During World War II, reindeer were doing more than helping Santa bring presents to children’s homes. In addition to that task, reindeer from the Artic hauled supplies to the battlefront. Americans shipped guns and other supplies to a port in Murmansk, Russia to aid their Soviet allies. Though many ships didn’t make it to the port, the supplies that did needed to be transported to the battlefield. That’s when the reindeer, along with other pack animals like donkeys, were put to use.
Russian reindeer herders volunteered not only themselves but also their animals to serve in the war. Vladimir Kanev, a reindeer herder who served early in World War II, described the experience. “We rushed to the front, transporting as many shells and mines as we could load on the sledges. After that we spent all winter running between Murmansk and Litsa.”
British and American students of World War II tend to think of the tanks used by their militaries to carry men and supplies, but the Soviets did not have the same resources, especially in the Artic. This fact made reindeer important not only for bringing guns and ammunition to the battlefields but also in caring for the wounded soldiers. Vladimir says, “Often working under fire, we wrapped the wounded in deer skins, tied them down on the sledges and ran them to the hospitals.” Reindeer herders sometimes found pilots who had been shot down, and the reindeer helped carry them out of danger. During the winter of 1941, reindeer and their herders brought 6,000 soldiers to safety. On occasion, reindeer even towed some downed planes so the parts could be reused.
It was dangerous work for the animals and their human leaders. The harsh climate as well as German planes and ships put the supply route under constant threat. Out of eight hundred herders who went to the northern front in 1941, six hundred returned.
Reindeer remained important throughout the war. After 1941, thousands of additional reindeer contributed to the Soviets’ success. One herder recalls the Soviet invasion of Norway in 1944. Both the herders and their reindeer participated in chasing their German enemies. The herder says, “we harnessed all the deer we could and ran with the rest of the Army, swimming the deer across countless rivers and streams…sometimes we even caught isolated German soldiers by lasso!”
Given the contributions of reindeer to Allied victory in World War II, the director of the Lovozero Museum near Murmansk hopes to build a monument in honor of the animals.