When we think of animals used in war, most of us think of dogs and if you are older or know your history pigeons, but not cats. However cats have been put to work in military boats almost since they were domesticated. Cats have been the first line of defense for food stores and rigging for most of history, as rats and mice can be more devastating than an opposing navy.
Cats Turn the Battle Between Egypt and Persia
In the battle of of Pelusium of 525 BCE, the Persian King, Cambyses II, had his solders carry cats into battle. This completely paralyzed the Egyptian solders. The Egyptians’ worshiped cats and had a law that even accidentally killing a cat could carry the death penalty.
There seems to be some debate in the historical sources whether the Persian carried the cats with them as shields or just released them onto the battlefield. Either way the Egyptians quit fighting for fear of hurting the cats.
According to the historian Herodotus, the Egyptians lost 50,000 men, while the Persians only lost 7,000 men. This began 200 years of Persian rule of Egypt.
How Cats Served in the Great War
At least 500,000 cat served in the trenches of World War One on the Allied side. Cats also served in all navies. The main job of cats was to eliminate rats, mice and other rodents.
On ships these rodents will not only eat and destroy rations, but they will also chew through rigging and cables causing untold damage and putting the ship and crew in peril. Many sailors throughout history have considered cats good luck.
Cats were also used as gas detectors. Because cats are smaller than humans, if solders saw a cat being affected by poisonous gas, they still had time to escape. In this role they were like canaries in a coal mine.
Many cats were said to act as early warning detectors of incoming bombs. Solders and civilians both described having cats that would run to a bomb shelter or take cover before an incoming shell had been detected by the humans. People learned to trust their cat’s ‘sixth sense’.
Cats also served as therapy animals and mascots. A soft cuddly cat brought a sense of normalcy and comfort not to mention warmth. It’s hard not to feel loved when a cat is in your lap purring.
While there are no accurate records or even estimates of the number of cats killed in World War One, based on my limited research the war was devastating on the cat population in Europe. Many breeds of domestic cats were almost wiped out during the war and only determined breeding efforts by cat lovers after the war saved these breeds from extinction.
Pitouchi the Cat WW1
The following report appears in Belgium military records from WW1: “Pitoutchi, 3rd Regiment of Artillery, for showing great bravery under fire, rare endurance, and remarkable initiative. Showed proof, in the course of a campaign, of the finest military qualities. Seeing his captain in danger, did not hesitate to expose himself in his place, courageously drawing upon himself the enemy fire, and foiling the maneuvers of the adversary by making them mistake the above-mentioned officer for a cat. At the front since his birth” (Baker, Animal War Heroes, 69).
The cat named Pitoutchi was born in the trenches of WWI. His mother was killed before any of the eight cats in the litter had opened their eyes. Lieutenant Lekeux decided to adopt the kittens. He used a dropper to feed the kittens milk. Unfortunately, all but one kitten refused the milk and all the other kittens died that night.
Lieutenant Lekeux of the Belgium Army named that cat Pitoutchi. Unusually for a cat, Pitoutchi followed Lekeux where ever he went. When the trenches were dry, Pitoutchi would follow Lekeux on the ground and when it was wet he would ride on Lekeux shoulder.
One day Lekeux noticed the Germans were moving dirt around. He decided to investigate. When he got close he saw that the Germans were building a new trench. He hid in a bomb crater and started to sketching the German positions. He was so absorbed in his drawing that he did not notice a patrol of German solders until it was too late to run for it.
He decided to lie as flat and still as he could and hoped Pitoutchi would do the same. But then he heard one of the German solders say “He is in the hole.” He knew he was seconds from being being shot or bayoneted. Just then Pitoutchi jumped out the hole onto an unstable piece of lumber, startling the German solders who fired two shots at Pitoutchi. The cat was too fast and jumped back into the hole with Lekeux.
The German solders laughed at their mistake of thinking a cat was a man. Lekeux was saved and able to return to the trenches with the drawings of the German fortifications.
This funny story was reported by The Gympie Times, an Australian newspaper, in 1918:
A story of a cat is told in British letters from the front. The lookout men saw a cat emerge from the German trenches in front of them, make her way calmly to their trenches, pass through, and proceed to the rear, where she carefully inspected the officers’ billets. Then she retraced her steps to the German lines and the Englishmen supposed they had seen the last of her. To their amazement she re-appeared with a kitten in her mouth, passed by them to the zone of comparative safety in the rear, dropped her kitten in the dugout, went back to the German trenches and got kitten number two. Finally she had three kittens safe in the English lines. Speculation as to the reason for her removal of the kittens was in vain. She never told why she deserted the Germans.
The Newcastle Herald & Miners’ Advocate (another Australian newspaper) posted this story from solders in Gallipoli in World War One.
Again, when we were in the trenches in the front line a cat came up from the support trench and wandered in and out amongst us, and the most extraordinary thing was that during the day she only wandered about below the parapet - it would have been fatal for her to have appeared above it, just as it was with us….Well, directly it got dark and we were able to look over and fire, she would make no bones about running along the very top.’
Sounds like a smart cat.
Felix the cat WW1
This is a sad story of a cat that would run across no-mans land between the German and Allied lines. The solders on both sides would scribble notes to each other. When Felix, called Nestor by the Germans, exploits were discovered by the top brass in the English army, they ordered Felix be shot as a security risk.
In World War Two there was less need for cats by the Army since there were not static trenches, however cats still served proudly on Navy vessels. Unsinkable Sam (a.k.a Oscar) was one such cat. Sam originally served on the Bismark one of the largest German battleships of WW2. There are no records as to what Sam’s name was originally.
In a protracted engagement, the Bismark was sunk with at least 2000 of the 2200 men crew being lost. The British picked up 111 of the German sailors in the water and the HMS Cossack picked up a black and white cat floating by on a board. The British solders called the cat Oscar.
Oscar served on the Cossack for several months, when the Cossack was severely torpedoed by a German U-boat. The British attempted to tow the Cossack back to port, but she was too damaged and sunk. However, Oscar transferred with crew to the destroyer HMS Legion.
Oscar was renamed ‘Unsinkable Sam’ and was transferred to the HMS Ark Royal an aircraft carrier. The Ark Royal was an older aircraft carrier that had participated in sinking the Bismark. In November 1941 the Ark Royal was torpedoed and again the British attempted to tow her to port, but there was too much damage. Sam was found clinking to a floating plank. He was described by his rescuers as angry but unharmed.
Sam was transferred to the offices of the Governor of Gibraltar ending his seafaring career. From there he retired to a sailor home in Belfast. Sam died in 1955. There is a portrait of Sam in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
‘Bomber’ the Cat
Often cats could tell when bombs were about to hit before humans noticed anything. One cat named ‘Bomber’ was not only able to act as an early warning system, but he was reputed to be able to tell the difference between RAF and German aircraft. His family learned quickly to pay attention if Bomber headed for the bomb shelter.
Able Seaman Simon HMS Amethyst
The HMS Amethyst, a frigate, was sent up the Yangze River from Shanghai to Nanking to protect the British Embassy during the Chinese civil war in 1949. She was supposed to replace the HMS Consort.
The Amethyst had acquired a mascot when 17 year old George Hickinbottom, a seaman assigned to the Amethyst, picked up an undernourished cat wandering around the docks in Hong Kong. The cat named Simon was put to work catching rats and mice. Simon was known for his antics of leaving mice and rats in sailors bunks and even in the captain’s cap.
Simon was a black with a white bib and white paws, which made him highly recognizable. He was liked by the entire crew, but Lieutenant Commander Skinner was particularly fond of the cat and kept Simon with him in his berth. Simon even got along with the ship’s dog, Peggy.
One sailor explained:
“We had Simon on board because people liked him, he kept people company. It’s the same reason you have one at home: Hearing a cat purr, and the like -- its very comforting to people. It’s someone you can talk to. If you’re in a stressful situation, an animal is attractive.”
As the Amethyst approached Kiangyin (now Jiangyin) she came under fire from the Communists (PLA) on the north bank of the river. She was quickly hit by three rounds, mortally wounding Commander Skinner. Simon was next to Skinner when the round hit and also sustained injuries. The Amethyst attempted to return fire but ran aground. There was only one gun with enough range that could be pointed at their attackers. This gun was quickly silenced by a shell from the PLA artillery battery.
Several more shells hit the Amethyst over the next hour and First Lieutenant Weston, who had taken over after the Commander Skinner was killed, ordered the crew to evacuate to shore. The PLA artillery switched their fire to the men attempting to reach the shore and the evacuation had to be called off.
Eventually the shelling stopped, 22 men on the Amethyst had been killed and 31 wounded. Among the presumed dead was Simon the ship’s cat, who had not been seen since the initial shelling. The ship had been hit by 50 shells.
Later that night the Amethyst was refloated and all the dead and wounded were taken ashore. Lieutenant Commander Keranes took over command of the ship and she headed up the river. However, whenever the Amethyst tried to move during the day she was fired upon.
After eight days Simon emerged from the bowels of the ship where he had retreated to nurse his wounds. George Griffiths, a private, described Simon as a sorry sight.
“He received shrapnel wounds in his face, back, and left side; his whiskers and eyebrows were burned off by the flash. He refused medical aid and removed shrapnel himself by patient washing (this took him about a week); his hind legs were covered in dried blood, and he was weak, skittish, and direly dehydrated.”
Simon was stitched up and before he was fully healed he was back to work catching mice and rats. With the ship’s boiler room and ventilation system shut down the rats had invested these areas. Simon quickly cleared the ship of all the rats but one. It was a very large rat that the crew named “Mao Tse-tung”. Eventually, Simon cornered him too and the ship was again free of vermin.
Simon tried to ingratiate himself to the new commander by bringing him dead rats, but Keranes was proud cat hater. Then one day Keranes fell ill and Simon crawled into bed with him and kept him company. Even a cat hater could not withstand this onslaught. Simon didn’t play favorites however, he was happy to take naps with anyone and provided comfort to the whole crew.
During this time there were negotiations to retrieve the Amethyst. The communists insisted that the British fired first and demanded the Commander Keranes sign a statement saying the ship had illegally entered Chinese territory. Commander Keranes refused and the negotiations went nowhere. Naturally in 1988, the Chinese commander of the artillery battery admitted that they had fired first on the Amethyst.
After 101 days the ship and crew had been repaired enough to attempt an escape. On the night of July 31 the Amethyst made a dash for freedom. By the time they reached Hong Kong their ordeal and Simon were known around the world.
During this time Simon had been awarded the Dicken Medal, which is given to animals that went above and beyond the call of duty in battle. The Dicken Medal is like the British Victoria Cross or the American Medal of Honor for animals.
Pigeons have received this medal more than any other animal. Horses and dogs have won a number of Dicken Medals, but Simon is the only cat to have ever won the Dicken Medal.
Throughout time cats have proven themselves to be both useful and loyal companions in times of war. Let’s hope theses stories prove to be a historical footnote.