How cats played a key wartime role

New Zealand soldiers line up at Lyttelton in 1914, ready for a journey to the battlefields. A close look reveals that ...

New Zealand soldiers line up at Lyttelton in 1914, ready for a journey to the battlefields. A close look reveals that one soldier is armed with a friendly cat.

It seems incongruous, that cat sitting on the shoulder of an Anzac soldier in the photo above. These men of the Canterbury Regiment are lined up, at Lyttelton, to board a ship bound for battlefields on the other side of the world.

It's 1914 and they're off to war. Yet there's still time for a little fun with a most unwarlike pet.

Cats – it's odd to say it – have long had a place in war. Not as fighters, of course, but as ship's cats or dugout mousers or the mascots of fighting groups. Countless times, too, they've been adopted by soldiers who find them left behind in war zones, their human families put to flight or worse.

The bond between sailors and cats goes back centuries, if not thousands of years. Ship's cats did the grave duty of killing rats and mice that otherwise would eat or contaminate supplies, or generally foul the working and living quarters of sailors. In this role, they enjoyed esteem as fellow toilers as well as playful companions.

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In some traditions, sailors also saw cats as bringers of luck to a crew, which must have helped a cat's standing on the ship. But in one notable case, you have to wonder about that luck-bringing thing.

This is the case of a black and white puss who lived on the German battleship Bismarck in World War II. When the ship sank in 1941, the cat was one of the few survivors, picked up by the British destroyer Cossack as he floated by on a board.

From then, given the name Oscar, the cat switched sides and served the Royal Navy. But Oscar had more strife ahead: the Cossack sank. Again the cat survived, and was brought to shore in Gibraltar.

A cat makes its home in a dugout at Gallipoli in 1915.

A cat makes its home in a dugout at Gallipoli in 1915.

Now famous as "Unsinkable Sam", Oscar was assigned duties on the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. But again the ship sank – torpedoed. Again, Oscar clung to a floating board and was rescued. When found, he was "angry but quite unharmed", according to a history of the Ark Royal.

Thereafter, Oscar or Unsinkable Sam spent his life on land. A grateful nation brought him home and lodged him comfortably at a seamen's home in Belfast, where he lived till 1955.

Another star among ship's cats was Simon. He was doing mousing duties on the British warship Amethyst when it got trapped on the Yangtse river in 1949, during China's civil war. Simon was wounded in the shelling of the ship by communist rebels.

Troops of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company play with their mascot, Snowy, near Arras, France, in 1918.

Troops of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company play with their mascot, Snowy, near Arras, France, in 1918.

But Simon rallied and got back to the task of killing vermin and keeping up morale of the crew. He was made "Able Seacat" and was famous on his return to Britain, but he died there soon after and was buried with naval honours.

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Simon is still the only cat ever to win the Dickin Medal for animals that show "conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty" while serving UK forces. Pigeons, dogs and horses are the only other winners.

The ranks of esteemed ship's cats are many, but one more gets a mention here. Blackie was ship's cat on HMS Prince of Wales during World War II. He did his work quietly till a day in 1941. That day, prime minister Winston Churchill was on the ship, after a secret meeting with US president Franklin Roosevelt in Newfoundland.

Able Seacat Simon of the Amethyst, with admirers in 1949.

Able Seacat Simon of the Amethyst, with admirers in 1949.

As Churchill prepared to leave the ship, Blackie approached him. The great man bent to greet Blackie, and cameras clicked or whirred; Blackie became a celebrity.

In fact, he was renamed: Churchill.

Cats' role as aides and companions to fighting men isn't limited to the sea. They've often served on land as mascots and pets at military camps and positions.

Winston Churchill stoops to pet Blackie, ship's cat on Prince of Wales, in 1941. The gesture turned Blackie into a celebrity.
Imperial War Museum

Winston Churchill stoops to pet Blackie, ship's cat on Prince of Wales, in 1941. The gesture turned Blackie into a celebrity.

It's estimated that in World War I, half a million cats were brought to the trenches of Europe and Turkey, again as vermin-hunters but also as loved pets.

There's a story of Pitoutchi, a cat born on the trenches and adopted by a Belgian soldier. One day, the soldier encountered German troops on patrol. He hoped the Germans wouldn't see him in the shell hole where he hid, but he heard one say "He's in the hole."

Just then, Pitoutchi jumped from the hole on to a piece of timber. The Germans shot at the cat, missed, and laughed that they'd mistaken a cat for an enemy soldier. They left, and Pitoutchi's soldier companion's life was saved.

A British officer with a kitten during World War I. Cats were often adopted as companions, mascots or mousers.

A British officer with a kitten during World War I. Cats were often adopted as companions, mascots or mousers.

Why does a soldier in the trenches make a pet of a cat? Sure, a playful cat can relieve boredom, and in a setting where hugs generally aren't going to happen, it can provide a warm little body to cuddle.

But I think it goes beyond that. Imagine our New Zealand soldiers in World War I and World War II. They're enduring risk and pain and drudgery because they're sure their country needs defending; they think that's what they left behind at home is in danger. Families, towns, traditions, values.

These men are parted from family – often before the young men have even had a chance to form their own.

A British soldier plays with his camp's mascot cat in 1918.

A British soldier plays with his camp's mascot cat in 1918.

What does a cat mean in that setting?

I think a cat means normality, the familiar, the things those men want fervently to return to, having done their bit to uphold them. I think a cat means peace, and a cat means home.

Because these men, the ones we remember on April 25, weren't just warlike, even if doing the job of warrior. They were men who wanted again to be gentle and peaceful, to cuddle their sweethearts or children.

American soldier is World War I meet a cat rescued after a battle.

American soldier is World War I meet a cat rescued after a battle.

Tucking a cat into the crook of your arm, feeding it, giving it life amid wreckage and danger, would have been a way of reminding themselves that there was reason for going home, and that they were still human.

That, to me, is the other great job – alongside the mousing – that cats have played in war zones. They've lifted men's spirits and reminded them who they are.

It's an honourable role to play. And that's why I think we should spare one salute for the cats of war.

'Miss Hap', a two-week old kitten feeds on canned milk, piped to her by US Marine Sergeant Frank Praytor. He adopted the ...

'Miss Hap', a two-week old kitten feeds on canned milk, piped to her by US Marine Sergeant Frank Praytor. He adopted the kitten after its mother was killed by a mortar barrage near Bunker Hill in the Korean War.

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On the US ship Hermione in World War II, ship's cat Convoy was a mainstay of the crew. So he was issued with full kit, ...

On the US ship Hermione in World War II, ship's cat Convoy was a mainstay of the crew. So he was issued with full kit, including a hammock. He was killed along with 87 of his crewmates when Hermione was torpedoed and sunk on June 16, 1942.

Tiddles poses on his favourite place, the capstan of HMS Victorious. He travelled about 50,000km in his naval career. ...

Tiddles poses on his favourite place, the capstan of HMS Victorious. He travelled about 50,000km in his naval career. And he loved to play with the bell rope.

Pincher was mascot of HMS Vindex during World War I. He's pictured on the propeller of one of the seaplanes carried by ...

Pincher was mascot of HMS Vindex during World War I. He's pictured on the propeller of one of the seaplanes carried by the ship.

Gentleness amid the horror of war: the ship's cat of HMAS Encounter looks down the barrel.

Gentleness amid the horror of war: the ship's cat of HMAS Encounter looks down the barrel.

French sailors play with a cat in 1950. Cats have been a favourite with the troops of many countries.

French sailors play with a cat in 1950. Cats have been a favourite with the troops of many countries.

US pilots play with their mascot cat.

US pilots play with their mascot cat.

A US Marine on Iwo Jima in 1945 makes sure his pet cat is safe.

A US Marine on Iwo Jima in 1945 makes sure his pet cat is safe.

A New Zealand soldier in Vietnam holds his pet cat. A cat could have represented peace, home and normality to troops ...

A New Zealand soldier in Vietnam holds his pet cat. A cat could have represented peace, home and normality to troops posted far from home.

 - Stuff

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