“The Dog Who Could Fly,” by Damien Lewis. Atria Books. $26.
Fasten your seatbelt, this fast-moving World War II docudrama keeps you on edge from cover to cover – with an intoxicating blend of tension and passion, from air raids over Europe to blackouts in England and Scotland. The focus of this multinational thriller is an orphaned German shepherd puppy rescued by a fleeing Czech airman from a French farmhouse in 1939.
The dog, Ant (later named Antis), and Robert Bozdech, the Czech airman who was shot down over enemy lines, escaped and later joined the RAF Bomber Control, become Velcro mates thereafter, posing countless rescue and protocol challenges for everyone around them at each air base they are stationed.
Lewis describes the pair’s connection: “Robert was not only the master of this adolescent pup: he felt as if he had become its father figure, and as if the fates of man and dog were inextricably intertwined.”
After escaping the Nazis, the chore ahead proves equally daunting for Bozdech – namely getting Ant undetected into England with its strict six-month quarantine. He successfully pulls off the hidden-dog trick with a little help from his Czech mates.
“The dog’s one of us,” Joska (a Czech air mate) reasons, “He’s an airman. And his circumstances are utterly different from any other animal aboard this ship. He’s the squadron’s dog and a fellow flier, and for all we know we eight are all that’s left of the squadron. We stick together, come what may.”
Ant is not only a huge favorite with the airmen but everyone Bozdech encounters, including Pam, an English nurse who becomes his girlfriend.
When Ant isn’t secretly accompanying Bozdech on bombing missions he’s serving at home as a canine radar – warning base personnel of approaching German aircraft and saving untold lives.
Antis’ ability to survive and return to his master is tested in just about every environment imaginable. Add to that the escape artist’s acumen to flee the barracks while his master is on a flying mission, keeping Bozdech’s RAF buddies in full pursuit in the countryside constantly.
Antis takes up the same position near the airfield Bozdech departs for each sortie run, faithfully awaiting his return in all weather and sometimes howling when his master does not touch down within a normal time frame. One of those vigils almost costs him his life in cold Northern Scotland, as he assumes the appearance of a frozen statue and is carefully removed to shelter by two of Bozdech’s friends.
But Antis is a survivor. By the time he is about 4 years old he has been wounded twice in action over Germany; shot by an irate Welsh farmer for chasing his sheep; been impaled on metal railings at RAF Everton, which almost proved fatal.
Following the war, Antis is presented the Dickin Medal, known as the “Animal Victoria Cross.” In 1951 Bozdech became a British citizen. Antis died in 1953 at age 14.
There are tailwinds and headwinds in the flow here, but Lewis’ work moves with gusto throughout this emotional bumpy ride packed with vigor and sensitivity.