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Unsinkable Sam, a cat that defeated the Nazis and survived sinking of three ships… or did it?

Sam Dickson

We often need fantasy not only to cheer us up but even to offer us purpose in times of desperation. Fictional, sea stories are not uncommon, especially under the harsh circumstances of war. Such was the world of WWII. And such might be the story of Unsinkable Sam – a cat that might have survived the sinking of three boats!

It was 18th of May, 1941, and the German battleship Bismarck set sail on its first and only offensive mission into the Atlantic. Less than a week later, it managed to sink HMS Hood, the pride of Royal Navy. Bismarck was one of two largest ships ever built in Germany, so you could say it was a fair win.

But the Brits were outraged. Nine days later, a ferocious retaliation bombardment completely destroyed Bismarck, killing more than 2,000 of its crew. Among the few survivors was the ship’s cat, so the story goes.

The cat was rescued by the British destroyer HMS Cossack, on which it was to serve for the following few months. Obviously ignorant of its real name, the Allied sailors gave it a new one, Oscar.

Then on 24th of October, Cossack too got into trouble. It was fatally torpedoed by a German U-boat. A third of the ship was blown off and three days later HMS Cossack sank near Gibraltar. Oscar lost his new home, but once again kept his life.

The Tribal class destroyer HMS Cossack (F03) underway on completion. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

The Tribal class destroyer HMS Cossack (F03) underway on completion. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

Amazed by the seemingly final proof that felines have multiple lives, it is said that at that point Oscar got a new nickname – Unsinkable Sam. He was transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, the very boat that hosted the planes which destroyed Oscar’s first home at sea. By then, it must have occurred to someone that the cat was bad luck. But, not really.

On 14 of November, Ark Royal too suffered a torpedo attack which subsequently sank it 30 miles from Gibraltar. Oscar was supposedly found clinging to a plank, “angry but quite unharmed”. There isn’t much data on why someone decided that Oscar was to be retired, but that’s just what had (finally) happened.

HMS Arc Royal slowly sinking to the bottom. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

HMS Arc Royal slowly sinking to the bottom. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

Unsinkable Sam spent the rest of WWII first as an office cat with the Governor of Gibraltar, and then in Belfast where it died in 1955. The story of Oscar-Sam the wartime hoodoo-hero spread like wildfire, but it also met resistance. Namely, some relevant authors claim the whole story is fiction.

First, there are two images that claim to represent Oscar. A photograph, and a painting. Both evidently epitomize two different cats. Then, there’s the assumption that it was highly unlikely for anyone to bother saving a feline with Nazi U-boats torpedoing whatever they put their eyes on. Lastly, no survivors from Bismarck (and there actually were some) remember a cat ever existed on their ship.

Oscar, who? The survivors of Bismarck being rescued by HMS Dorsetshire. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

Oscar, who? The survivors of Bismarck being rescued by HMS Dorsetshire. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

True or not, the story of Unsinkable Sam kept the fighters going. And probably offered some sound excuses for the ships lost before the final victory.