From the Crimean War to World War II and from The Gulf War to the Iraq War, military history is awash with stories of cats befriending soldiers and sailors around the world. One such infamous cat, Sam the Unsinkable, has quite the astounding nautical reputation.
If you can believe his famous fable, after surviving the sinking of three different ships, you might say this legendary feline is all but a few barnacles short of an able-bodied ‘seacat.’
Whose Side Are You On, Anyway?
Sam the Unsinkable, otherwise known as Oscar, or Oskar with K, began his seafaring career on the notorious German warship, The Bismarck. Brought aboard as a mouser, a furry companion or for good luck, we don’t know for sure, but this Tuxedo cat, like many cats throughout history, was likely very welcome aboard ship.
As a ship’s cat for the Axis powers, perhaps Oscar’s loyalties did not initially lie with Churchill and FDR. But one fateful day in May of 1941, his allegiance was destined for an about-face.
On May 18th, 1941, the heavily armored Bismarck, the largest warship in existence, set sail for Operation Rheinübung. Admiral Gunther Lutjens and his crew had one goal. They aim to take out the Allies’ transatlantic supply ships, cutting off food, oil, and other vital resources before they could reach England.
However, as she sailed north from the Bay of Kiel, the Bismarck was spotted by British Coastal Command, and British Navy cruisers were stationed in the Denmark Strait to intercept the enemy in Norwegian waters. On May 24th, the British battleship, the Prince of Wales, and her cruiser, the Hood, opened fire. Their first attempts failed, but the British Navy, reinforced with more ships and aircraft carriers, kept the enemy in sight.
After several days of cat-and-mouse, a swarm of torpedo-launching Swordfish planes made the fatal hits. On May 26th, 1941, the mighty naval beast, the Bismarck, sunk, leavingher crew of over 2,000 to only around 110 men alive. Well, 110 men and a cat.
The Feline Fairytale Continues
Purportedly found bobbling along in the wreckage on a board, like the fictional Rose of Titanic fame, Sam the Unsinkable is said to have been rescued by a crewmember from the British destroyer HMS Cossack. And so began his career in the Royal Navy.
Since his original name was unknown, this endearing black and white moggie was dubbed Oscar, after “Code Oscar,” which indicates a man overboard in the International Code of Signals. His name is also spelled with a K, instead of a C, sometimes, hailing back to his German beginnings.
And He’s Down To Seven
The first few months of Oscar’s life on board the Cossack were fairly uneventful. Unless, of course, his yet-to-be-discovered secret diary portrays untold tales of wild adventure. But as far as we know, Oscar’s next five months were calm and happy. He partook in the HMS Cossack’s convoy missions in the Mediterranean Sea and the north Atlantic Ocean, in and around Gibraltar.
However, this stalwart fuzzy creature was destined to repeat history. During a convoy escort from Gibraltar to the United Kingdom, on October 21st, 1941, the HMS Cossack was attacked by a Nazi U-boat, suffering serious damage and loss of 159 men. Ultimately, the torpedo that struck the Cossack caused its inevitable sinking between October 25th and 27th, 1941.
Survivors, apparently both human and feline, were rescued by two other convey ships, the Legion and the Carnation. After which, as legend has it, Oscar caught a momentary shore leave break at a British Royal Navy shore establishment in Gibraltar. As his story spread, he was renamed Sam the Unsinkable, or Unsinkable Sam.
As Luck Would Have It
At this point, some might say that Oscar, or Sam the Unsinkable, was an omen of bad luck. For some, perhaps. But as he was about to survive his third sinking, this courageous Tom was obviously, for his own purposes, at least, as lucky as a duck and twice as buoyant!
After a brief foray upon land, Sam/Oscar was adopted by the crew of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. The Ark Royal was one of the vessels involved in the sinking of the Bismarck, so, in a way, you could say this four-legged sailor’s voyage had come full circle.
A few weeks later, on November 13th, 1941, during a return voyage from Malta, Sam’s third and final floating abode suffered a fatal torpedo attack. A German U-Boat launched four torpedoes, one of which struck the starboard side of the HMS Ark Royal, a blow from which it could not recover. Astoundingly, only one man was lost — one man, and zero cats.
A Quiet Retirement
Sam was retired to land after this third and final mission. He eventually returned to his comfort zone after spending some time as a mouser in the offices of the Governor-General of Gibraltar. Same lived out his final days in a home for sailors in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
With such a remarkable tale, you may forgivably ask, “Is this cat the stuff of history or mere myth?” The answer? The jury is still out. There is no evidence to prove Sam indeed survived the sinking of three ships. However, arguments against the likelihood fall flat compared to real-world news of cats surviving long-haul flights by stowing away in wheel wells and clinging to wings.
Some photographs of Sam do exist. He was later immortalized in a painting by Georgina Shaw-Baker, which hangs in the National Maritime Museum in London.