Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Bamse the St. Bernard: Brave ‘Bear’ of the Sea

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Bamse the St. Bernard: Brave ‘Bear’ of the Sea

By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense chief canine correspondent

Tom’s recent posts on the seedy behavior of some naval officers got me thinking about a far more virtuous sailor and the Royal Norwegian Forces’ beloved mascot during WWII.

Bamse (which is Norwegian for cuddly bear or teddy bear — take your pick), was a St. Bernard who belonged to the family of Erling Hafto, captain of Thorodd, a whaling vessel. A gentle giant weighing in at 14 stone (that’s 196 lbs!), Bamse officially became a war dog when Captain Hafto’s ship was drafted into the service of the Royal Norwegian Navy during the first years of WWII. By 1940, the ship, by that point a minesweeper, regularly docked in a town called Montrose, Scotland where Bamse quickly became a neighborhood fixture where he was oft seen making the rounds “decked out in a white sailor’s collar and mariner’s cap.”

The stories about Bamse are some of the most delightful I’ve come across — tales of how he would break up fights between the men by launching his large paws on the agitated sailor’s shoulders to subdue him. Or, almost unbelievably, how this large dog would ride the local bus unaccompanied to a nearby pub and retrieve the drunken crew to lead them safely back to their ship.

More impressive still are the multiple occasions during which Bamse displayed life-saving heroics: Rescuing one man from an assailant wielding a knife, and leaping into the cold water to save another sailor, who had fallen in unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, keeping the man afloat until help arrived.

Bamse died from heart failure in July of 1944, apparently right there on the docks near his ship. A remarkable crowd gathered for his funeral in Montrose:

Bamse’s coffin draped with the Royal Norwegian flag with his sailor’s cap perched on it was carried by six of the Thorodd’s crew. Eight hundred children silently lined the way and shopkeepers, factory workers and housewives turned out with them. Local dignitaries and the crew of six Norwegian ships stood guard of honour. Bamse was buried in the sand-dunes on the banks of the South Esk River.”

Bamse’s life and legend is lovingly documented by the Montrose Heritage Trust — a group that operates a thorough website devoted entirely to Bamse, complete with a series on Bamse’s adventures complete with testimonials from residents who remember well the days when this canine caretaker lumbered through the streets of Montrose.

Andrew Orr, coauthor of Sea Dog Bamse, had this to tell me about the beloved Bamse:

Bamse was a truly remarkable dog that served throughout most of WWII on the same ship. He showed remarkable intelligence in looking after the crew in difficult circumstances, he displayed steadfast courage in action, defying danger, and he actually saved the lives of two of the crew.  He moved from being a ship’s mascot to being the mascot of all the free Norwegian forces. After his death his memory has endured as a symbol of the brave Norwgegian struggle against oppression, and as a mark of the close relationship between the Norwegain and Scottish peoples.”

Bonus: Visiting Montrose? Take the Bamse Trail.

(Special thanks: G. Millar)