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Monday, March 26, 2018

Oscar the unsinkable cat

It's a wonderful story of a super-survivor ship's cat.

According to the yarn, the cat lived on the German battleship Bismarck, though in what capacity is unknown.  Was he the official mouse-hunter, or a smuggled seaman's pet?  Whatever, he was one of the few survivors when the Nazi battleship was sunk in May 1941.

Of the Bismarck's crew of over two thousand, only 114 men survived.  One hundred and fourteen men, that is, and one cat.

The cat was found some days later, clinging to a plank, from which he was rescued by the crew of the destroyer Cossack.  Naturally, he was adopted, being a portent of good luck.  And he was given a new name.  Good choice -- Oscar (or Oskar), the letter "O" (pronounced Oscar) being the signal for "man overboard."

A few months later, on 24 October 1941, Cossack was torpedoed and sunk.   Again, Oscar was found on a floating plank, to be rescued by HMS Legion and taken to Gibraltar.  Somehow, he caught the eye of a seaman of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and was carried on board, where he was given another name -- Unsinkable Sam.

And on 14 November, guess what, his latest ship was sunk.  And again he was rescued and taken to Gibraltar, where he found a safer berth as the appointed mouse-catcher in the Governor General's office.  The end of the war saw the end of that job:  Oscar-Unsinkable Sam was carried to Britain, where he spent the rest of his life in a Seamen's Home in Belfast, passing away in 1955, and memorialized by a pastel portrait that is now held by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

artist, Georgina Shaw Baker NMM, UK

Lovely yarn.   But is it true?

Unfortunately, there are flaws in the story.   By the time the Bismarck went down, the destroyer Cossack had withdrawn.  The survivors were rescued by the ships Maori and Dorsetshire, and there is no mention of a cat in their records.  And none of the Bismarck survivors mentioned a cat, either.

In October 1941 when Cossack was sunk, the survivors were picked up by HMS Legion, HMS Carnation, and FS Ariguani. Again, no mention of a cat.  Interestingly, however, the destroyer Legion was based in Gibraltar, and was one of the ships that stood by for survivors when Ark Royal was sunk.

So, it is a tangled web, with a mysterious cat lurking inside. And maybe HMS Legion is the link to the solution of the mystery.

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