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War has within its varied histories some truly odd cases that have sort of slipped through the cracks to remain lodged firmly in the realm of the weird. These are the cases that fluctuate between the truly odd to the almost inspirational, and there is no shortage of such accounts throughout our history of killing each other. One such tale involves a very remarkable cat that proved that they have nine lives, managing to survive the sinking of three separate ships and to carve itself into the annals of World War II legends.
The main character of our tale here from all appearances was pretty nondescript and just a normal looking black and white tabby, but there was to be more to this cat than meets the eye. He began his weird odyssey with the Nazi regime, in the Nazi Kriegsmarinea naval forces as sort of mascot aboard the German battleship Bismarck, a massive vessel that was the first of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany. At 241 meters in length and weighing 41,700 tons, the Bismarck was a juggernaut feared by Allied forces, and here the cat went about his life blissfully unaware of the battles of mankind, just going about his life hunting rats and serving as moral support to the crew.
On May 27, 1941, the Bismarck was on what was to be its first and last mission, when the vessel came up against an Allied battleship called The Prince of Wales. A fierce battle ensued, and in the end the Bismarck was sunk, taking most of the crew with it. In the end only 118 of the ship’s 2,200 crew would survive, plus one cat. Hours after the Bismarck went down, the crew of the British destroyer HMS Cossack were treated to a strange sight, that of the cat bobbing about upon a piece of wreckage. The crew took the poor, soaking wet shivering thing in, calling the cat “Oscar,” which comes from a square, diagonally red and yellow flag from the International Code of Signals called Oscar, which means “man overboard.” From here his adventures would continue.
Oscar found himself aboard the HMS Cossack in much the same capacity that he had served on the Bismarck, a sort of mascot and friend of the crew, only now he was with the Allies of the Royal Navy. Over the next few months, the HMS Cossack carried out convoy missions in the Mediterranean Sea and north Atlantic Ocean. However, on October 24, 1941, the vessel was badly damaged by a torpedo fired from a German submarine, the deadly blast from the hit killing 159 of the crew. There was an attempt to tow the limping ship to Gibraltar, but it ultimately sank and was swallowed by the sea. Among the survivors of this tragedy was the cat Oscar, once again found floating about on a piece of debris. After surviving two sunken ships, he then earned the nickname “Unsinkable Sam,” but his adventure was not quite over yet.
Sam was transferred to the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and things went smoothly at first, but tragedy was not far behind the plucky, extraordinarily lucky cat. Although HMS Ark Royal was considered to be a “lucky ship,” having made it through some very close calls, and was even part of the fleet that had taken down the Bismarck, it seems as if its luck was about to run out. On November 14, 1941, the HMS Ark Royal was making a return from Malta to Gibraltar, when it was torpedoed by the Garman submarine U-81, leaving the massive vessel wallowing like a wounded beast. The aircraft carrier valiantly stayed afloat as attempts were made to tow it to Gibraltar, but it would inevitably sink, fortunately without any fatalities. Once again, Sam was found on the waves on a plank of wood, reportedly “angry but quite unharmed.” He was put aboard the HMS Lightning, then moved to HMS Legion, which was ironically the same boat that had tried to rescue the Cossack. After this, Sam was retired from duty at sea. He ended up at a seaman’s home in Belfast called the “Home for Sailors,” where he lived out the rest of his days in peace and died of natural causes in 1955, having survived whatever the war had thrown at him.
The story of Unsinkable Sam has gone on to become almost legendary, and is often told among Royal sailors, but some have doubted the veracity of the account. As there are no mentions of the cat in any of the official descriptions of any of these sinkings, as well as the fact that it seems unlikely that the cat would survive such horrific tragedies, it has been accused of being just a tall sea tale and completely apocryphal in nature. There are not even any confirmed photos of Sam, with two different pictures of two different cats making the rounds and claimed to be the real “Unsinkable Sam.” Whether it is true or not, a pastel drawing of Sam by the artist Georgina Shaw-Baker hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and there are plenty of those who insist it is all real. Whether it is or not, it is an inspirational and odd little tale, and one certainly hopes it really happened as described.