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Unsinkable Sam: The Cat That Always Came Back

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A cat with a charmed life served in both the German Kriegsmarine and the British Royal Navy during World War II and survived three sinkings. On the other hand, it can be argued that Unsinkable Sam, as he came to be known, was a Jonah, a ship’s passenger who brought bad luck.

Unsinkable Sam.

Unsinkable Sam.

Sam on the Bismark

Sam’s first owner was a sailor aboard the German flagship Bismark. The battleship was the most powerful naval vessel of the era. On May 19, 1941 she set sail from the Baltic port of Gotenhafen (now called Gdynia in Poland). Her mission was to attack Allied convoys that were carrying vital supplies to beleaguered Britain.

The Royal Navy mustered a huge fleet to sink the Bismark before she could wreak havoc among the convoys. After a three-day, running battle, the huge battleship was sunk; of her crew of more than 2,200 only 116 survived. One hundred and seventeen survived if you count a black and white patched cat who floated out of the wreckage aboard a piece of timber.

Sailors from HMS Cossack rescued the animal and gave it the name Oscar. This came from the International Code of Signals in which the letter “O,” pronounced Oscar, stands for “man overboard.”

Sam on the Cossack

Oscar’s (or Sam’s) new home was a Royal Navy destroyer, a much more modest vessel than the Bismark. Oscar and his new crew spent the next few months escorting convoys in the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean.

On October 24, 1941, HMS Cossack was providing cover for a convoy from Gibraltar to Britain when she was severely damaged by a torpedo fired from a German submarine.

The crew and Oscar were transferred to another destroyer while an attempt was made to tow the crippled ship back to Gibraltar. However, poor weather moved in and the tow had to be severed, leaving HMS Cossack to sink.

Oscar was brought safely to harbour in Gibraltar.

Blackie was the ship's cat aboard HMS Prince of Wales, which took Winston Churchill (seen here petting Blackie) to the Atlantic Conference of 1941. The crew changed Blackie's name to Churchill.

Blackie was the ship's cat aboard HMS Prince of Wales, which took Winston Churchill (seen here petting Blackie) to the Atlantic Conference of 1941. The crew changed Blackie's name to Churchill.

Sam on the Ark Royal

Oscar’s next posting was on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, which is where he acquired his new nickname “Unsinkable Sam.”

By a strange coincidence, it was the Ark Royal that played a crucial role in Sam’s transfer from the Kriegsmarine to the Royal Navy. The Bismark was on the verge of escaping the Royal Navy pursuit when an ancient Swordfish biplane from the Ark Royal launched a torpedo that jammed the German battleship’s steering gear. This caused the Bismark to steam in a large circle and fall prey to the Royal Navy’s guns.

But, Sam’s tour of duty aboard the Ark Royal was short-lived. On November 14, 1941, HMS Ark Royal was torpedoed by another German submarine in the Mediterranean. Another towing attempt failed, but all but one of the aircraft carrier’s crew was saved, and, of course, so was Sam.

In his 2004 book, Ark Royal: The Life of an Aircraft Carrier at War 1939-41, William Jameson writes that Sam was discovered hanging on to a floating plank “angry but quite unharmed.”

The crew and Sam are rescued from the badly listing HMS Ark Royal.

The crew and Sam are rescued from the badly listing HMS Ark Royal.

Retirement From Active Service

After his third brush with death, it was decided that Sam should, in Navy parlance, “swallow the anchor” and complete his military service on dry land.

He was first assigned to a desk job (actually, his title was chief mouser) in the offices of the Governor of Gibraltar, the impressively named Field Marshal John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort.

But, seawater was in his blood and he was shipped back to Britain. He served out the rest of the war in Belfast looking after the lads in a seaman’s home that was named with bureaucratic originality the “Home for Sailors.”

Unsinkable Sam proved to have top quality genes and he finally expired in 1955. As is appropriate for so distinguished a feline, The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London has in its possession a pastel portrait of Sam.

More ship's cats this time nestled in a 7.5 inch gun barrel aboard HMS Hawkins.

More ship's cats this time nestled in a 7.5 inch gun barrel aboard HMS Hawkins.

A “Sea Story?”

There are a few killjoys who question the authenticity of Unsinkable Sam’s life yarn. They call it a “sea story,” probably with a derisive sniff.

They suggest Sam’s life may have an affinity to legends of sailors seeing mermaids and sea monsters, as if those things don’t exist.

These skeptics point to Ludovic Kennedy’s 2001 definitive work, Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismark, in which no mention is made of Oscar/Sam. As is often pointed out, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Bonus Factoids

Simon, the hero of the Yangtze Incident, was awarded the Dickin Medal by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. It’s the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross and was bestowed on Simon for his service aboard HMS Amethyst in 1949. He was the ship’s cat as the vessel was steaming up the Yangtze River when it was shelled by Communist Chinese shore batteries. One round exploded in the wheelhouse and bridge wounding Simon. The Amethyst managed to get upstream and out of range of the guns but was trapped there for three months. Simon was cleaned and stitched up before he returned to duty. His job was to protect the ship’s food store from the many rats aboard, a task he filled with great vigor. He also worked to improve the morale of the crew and became a therapy cat for the wounded sailors. He was given the rank of Able Seacat Simon.

HMS Hermione was a light cruiser in Britain’s Royal Navy. She spent much of her time on convoy escort duty along with her cat, appropriately named Convoy. He was issued a full able seaman’s kit and the crew made him a tiny hammock for when he needed a nap. The Hermione was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean in June 1942. Convoy and 87 other members of the crew were lost.

Convoy aboard HMS Hermione.

Convoy aboard HMS Hermione.

Sources

  • “Unsinkable Sam the Cat.” Adela, Naked History, April 5, 2017.
  • “The Cats that Fought in World War II – The Allies.” Popular Social Science, Tor G. Jakobsen, February 8, 2013.
  • “Wartime Hero Cat Simon Remembered.” BBC News, November 1, 2007.
  • “Cats at Sea: 7 Famous Seafaring Felines.” Melissa Breyer, Mother Nature Network, April 26, 2012.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 01, 2018:

Yes, they are crafty little rascals aren't they.

Theophanes Avery from New England on May 01, 2018:

Oh, I love it! What a sweet little story! Leave it to a cat to sink three vessels and gain the admiration of both sides of a war!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 01, 2018:

What a lovely story about Unsinkable Sam. He certainly had a colourful and varied feline life! I love cats.