Unsinkable Sam" (also known as "Oscar") was the nickname
given to a ship's cat who saw service in both the Kriegsmarine and Royal
Navy during the Second World War, serving on board three vessels and
surviving the sinking of all three.
The black and white patched cat had been owned by an unknown crewman
of the German battleship Bismarck. He was on board the ship on 18 May
1941 when it set sail on Operation Rheinübung, Bismarck's first
and only mission. Bismarck was sunk after a fierce sea-battle on 27 May,
from which only 115 from its crew of over 2,200 survived. Hours later,
Oscar was found floating on a board and picked from the water, the only
survivor to be rescued by the homeward-bound British destroyer HMS Cossack.
Unaware of what his name had been on Bismarck, the crew of Cossack named
their new mascot "Oscar".
He served on board Cossack for the next few months as it carried out
convoy escort duties in the Mediterranean and north Atlantic. On 24 October
1941, Cossack was escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to the United Kingdom
when it was severely damaged by a torpedo fired by the German submarine
U-563.Crew were transferred to the destroyer HMS Legion, and an attempt
was made to tow the badly listing Cossack back to Gibraltar, but worsening
weather conditions meant the task became impossible and had to be abandoned.
On 27 October, a day after the tow was slipped, Cossack sank to the west
of Gibraltar. The initial explosion had blown off one third of the forward
section of the ship, killing 159 of the crew, but Oscar survived this
too and was brought to the shore establishment in Gibraltar.
HMS Ark Royal
Now nicknamed "Unsinkable Sam", he was soon
transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal,
which ironically had been instrumental
in the destruction of Bismarck. However, Sam was to find no more luck
there, and when returning from Malta on 14 November 1941, this ship too
was torpedoed, this time by the submarine U-81. Attempts were also made
to tow Ark Royal to Gibraltar, but the unstoppable inflow of water made
the task futile. The carrier rolled over and sank 30 miles from Gibraltar.
The slow rate at which the ship sank however meant that all but one of
the crew could be saved. The survivors, including Sam, who had been found
clinging to a floating plank by a motor launch, and described as "angry
but quite unharmed"were transferred to HMS Lightning and the same
HMS Legion which had rescued the crew of Cossack. Legion would itself
be sunk in 1942, and Lightning in 1943.
The loss of Ark Royal proved the end of Sam's shipborne career and he
was transferred first to the offices of the Governor in Gibraltar, and
then sent back to the United Kingdom, where he saw out the remainder
of the war living in a seaman's home in Belfast.
Sam died in 1955.
A pastel portrait of Sam (titled "Oscar, the Bismarck's Cat")
by the artist Georgina Shaw-Baker is in the possession of the National
Maritime Museum, Greenwich.