank. It was decided to abandon weapons training and concentrate on utilising the cats' natural attacking abilities.
As they were intended to be used in a parachute drop, it was necessary to train the cats to open their parachutes at the correct time. This proved to be a challenge as the cats would often get their claws caught in the lines. After a couple of cats were tragically lost in test jumps over England, a mechanism was devised to allow their parachutes to be opened automatically.
Another problem for the cats was that despite their bravery, they appeared to be terrified of jumping out of a moving aircraft. Usually they had to be pushed out. A lion tamer had to be on board every plane to ensure that they completed the jump, often by physically removing their paws from clinging on to the edge of the plane.
At last, on the 19th of July 1943, the Airborne Lions were ready for their first and final mission. Seven lions were chucked out of a Dakota transport plane over northern Germany. Because they were not trained to use a radio, the British had to wait until the end of the war before they found out how successful the mission had been. But after analysing German records, the truth of the cat soldiers can finally be told.
The lions landed just outside the village of Mittel Tinkel, whereupon they immediately devoured the entire population of 458 people. Their hunger was especially fierce because they had been deliberately starved by the British before the mission began.
Many German soldiers perished after approaching the lions, giving the cats a reputation for being merciless as well as fearsome. Eventually three entire German divisions had to be diverted from the Western front to defeat the beasts. Even then, it was only possible to calm the ferocious felines by distracting them with a giant saucer of milk.
When Hitler learned of the attack, he believed that the British had successfully bred a superior race of military cat-men. He immediately ordered his generals to begin work on an army of hybrid Nazi cat-people of his own, diverting precious resources from the German war effort. But despite many attempts, the Germans never did manage to successfully breed a human with a lion.
Sadly, almost all of the Airborne Lions were killed in the days following their mission. As they were unable to communicate with the foreign Germans, they were unable to surrender. Only one lion named Lion-o was captured alive and eventually imprisoned in Colditz Castle with other high-ranking prisoners. He died there before the war ended.
A documentary on Monty's Airborne Lions will be shown on Channel 6 on Monday next week, then repeated on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. It will also be shown on Channel Timothy hourly until next year.