Friday, December 5, 2014

Unsinkable Sam: The Heroic Cat Who Served on the Bismarck.....And the Cossack......And the Ark Royal


I make no bones about the fact that I am a cat man. In fact, I am something of a cat whisperer. Cats love me, be they domesticated or feral. In a way, I almost prefer the company of cats to the company of most people. (Present company excluded, of course.) My redhead and I share our home with five of them. Two of them are presently giving assistance with the writing of this post, as cats are known to do. Mark Twain said "When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade without further introduction." I could not say it better myself.

Felines have a long, proud history of service in the navies and merchant fleets of the world. Why? Well, it is pretty simple. They catch mice. During the days of the wooden ships (and iron men) you would have been hard pressed to find a ship that did not include a cat or two. Polydactyl cats (those with an extra toe) were especially favored aboard sailing vessels and they could use their "thumbs" to help them walk in the ship's rigging. Sailors also don't mind a ship's mascot and the cat could serve that purpose as well. 

Schlactshiff Bismarck
Credit: Bundesarchiv

When the dreaded German battleship Bismarck sallied forth to do battle with the foe in 1941, she carried a crew of roughly 2200 officers and men. Plus one cat. According to the tale, Oskar, a black and white rather handsome looking descendant of Leo prowled the decks. As we all know (or should know) the Bismarck met her fate at the hands of the Royal Navy on May 27, 1941. Most of the crew perished. Some were plucked out of the water by British destroyers, but they had to abandon rescue efforts after a submarine scare leaving hundreds of men to die of drowning or exposure. The HMS Cossack came up empty handed in her search for survivors. Almost. Her crew spotted a piece of wreckage floating in the water with a very wet and probably irritable cat perched on it. They brought him aboard and, not knowing what the Germans had called him, named him Oscar too! But of course they used the English spelling!

And then after a few months, the Germans torpedoed the Cossack, killing over 150 crewmen. But not Oscar! Survivors transferred to a rescue vessel while the Cossack was still afloat and they took their lucky cat with them. Though given the fact that both his ships met watery fates make me question how lucky he was. But there is more to the tale. After spending some time on shore duty in Gibraltar, Oscar received new orders transferring him to the carrier HMS Ark Royal. In a bit of irony, planes from this very ship helped sink our furry friend's first home! Given the fact that he had survived the sinking of two ships, his new shipmates renamed him Unsinkable Sam. Not a good idea.

HMS Ark Royal
Imperial War Museum

It is bad luck to rename a ship. I think it might also be bad luck to rename the Ship's Cat. And need I remind you, Dear Readers, what happened to the RMS Titanic when some boneheaded people claimed that is was "unsinkable". Can you see where I am going with this? She too ran afoul of the dreaded unterseebooten and sank. Luckily she did not sink all that quickly and all but one of the crew survived. According to author William Jameson who wrote a "biography" of the Ark Royal, a motor launch found our friend "Unsinkable" Sam floating on a piece of wreckage "angry but quite unharmed." I think I'd have been a little pissed too if I were him. 

Luckily for Sam, his service was nearly at an end. He got to spend some more time on shore duty in Gibraltar before receiving his discharge papers. After an uneventful trip to the British Isles, he retired to Belfast where he lived a long (and probably uneventful compared to his military service) life prowling the halls of a sailor's retirement home. He passed on to that great bowl of catnip in the sky in 1955.

This is a truly remarkable story and as I am sure you can imagine, some doubt the veracity of this feline sea story. But I prefer to think that it is all true. Why? Because I can. Just because some people left it out of their accounts of events doesn't mean it didn't happen. Plenty of men survived being torpedoed and sunk multiple times. (6 is the most that I know of, though others may have been more.) So if it can happen to a person, why not a cat? And this also brings up another point. Think of all of poor animals lost during World War Two. Tens of thousands of pets perished during the Blitz in London. Many more in Germany. And Russia. And all the other countries who experienced the fury of war directly on their shores and the skies over their cities. And what of all the other ship's mascots (be the dog or cat) who perished when fate reached out to smite their floating homes. Let us not forget them either.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who is not afraid to admit that he loves cats.

My name is Simon Diogenes Legree and I approve this post.

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