War horses, war dogs, and even war pigeons are known through movies and books, but are you aware that there are also many famous cats in war?
According to the United States Naval Institute, cats in war have been highly beneficial, probably dating back to ancient times in Egypt. Ever the talented hunters, cats in war protected grains stores and rode in boats as assistants when their human companions hunted birds along the shore. Some accounts say that the Persians would carry cats in their vessels, believing that Egyptians would not attack a boat with a cat on board. There are even claims that the Egyptians lost a war because of this strategy.
Cats at Sea
In the mid-14th century, the Bubonic Plague broke out in Europe. The disease was probably carried into Europe by flea-infested rats that swarmed upon merchant ships from Asia. Misguided superstition resulted in the mass killings of cats in the belief that, as witches’ consorts, they caused the disease. This allowed the diseased rats to flourish, and nearly a quarter of the world’s human population was wiped out as a result.
In reality, cats were (and still are) exceptionally valuable as vermin control. Men of the sea knew that rats and mice chewed ships’ ropes, devoured grain and food stores, and spread disease. Louis XIV of France, who ruled in the 17th and 18th century, ordered that there be two cats to every French ship. Contrary to the beliefs of the 1300s, cats were now regarded as good luck and were indispensable shipmates. Sailors also believed cats were skilled weather forecasters. If a cat licked its fur, it foretold a hailstorm. A sneeze meant rain, and a frisky cat foretold high winds. There is scientific evidence that the sensitive inner ears of cats can indeed detect weather changes. Polydactyl cats (those with extra toes) were especially prized as ship’s cats.
A distinguished role amongst feline companions, cats in war were instrumental in the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. Not only were they kept for their hunting prowess, but they also improved the morale of troops who spent long months at sea. (Sometimes dogs were allowed on board for morale, as well.) The Royal Navy carrier HMS Victorious had a black cat named Tiddles as Captain’s Cat who traveled over 30, 000 miles at sea. Tiddles is credited for the British tradition that black cats are lucky.
Emmy was a ship cat on the RMS Empress of Ireland. She never missed a trip … until May 28, 1914. On that day, Emmy absolutely refused to board and watched from a shed roof as the ship departed Quebec City. The following morning, the Empress collided with the SS Storstad in heavy fog at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and sank. One thousand were killed. Did Emmy have sixth sense? The world may never know.
One of the most famous of the cats in war was Simon of the HMS Amethyst. Simon was rescued while the ship was in Hong Kong in 1947. He was sickly at first but became an excellent ratter and enjoyed Captain’s bunk privileges. On April 20, 1949, the Amethyst was on its way to relieve the HMS Consort from its guard of the British Consulate during the Chinese Civil War when it was unexpectedly fired upon and the Captain was killed. There were many casualties, and the ship became trapped in the Yangtze River.
During the next several days, battle ensued as the British Navy attempted to free the Amethyst. Simon was missing and presumed KIA but eight days later, the gravely wounded cat dragged himself up on deck and was tended to by corpsmen. He comforted the wounded and resumed ratting, sometimes depositing his trophies on sailor’s bunks or by their boots. The new captain did not like cats and shooed Simon away. One day the captain became ill, so Simon climbed into his bunk and curled up next to him, winning the captain’s heart in the process. In July of 1949, the Amethyst was finally able to escape the Yangtze Incident and Simon became a celebrity. He received so much fan mail that a secretary was assigned to answer it. Upon his return to Surrey, Simon was quarantined before entry to the country. At the shelter he contracted a virus and, probably also due to his war wounds, he succumbed to his illness on November 28, 1949, at only two years of age. Simon is the only cat to have ever received the Dicken Medal for Animal Gallantry and was buried with full Navy honors at Ilford, East London. The entire crew of the Amethyst attended the ceremony. His grave marker reads: “Able Seacat Simon, D.M., R.N.”