Animals have been entwined with humans in truth and legend for thousands
of years. In many cases the line between the two gets very blurred.
Such is the case with the tale of Unsinkable Sam, a cat reputed to have
survived the sinking of three ships during World War II and later
retired to a seaman's home in Belfast. Some accounts present the
information on the cat as fact while others admit that there is no real
proof that Sam ever existed.
The story goes that the cat was on board the ill-fated German battleship Bismarck when it sailed on its first and only voyage in 1941. When the ship was sunk by the British only 114 of the 2, 200 crew members survived -- and one cat. The cat was found floating on a board by the crew of the British ship H.M.S. Cossack. He was rescued, named Oscar, and taken on as a part of the ship's compliment.
Oscar spent the next few months as mascot and feline friend to the crew of the Cossack as they carried out convoy escort duty in the Mediterranean Sea. While escorting a convoy from Gibraltar back to the U.K. the Cossack came under fire from a German submarine. After being torpedoed the ship was badly damaged and 159 crew members were killed. The remaining crew and Oscar were transferred to the destroyer H.M.S. Legion. The Cossack eventually sank in the waters off Gibraltar.
The cat, now renamed Unsinkable Sam, was then reassigned to the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Ark Royal. Once again a German submarine struck and the ship was sunk. It sank slowly enough that only one crew member was lost. Sam and the rest of the crew were rescued. He was said to have been "angry but quite unharmed."
This brought about the end of Sam's sea-going career. He was taken ashore in Gibraltar and put in the care of the Governor. From there he was shipped back to England. He lived out his remaining days in a seaman's home in Belfast and eventually died in 1955.
Many question the authenticity of the tale and suggest that it is just an old sailor's story. One of the reasons for this doubt is that there are two very different pictures of Sam floating about -- one showing a tabby and another showing a black and white "tuxedo" cat. Also, immediately after the sinking of the Bismarck all British ships were ordered not to stop for anything due to rumors of a German submarine in the area. None of the surviving sailors from the Bismacrk remembers there being a cat on board. Detailed historical accounts are devoid of any mention of a cat on board the Bismarck, let alone a subsequent rescue.
Whether real or legend the story shows two things -- the human love of cats and the cat's frequent presence aboard ships throughout history. After all, someone had to deal with the ships' rats.