I might be pushing it, posting two blog entries in less than 24 hours, but I was doing some research on a totally unrelated subject when I found out about Unsinkable Sam & decided I needed to share this story with you. After the latest farcical decision of the Parades Commission, I thought perhaps one or two of my regular readers could do with a little light relief. So, ladies & gentlemen, I give you the epic story of Unsinkable Sam!
Ulster has been home to many remarkable war veterans, but the story I’m going to tell you relates to one veteran you’ve probably never heard of. A remarkable individual, his name was Unsinkable Sam, aka Oscar (or Oskar) & he spent his retirement in Belfast.
Unsinkable Sam wasn’t a soldier or an airman, but as his name suggests, Sam was a sailor. To be more accurate, Sam was a ship’s cat. A cat who saw service in both the Kriegsmarine & Royal Navy during WWII, serving on board three vessels & surviving the sinking of all three. The black & white Tom cat had been owned by an unknown crewman of the German battleship Bismarck. He was on board the ship on 18th of May, 1941 when it set sail on Operation Rheinübung (“Rhine Exercise”) the mighty ship’s first & last mission. On 27th of May, Unsinkable Sam, then still plain old Oskar, was on duty, hunting mice on the lower decks, when the RN finally caught up with the pride of the German High Seas Fleet. After a fierce battle, Bismarck was sunk. Only 118 of 2200 hands survived. 119 if one includes Oskar, 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 onboard Bismarck, the crew of Cossack named their new mascot “Oscar”. The cat served happily on board Cossack for the next few months (seemingly being no fan of Herr Hitler) as the ship carried out convoy escort duties in the Mediterranean & North Atlantic. On 24th of October, 1941, Cossack was escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to Liverpool when it was badly damaged by a German torpedo. Attempts were made to tow Cossack back to port, but to no avail, weather conditions making the task impossible. On 27th of October, a day after the tow was slipped & the attempt to rescue the ship was abandoned, Cossack sank to the west of Gibraltar. The initial explosion had blown off one third of the forward section of the ship, tragically killing 159 of the crew, but Oscar survived this too & was brought to shore.
Now nicknamed “Unsinkable Sam”, he was soon transferred to HMS Ark Royal (ironically one of the vessels involved in the sinking of Bismarck) but his luck was not much better whilst serving on the aircraft carrier. When returning from Malta on 14th of November, 1941, Ark Royal was torpedoed by 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 & sank 30 miles from The Rock. The slow rate at which the ship sank thankfully meant that all but one of the crew could be saved. The survivors, including Sam, who had been found clinging to a floating plank, & described as “angry but quite unharmed”, were transferred to HMS Lightning & HMS Legion (the same ship that had rescued the crew of the Cossack) The loss of Ark Royal proved the end of Sam’s shipborne career. He was transferred, first to the offices of the Governor in Gibraltar, & 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 lived to a ripe old age, passing away in 1955. The men of the seaman’s home burying him with full military honours, befitting a feline of his rank.
I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a heartwarming story, but the story of Unsinkable Sam was more than that, during the middle years of the war, stories such as his proved to be invaluable for boosting morale & providing a little distraction for the brave men of the Royal Navy. Unsinkable Sam was more than just a ship’s cat, he was a symbol. Unsinkable Sam, the cat that couldn’t be killed!