Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Ship's Cat?!?

After writing my recent post about Alistair MacLean and his book "HMS Ulysses" I had the urge to read it one more time. I have always treated a good book as a good friend and I like to visit with old friends when I can. So I read once again, shuddred again, shed a tear or two and all the rest. Something struck me as I read one passage. It was a passage that dealt with a trouble-maker aboard the Ulysses - one named Riley. Here is a portion of that passage -

"Sorry," Brooks apologised. "Just fifteen minutes ago a bunch of sympathetic stokers deposited on the deck of the Sick Bay the prone and extremely unconscious form of one of their shipmates. Guess who? None other than our resident nihilist, our old friend Riley. Slight concussion and assorted facial injuries, but he should be restored to the bosom of his mess deck by nightfall. Anyway, he insists on it, claims his kittens need him."

Vallery looked up, amused, curious.

"Fallen down the stokehold again, I presume?"

"Exactly the question I put, sir-although it looked more as if he had fallen into a concrete mixer. 'No, sir,' says one of the stretcher-bearers. 'He tripped over the ship's cat.'"

Well, that piqued my interest since Mr. MacLean had told me that everything in the book had happened on one convoy or another during the war. He had sailed on two convoys and his brother, Ian, on four. They spoke from personal experience..

So I started looking around for information on ship's cats. Isn't Google a wonderful thing!? This is a part of what I found.

Cats have been carried on ships for a number of reasons, the most important being that mice and rats, which would inevitably find their way aboard a ship, could cause considerable damage to ropes and woodwork. More serious was the threat they posed to the stores the ship carried. Not only could they devour the foodstuff carried to feed the crew, if the ship was carrying grain or similar substances as part of its cargo, then they could cause economic damage as well. Rats and mice were also sources of disease, an important consideration when the ship could be at sea for a long period of time. Cats naturally attack and kill these rodents.

Cats were believed to have miraculous powers that could protect ships from dangerous weather. Sometimes, fishermen's wives would keep black cats at home too, in the hope that they would be able to use their influence to protect their husbands at sea. It was believed to be lucky if a cat approached a sailor on deck, but unlucky if it only came halfway, and then retreated. Another popular belief was that cats could start storms through magic stored in their tails. If a ship's cat fell or was thrown overboard, it was thought that it would summon a terrible storm to sink the ship and that if the ship was able to survive, it would be cursed with nine years of bad luck. Other beliefs included, if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a hailstorm was coming; if it sneezed it meant rain; and if it was frisky it meant wind.

Some of these beliefs are rooted in reality. Cats are able to detect slight changes in the weather, as a result of their very sensitive inner ears, which also allow them to land upright when falling. Low atmospheric pressure, a common precursor of stormy weather, often makes cats nervous and restless.

The prevalence of cats on ships has led to them being reported on by a number of famous seafarers. The outbreak of World War II, with the spread of mass communication and the active nature of the world's navies, also led to a number of ship's cats becoming celebrities in their own right. Consider the following famous ship's cats.


Trim was the ship's cat on a number of the ships under the command of Matthew Flinders during voyages to circumnavigate and map the coastline of Australia during 1801-03. He became a favourite of the crew and was the first cat to circumnavigate Australia. He remained with Flinders, until apparently being stolen and eaten by hungry slaves. A statue to Trim was later erected in his honour, and he has been the subject of a number of works of literature. A statue sits on a window sill on the outside of the Sydney Library, in Sydney, Australia.
Trim's statue behind Matthew Flinders' own in Sydney, Australia. The plaque under it says:


The best and most illustrious of his race. The most affectionate of friends, faithful of servants,and best of creatures. He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to Australia,which he circumnavigated, and was ever the delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers........

Written by Matthew Flinders in memory of his cat. Memorial donated by the North Shore Historical Society.

Mrs. Chippy

Mrs. Chippy was the ship's cat aboard Endurance, the ship used by Sir Ernest Shackleton for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. When the ship was lost, having become trapped and eventually crushed in pack ice, the sled dogs and Mrs. Chippy had to be put down, as they would not have survived the arduous journey ahead.


Kiddo seemed to have stowed away on the airship America, when she left from Atlantic City, New Jersey in an attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean 1910. Kiddo was upset at first by the experience, but settled in and evidently, was better at predicting bad weather than the barometer. Her engines failed, and the small crew and Kiddo abandoned the America for lifeboats when they sighted the Royal Mail steamship, Trent, near Bermuda. Kiddo then was retired from being a ship's cat and was taken care of by Edith, the daughter of the American journalist, explorer, and aviator, Walter Wellman, who made the daring attempt.


Emmy was the ship's cat on the RMS Empress of Ireland. A loyal ginger cat who had never once missed a voyage, repeatedly tried to escape the ship near departure on 28 May, 1914. The crew could not coax her aboard and the Empress departed without her. It was reported that Emmy watched the ship sail away from Quebec City sitting on the roof of the shed at Pier 27, which would later become a place for the dead pulled from the river, after the Empress of Ireland sank in a collision with heavy loss of life.


Convoy was the ship's cat aboard HMS Hermione. He was so named because of the number of times he accompanied the ship on convoy escort duties. Convoy was duly listed in the ship's book and provided with a full kit, including a tiny hammock where he would sleep. He stood by his ship to the end and was lost along with eighty-seven of his crew mates, when the Hermione was torpedoed and sunk on 16 June 1942.


Tiddles was the ship's cat on a number of Royal Navy aircraft carriers. He was born aboard HMS Argus, and later joined HMS Victorious. He was often seen at his favourite station, on the after capstan, where he would play with the bell-rope. He eventually travelled over 30,000 miles (48,000 km) during his time in service.


U-boat was another ship's cat aboard a Royal Navy vessel of the Second World War, who would take ‘shore leave’ whenever his ship came into port. He would spend days on shore, usually returning only just before his ship sailed. One day, U-boat failed to return in time for roll call and his ship was forced to sail. As she pulled away from the quay, U-boat was seen running down the dock after the departing ship. He made a death-defying leap onto the ship and succeeded in making it aboard. He was reported to be undaunted by his experience, proceeding to wash himself on deck. The crew members were apparently delighted their good luck charm had returned.


MullPeebles was the ship's cat aboard HMS Western Isles. Another cat who became a favourite of the ship's crew, he was known to be particularly intelligent and would shake the hands of strangers when they entered the wardroom.


Blackie was HMS Prince of Wales's ship's cat. During World War II, he achieved worldwide fame after the Prince of Wales carried the Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to NS Argentia, Newfoundland, where he secretly met with the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt for several days in a secure anchorage. This meeting resulted in the signing of the Atlantic Charter, but as Churchill prepared to step off the Prince of Wales, Blackie approached, either to wish him well, or to go aboard the USS Augusta with him. Churchill stooped to bid farewell to Blackie, and the moment was photographed and reported in the world media. In honour of the success of the visit, Blackie was renamed Churchill.

The Unsinkable Sam

Previously named Oscar, he was the ship's cat of the German battleship Bismarck. When she was sunk on 27 May 1941, only 116 out of a crew of over 2,200 survived. Luckily, Oscar was picked up by the destroyer HMS Cossack. Cossack herself was torpedoed and sunk a few months later, on 24 October, killing 159 of her crew, but again, Oscar survived to be rescued, and was taken to Gibraltar. He became the ship's cat of HMS Ark Royal but she too was torpedoed and sunk in November that year. Oscar was again rescued, but it was decided at that time to transfer him to a home on land. By now known as Unsinkable Sam, he was given a new job as mouse-catcher in the Governor General of Gibraltar's office buildings. He eventually returned to the UK and spent the rest of his life at the 'Home for Sailors'. A portrait of him hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.


Simon was perhaps the most famous ship's cat in recent times. He was the ship's cat of HMS Amethyst during the Yangtze Incident in 1949, and was wounded in the bombardment of the ship which killed 25 of Amethyst’s crew, including her commanding officer. He soon recovered and resumed his duties, killing rats and keeping up the crew's morale. He was appointed to the rank of 'Able Seacat' Simon and became a celebrity after the ship escaped the Yangtze and returned to Britain. He later succumbed to an infection and died shortly after. Tributes poured in and his obituary appeared in The Times. He was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, the only cat to ever earn the award, and was buried with full naval honours.


Pooli at 15, on July 4, 1959Pooli served aboard a United States attack transport during World War II. Here she is pictured on her fifteenth birthday. Pooli, a veteran who rates three service ribbons and four battle stars, shows she can still get into her old uniform.


Chibbley is the ship's cat aboard the tall ship, Picton Castle. She was rescued from an animal shelter and has since circumnavigated the world twice. The Picton Castle’s role as a training ship resulted in Chibbley being introduced to a large number of visitors, and becoming a celebrity in her own right, receiving her own fan mail.


Tarawa was a kitten rescued from a pillbox during the Battle of Tarawa by the United States Coast Guard and named Tarawa. She was a mascot aboard an LST, but did not get along with the LST's other mascot, a dog named Kodiak, and jumped ship ashore.


Camouflage was the ship's cat aboard an LST. He was known for chasing enemy tracer rounds across the deck.

Ship's cats today Despite a long tradition, there are no longer ships' cats aboard Royal Navy vessels. The Royal Navy banned cats and other pet animals from its ships in 1975 on hygiene grounds. This regulation is routinely ignored in the Royal Navy and cats are still present on many ships around the world, such as Chibbley aboard the Picton Castle.

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