Animal Stories

The Cat that Survived Three Sinking Ships

If any creature ever got that sinking feeling, it was surely a feline sailor who got it three times but waded through them all. The black and white cat was originally named Oscar but then became known as Unsinkable Sam.

He started his sea-going career in the Kriegsmarine, the fighting navy of the Workers Reich and ended his vocation in the Royal Navy. Sam was on board Bismarck, the HMS Cossack, and the HMS Ark Royal, but here comes the cool part: while all those three ships sank, Sam survived them all.

Bismarck. Image via Wikipedia.

Bismarck was the first of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Germany’s Kriegsmarine. Named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the battleship was launched on 14 February 1939, measured 241 meters in length and weighed 41,700 tons. Bismarck was involved in a battle with MS The Prince of Wales, when its steering gear was badly damaged and became inoperable

Ultimately, the warship sank, and only 118 from its crew of over 2,200 survived. Hours later, Oscar was found floating on a board and picked up from the water. The cat was the only survivor to be rescued by the homeward-bound British destroyer HMS Cossack. The crew not knowing the cat’s name named him Oscar. It was then that Unsinkable Sam switched sides from the Reich to the Allied forces, but his luck didn’t change all that much. 

HMS Cossack

The cat served on board HMS Cossack for the next few months as the ship carried out convoy escort duties in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. Things went pretty smoothly for a brief period, but ultimately, the destroyer was badly damaged by a torpedo, and 139 members of its crew were killed.

On October 27, 1941, a day after the tow was slipped, the Royal Navy’s HMS Cossack sank to the west of Gibraltar. Oscar was found clinging to a piece of plank.

The cat with still seven lives to go made it through the ordeal and was brought to the shore establishment in Gibraltar. When they learned what happened, British officers changed his name to Unsinkable Sam. It was a fitting name for a cat that survived the sinking of two warships. But his adventure wasn’t over quite yet…

Unsinkable Sam was then adopted by the crew of the HMS Ark Royal. Ironically, this was the aircraft carrier that was instrumental in sinking the Bismarck.

Ark Royal survived several near misses and gained a reputation as a ‘lucky ship’.  Germany incorrectly reported her as sunk on multiple occasions. But the cat’s luck didn’t last. When returning from Malta on November 14, 1941, this ship, too, was torpedoed, this time by a U-boat.

HMS Ark Royal

This time, Sam was found clinging to a floating plank by a motor launch and described as ‘angry but quite unharmed’.

But by this time, Sam had enough. He was transferred to a job on land and spent his days hunting mice in the building of the Governor-General in Gibraltar. Eventually, he was sent back to the UK where he remained at a Home for Sailors in Belfast until the end of his earthly days.

Painting of Unsinkable Sam.

Some people question the reliability of Sam’s story, classing it as a ‘sea story’. Surviving the Bismarck sinking seems especially unlikely, as salvaging the crew was done in desperate conditions. Even so, I could easily imagine a British soldier taking the time to save the cat.

We don’t know if the story is true or not, but we’ll just take it as it is for now. Take it as you wish: as a legend or a myth, or the plain reality. The story checks out, as much as any story of this type could check out.

According to the story, Unsinkable Sam survived the destruction of three warships in World War II and lived happily until 1955. A pastel portrait of Sam (titled Oscar, the Bismarck’s Cat) by the artist Georgina Shaw-Baker is in the possession of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Oh, and as for Sam’s legacy, it goes to show that even in the direst of circumstances, even as everything around you is crumbling down, you can still cling on to a piece of wood, get rescued, and move on to another ship and start over again. Or it goes to show that cats really do have nine lives, all of which are absolutely worth living. Source

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