Cats are said to have nine lives, but for cat lovers throughout the world, this belief is sadly incorrect all too often. Some furry pals, on the other hand, are more fortunate than others. During World War II, one kitten called Unsinkable Sam rose to prominence as one of them, notably defying death not once, not twice, but three times.
At first, Oscar was the name given to the black and white cat, but it was later changed to Unsinkable Sam. He began his “career” in the Kriegsmarine, the Nazi regime’s navy, and ended it in the Royal Navy. He served on the Bismarck, the HMS Cossack, and the HMS Ark Royal, but the best thing is that, despite the fact that all three ships sank, Sam survived.
The sinking of the Bismarck
The first of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine, Bismarck was launched in 1939. The battleship was launched on February 14, 1939, and was named for Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. It was 241 meters long and weighed 41,700 tons. The Bismarck was seriously damaged in a fight with the Prince of Wales, an allied battleship, and became un-maneuverable as a result.
The ship eventually sank, with only 118 of the ship’s 2,200-strong crew surviving. A few hours later, Oscar was discovered floating on a board and rescued from the water by the homeward-bound British warship HMS Cossack. The crew had no idea what the cat’s name was, so they called him Oscar. At that point, Unsinkable Sam switched sides from the Nazis to the Allies at that point, but his luck didn’t improve much.
The sinking of the HMS Cossack
For the next few months, the cat stayed on board the Cossack as the ship performed convoy escort missions in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. For a brief moment, everything went swimmingly, until the destroyer was seriously damaged by a torpedo and 139 of the crew were killed.
The Cossack sank off the coast of Gibraltar on October 27th, 1941, a day after the tow was slipped and Oscar was discovered clinging to a plank. He survived the incident and was taken to the Gibraltar shore establishment. When British officers realized what had happened, they renamed him Unsinkable Sam, a suitable name for a cat who had survived the loss of two vessels. But his quest was far from over.
The sinking of the HMS Ark Royal
Unsinkable Sam was then adopted by the crew of the HMS Ark Royal, which, unfortunately, was involved in the sinking of the Bismarck. The Ark Royal was known as a “lucky ship” after surviving multiple near-misses. In several instances, the Germans reported her as sunk, while she was actually in the right spot. But the good fortune didn’t last, and on November 14th, 1941, while returning from Malta, this ship, too, was destroyed, this time by a U-boat.
Unsinkable Sam was discovered clinging to a floating board by a motor launch this time, and was characterized as “furious but uninjured.” Sam, on the other hand, had had enough by this point. He was reassigned to a land position and spent his days killing mice in the Governor General’s building in Gibraltar. He was eventually returned to the United Kingdom, where he lived out the rest of his days in a “Home for Sailors” in Belfast.
Later Life and Fame of Unsinkable Sam
Some people call Sam’s story a “sea story,” and some doubt its truth. Surviving the sinking of the Bismarck seems especially unlikely, given the dire circumstances under which the crew was rescued. Nonetheless, I can well envision a British soldier going out of his way to save the cat.
According to folklore, Unsinkable Sam escaped the sinking of three ships during WWII and lived peacefully until 1955. The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, has a pastel Unsinkable Sam portrait of (named “Oscar, the Bismarck’s Cat”) by artist Georgina Shaw-Baker.
When word got out about Unsinkable Sam and his three near-death experiences in the ocean, the cat became a celebrity. He was featured in newspapers all around the world, posed for photographs by artists, and even starred in children’s books. For the most part, Sam was unconscious of his celebrity, preferring the calm life of the Northern Irish countryside following his tumultuous early years. He lived to be 16 years old and died of natural causes in 14 Mar 1955 Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
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