Unsinkable Sam: The Lucky Cat Who Used Three Of His Nine Lives To Survive Shipwrecks

By Karen Harris

A view of the German battleship Bismarck firing on a merchant ship in the north Atlantic. The Bismarck was sunk after attack by the British fleet on May 27, 1941. (Keystone/Getty Images)

They say cats have nine lives, but for the feline lovers of the world, that myth proves tragically untrue all too often. Some furry friends, however, are luckier than others. One kitty emerged as one of them during World War II, when he famously defied death not once, not twice, but three times.

Unsinkable Sam

"Unsinkable Sam," as he came to be known, was actually a German cat named Oscar who was probably born around 1939. Two years later, a young soldier brought him aboard the battleship Bismarck to keep the ship rodent-free, a job he reportedly excelled at. Just days later, on May 27, the German battleship was hit with a barrage of cannon fire from the British Navy and sank. The cat was among only 115 survivors out of the 2,200 sailors onboard, found clinging to a board in the open waters by the crew of the H.M.S. Cossack. They adopted the handsome black-and-white furball as their own, and Oscar thus switched sides to join the Allies.

The H.M.S. Cossack spent a few months in the Mediterranean Sea but left the Straits of Gibraltar to escort a convoy back to the U.K., and on October 24, 1941, it was struck by a torpedo from a German submarine. The damage killed 159 of the 190 sailors on the ship, which sank three days later, but once again, the cat was found floating on the wreckage. At this point, some of the Cossack's surviving sailors began calling him "Unsinkable Sam."

Unsinkable Sam portrait. (Georgina Shaw Baker/Wikimedia Commons)

Fame And Later Life

Sam soon found himself a new job as the chief mouser on the H.M.S. Ark Royal, but on November 14, it too was hit by a torpedo. The aircraft carrier capsized, but fortunately, it sank slowly enough for a nearby British ship to rescue the sailors and one very wet and angry feline from the waters of the Mediterranean. Crew and cat were taken to the nearby Gibraltar, where the governor fostered Sam for some time, but the British Navy decided to send Sam to the United Kingdom. He was given a special place of honor, along with free room and board, at the House for Sailors in Belfast.

When word got out about Unsinkable Sam and his three brushes with watery death, the cat became quite the celebrity. He appeared in newspapers around the world, posed for artists who created portraits of him, and even starred in children's books. Of course, Sam was mostly unaware of his fame, relishing the quiet life of the Northern Irish countryside after his eventful first years. He lived to the ripe old age of 16 and died of natural causes in 1955.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.