Valor Friday

| July 17, 2020

 

Mason Sends:

I do have a penchant for the very unusual stories of valor in war. When I heard the story of one sailor who served with both Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine and the British Royal Navy during World War II, I was intrigued. To find that they also survived the sinking of three ships in the process ensured I’d have to write about him as soon as possible. 

The story begins aboard the legendary German battleship Bismarck. Named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, she was the first of two ships in her class. Designed in the mid-30’s, the Bismarck class were massive ships. Nominally within the post-World War I treaty limits of 35,000 long tons displacement, they exceeded this by at least 6,000 long tons standard and 15,000 long tons under full load. By the time she entered service in 1940 this was a moot point as these treaties had well and good fallen apart. Bismarck signalled the intention of the Nazi regime to once again be a world naval power. 

In May 1941, with 2,200 men and officers aboard, Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (Prince Eugene) were ordered to break out of the Baltic sea and into the North Atlantic. There, Bismarck was to bring her eight 15 inch main guns to bear against allied shipping. 

To prevent this, on 24 May 1941, British Royal Navy vessels HMS Hood (a formidable battlecruiser) and HMS Prince of Wales (a battleship) were sent to intercept the German vessels and prevent them from leaving the Baltic. Encountering the German ships, the British attacked head on while the Germans kept their enemy to their sides, permitting them to make full broadside attacks versus the English being limited to their forward guns.

Within a minute of the opening salvos, the Germans scored a direct hit to Hood’s magazine, causing an explosion. While Prinz Eugen turned their fire to Prince of Wales, Bismarck took the damaged HMS Hood under fire. 

Several more direct hits were scored on the stricken vessel. Hood was mortally wounded more than once and sunk three minutes into the battle. All but three of 1,418 men went down with the ship. The loss of Hood was devastating to the British. 

In response to the loss of Hood, the Royal Navy dispatched a massive fleet of six battleships or battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, thirteen cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers to find the German warships and exact revenge. On the evening of the 26th of May the task force located Bismarck. The torpedo bombers that found her launched a salvo, scoring one direct hit that resulted in minimal damage. A second direct hit took out Bismarck’s rudder. This allowed the pursuers to catch up to her. 

Begaining only partial control, Bismarck came under fire throughout the night and into the daylight hours of the 27th. Over several hours, the Bismarck, pride of the German Navy, was showered with shells. The British ships fired 2,800 shells at Bismarck, scoring 400 direct hits. While setting the ship afire from stem to stern and devastating everything above the waterline, the mighty warship was eventually forced down by a direct torpedo hit below the waterline. 

By 0930 hours the bridge was not responding and the executive officer had taken command and gave the order to abandon ship. At 1020 the scuttling charges were fired and she slipped forever below the waves 20 minutes later. Of a crew of more than 2,200, only 400 made it off the ship. Of those, only 115 were rescued, with one of those dying from his wounds a short time later. 

The British had exacted their revenge on the Germans for HMS Hood. After scouring the wreckage for survivors and finding all that they could, one of the task force’s ships, HMS Cossack was heading back to friendly ports when they came across one final survivor. 

The plucky fellow was found clinging to a piece of wood floating in the cold waters off Denmark, where the battle over Bismarck was waged. Not knowing his name, the Royal Navy men called him “Oscar”. 

In physically healthy condition, despite the harrowing battle and time spent in the cold water, Oscar wasn’t talking. You might be thinking his muteness in the face of the enemy was due to his military discipline or perhaps his devotion to the Fuhrer. Neither was the case. Oscar wasn’t born with the ability to talk. He was a black with white spotted cat. 

Bismarck

There’s a very long history of ship’s cats in naval forces the world over. They bring a level of companionship to crewmen far from home and family, act as a ship’s mascot, and they also are a natural predator of mice and rats that can get into the ship’s food supply and sinken the crew. 

Oscar would remain aboard HMS Cossack for the next several months. While escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to the UK, Cossack was attacked by German U-boat U-563 on 23 October 1941. The Type-VIIC U-boat scored a direct hit with a single torpedo attack on Cossack. U-563 then retreated. 

Cossack was towed by a tug in an attempt to get it back to Gibraltar on the 25th, but sunk west of the port on the 27th. In the initial torpedo attack and subsequent explosion, 159 of her crew of 190 had been lost. 

Among those rescued from HMS Cossack was the cat Oscar. Brought aboard the British ship HMS Ark Royal. Incidentally Ark Royal, like Cossack, had been an integral player in the Battle of Denmark Strait where she had helped to sink Oscar’s first ship Bismarck. 

HMS Cossack

After surviving the sinking in combat of not one but two ships, the crew of Ark Royal renamed Oscar to “Unsinkable” Sam. Sailors being a superstitious lot, perhaps they thought Sam would bring them luck as they slogged through the war. This is the fall of 1941, deep in the Battle of Britain and before the US had officially entered the fray. Good news or blessed tokens of any sort were well received by the war weary Brits. 

Sam’s career aboard HMS Ark Royal would be short lived. On 13 November, not even a month after coming aboard, Ark Royal and other Royal Navy ships were in the vicinity of Gibraltar when German U-boat U-81 fired one torpedo at the convoy. Intending to hit a battleship, the torpedo struck directly on Ark Royal, deep below the water line. 

The explosion tossed planes on deck into the air, shook the ship, and immediately rended a 130 foot long hole in the ship’s bottom. Miraculously, only one British sailor lost his life in the explosion, but the ship was immediately taken out of the fight. Meanwhile U-81 dodged depth charges and slunk away unscathed. 

As with Cossack, attempts were made to tow Ark Royal into Gibraltar. The ship however wouldn’t make it. Taking on so much water that she was listing 18° to starboard 20 minutes after being hit, she wouldn’t make it to safe harbor. Similarly designed Royal Navy carriers had been lost with great loss of life after listing this heavily, so the ship’s captain gave the order to abandon ship. 

HMS Ark Royal, one of the heroes of the battle that sunk Bismarck, was lost, but all crew were evacuated safely. Perhaps due to some of the luck of Unsinkable Sam, all 1,487 crewmen and officers were rescued, with the exception of the single man who died in the initial explosion. The ship itself would continue to list further and further until she capsized, broke in two, and slipped beneath the waters of the Mediterranean on November 14. 

The U-boat that sunk Ark Royal, U-81, had a prolific career, sinking or destroying 25 ships totalling 72,884 gross tonnage. Ark Royal herself accounts for 31% of that tonnage. 

HMS Ark Royal

Among the survivors of Ark Royal was a plucky black cat. That’s right, he survived a THIRD ship being torpedoed out from under him. Two navies, three ships, and all within the same year. This earned the cat a well deserved retirement from active duty. He was in the Gibraltar governor’s office for a time before being sent to the United Kingdom. He lived out the rest of the war at a sailor’s home in Belfast known as the “Home for Sailors.” He died in 1955 after enjoying many years far less eventful than 1941. 

There are doubts that the story I’ve just relayed to you is entirely true. I choose to believe that, even if the story is an amalgamation of more than one ship’s cat, that this is all true and there is a life lesson here. No matter what happens or how bad things get, another ship will come along. 

Thanks to Mason for another great Valor Friday.

Category: Guest Post, Valor

Comments (17)

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  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    BZ to “Oscar/Unsinkable Sam”. Brought Good Luck to himself, but his ships tended to attract things that go boom. I can just imagine how pissed off/scared the poor fellow was, hanging onto his perch in the ocean, surviving shot, shell, AND potential drowning.

    Cool Story. Thanks Mason, FIRST I’d ever heard of this. Oscar/Sam bears a strong resemblance to Miss Bobbie, a favorite Feline Fur Baby of 20 years I lost 2 years ago. She had that same Tuxedo Markings coat.

  2. CCO says:

    Water is wet; fire burns.

    The Hood blew up and sank in the Denmark Strait (between Iceland and Greenland).
    The Bismarck sank west of France.

    The History Guy has a video on this cat.

  3. atlanticcoast63 says:

    …The cat in the painting looks eerily like our Eek!, who, – aside from a homicidal dislike of humans – is a Pretty Good Cat.

  4. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    One interesting theory is that Prince Eugen scored a lucky “down the stack” hit on Hood. The theory goes: physics of the guns and positions at the moment of decisive hit made it impossible for Bismarck to have hit the vitals of Hood. A plunging 8″ round from Eugen could.

    Britain was not about to admit a lucky shot from an inferior ship sank the Pride of the Fleet, so Bismarck was “credited” with the kill.

    Hm.

    • The Prince Eugen was a war prize won by the US by a short straw contest. The reason the US wanted her was because of her boiler system. The German crew brought her to the States. She was commissioned as the USS X 1 if I still remember. I should have googled this before commenting. She was used in the Bikini A bomb tests and survived but there was a lot of radiation aboard and after time she rusted out. I put together a small plastic model of her and what a job making scratch built parts, real store bought anchor chain and photo etched parts to high lite the molded plastic ladders and rope/fire hose spools etc. I had to drill out port holes and other stuff I have forgotten about.

  5. AZRobert says:

    They say dogs look at you as a god but cats know better…

    • Mason says:

      Not to speak ill of cats, but I’ve seen people dead for a week and their dogs don’t eat them. Cats wait a couple hours and start feasting. You miss a week of meals and your dog is still loyal. You miss one and your cat sees you as a meal.

  6. Frank says:

    The cat should have been renamed, “Jonah.”
    And returned to the Kriegsmarine…

  7. Poetrooper says:

    Being a cat, he still had six ships to go…

  8. 26Limabeans says:

    You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a ship
    he supposedly served on…

  9. Poetrooper says:

    Didn’t go down with his ships–what a pussy!

  10. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    Cat? That critter is a bird…

    (Puts on sunglasses)

    An Omen Pigeon