Hugh Tyson

One November, prior to Britain's Remembrance Sunday, Hugh Tyson's poppy-seller was a neighbour, Bill, who is ex-Royal Navy (wartime). Bill told Hugh the following true story about a wartime cat. Hugh thanks Bill for his time and help in the preparation of this article.

During the war, in 1941 when Britain's fortunes were not at their best, Bill was drafted to Dumbarton, on the Clyde, as a crew-member of a new steam-gunboat. The boat was, for the nautically-minded; HMSGB 7, part of a group which eventually came under the command of the late Sir Peter Scott. Later given names, the boats naturally rejoiced in the names of birds. The move to Dumbarton was for the commissioning of the vessel. Later, as part of Coastal Forces, she was to do her "working up" period in Weymouth Bay before "trailing her coat" off the German-occupied French coast in the hope of catching small German convoys sneaking along close to the shore, or perhaps engaging German E-boats in some action.

On the night that this cat story starts it was snowing in Scotland, bitterly cold and of course there was the blackout. Bill was a member of an ammunition party who had to unload boxes of small rounds, plus larger shells, from railway wagons and hump them back to the gunboat. In typical services fashion, there was the usual moaning, choice language and self-pity at their plight. Someone on the detail heard a strange noise and called for silence, in no uncertain fashion, twice. The faint mew of a cat was heard and a torchlight search revealed a small, cold and pitiful kitten cowering under one of the wagons. Someone said "Poor little bugger!" and, picking it up, stuffed it inside his jumper.

The party had completed their task so they returned to the boat where, on the mess-deck, the cat turned out to be small, very, very cold and to only have a stumpy little tail. Discussions took place about reviving and feeding the little scrap who was taken to the galley and placed in a warm oven with the door open. Someone suggested giving it rum, but somebody else said that cats didn't drink rum. A compromise was reached and a bowl of evaporated milk with rum in it was produced, given to the cat and vanished like magic. Further warming up took place back on the mess-deck where the cat was put on a bulkhead electric heater. From then on, the little cat became a resident of the mess-deck and also a member of the crew.

The only name he ever had was "That Bloody Cat" but he became quite warlike in his own way. When "The Rattlers" - an audible alarm system - went off for Action Stations, "TBC" would make a dash for the bridge, spitting fire and snarling all the time, particularly if there was any action. When "Up Spirits" was piped for issuing the rum ration, there he was, hopefully waiting.

The gunboat was operating out of several South Coast ports, such as Dover, and no matter which port it was, TBC was always "First Ashore" and "Last Aboard". His disembarkation and embarkation points were always from the forward facing torpedo tubes which were located on either side of the vessel's bow. As Number 7 came alongside for berthing, cat would leap the gap between gunboat and jetty and hare off to some unknown destination. A queen in every port, perhaps? Even more mysterious was the fact that when leaving port, with no apparent signs, TBC would come flying across the jetty at the very last minute and leap aboard as the vessel started to move. (Was this the same sixth sense which many land-based cats developed during the war years? Many were known to hide somewhere long before the air raid sirens wailed their warning - in many cases only doing so on the occasions that the warning was later followed by the actual presence of German raiding aircraft passing overhead.)

TBC was associated with the gunboat for several months, but the story ends sadly. Coming into port one day, he slipped on the rounded surface of the torpedo tube and fell into the water. A sailor - described as "the worst dyed-in-the-wool villain" - immediately went over the side after the cat, who unfortunately could not be found and had probably been sucked into the wash from the propellers.

So ends the story of "That Bloody Cat". Even in the horrors of war, the kindness of humans to animals can shine through.

I made some enquiries via the sci.military.naval newsgroup about HMSGB 7. John D Salt and William Hamblem provided the following information.

Unfortunately, Steam Gun-Boat 7 was sunk on June 18 or 19, 1942, during an attack on a German convoy in the English Channel, before receiving a name. HMSGB 7 was the only one of the steam gunboats not to get a name. The other SGBs were named in 1944, but not after birds as the narrator suggested. They became: SGB 3 Grey Seal; SGB 4 Grey Fox; SGB 5 Grey Owl; SGB 6 Grey Shark; SGB 8 Grey Wolf; SGB 9 Grey Goose. SGBs 1 and 2 were both cancelled. Maybe if SGB7 had not come to an untimely end she would have been known as the Grey Cat?

Sailors are often very superstitious and the loss of the ship's cat may be seen as a portent of the loss of the ship. In the case of the ill-fated, never-named HMSGB 7, the loss of That Bloody Cat was strangely prophetic.


Following my initial enquiries, I received several more tales of ship's cats in wartime and peacetime from sci.military.naval and elsewhere.

After reading the account of TBC, Fin Fahey (sci.military.naval) mentioned the accident report on the wall of the maritime museum in Hastings. This is a copy of a standard Admiralty report concerning the post-war destroyer HMS Hastings. According to other information, the ship enjoyed a relatively incident-free career, except for the accident described on the form: a grounding on a sandbank in the Indian Ocean. The Admiralty report merely notes laconically that the accident was later blamed on the ship's cat. The museum's curator admitted to spending a lot of time speculating over that one. Was this just an extremely successful way of shifting the blame to the very bottom of the chain of command and onto a creature which could not possibly have caused an accident, thereby exonerating the rest of the crew? Or, as Guy Alcala noted, considering the way the typical cat exercises command and control of the people who nominally take care of it, I'd say that a cat is usually at the top of the chain of command, not the bottom!

Barry Lake, sent me these snippets:

"HMCS COLUMBIA had a cat onboard in 1971 which was the captain's. It had its HQ in his cabin, but toured the ship (made Rounds) including the machinery spaces. Cat sightings would be made to the bridge so the captain had an idea where it was.

A cat belonging to the commander of the cruiser ONTARIO (circa 1947) was passing two hands painting bollards on the quarterdeck. There being no-one in sight, one of them suggested they paint the cat, so the cat got a brushful of paint on it and then ran off. The commander was furious and spent a lot of time trying to discover who was the guilty so-and-so that painted his cat. He figured out who did it but had no proof, but was forever after accusing him of painting his cat. (As told to me by the guilty party in 1996. The commander died in early 98, so it is now safe to tell the story not using the name of the sailor in case of lightning bolts from on high. When they eventually meet up, heavenly Defaulters will no doubt be held and the sailor will probably get "seven days Hell" since the cat will also be present as a witness).

In a book about the ship, it is recorded that when HMCS BONAVENTURE (carrier) left the UK in June 57 for Canada after rebuild, she carried a "number of Irish-bred dogs and a large assortment of pets" being taken to Canada by the crew who had spent a long time standing by the ship. In addition there was almost another. A Clydesdale horse appeared on the jetty the morning of departure in the charge of two leading seamen. They had bought the horse for 17 pounds, and planned to race it at Sackville Downs in Halifax, NS. Their plan was foiled when the officer of the day heard the ship's crane being started up at 3 AM."

Tony Dalton related his first hand experiences with a ship's cat:

"Whilst serving on the Norwegian-flag tanker "Rona Star", in 1965, I adopted a stray kitten in Mina al Ahmadi which took up residence in the radio room. It refused point blank ever to set foot on shore, despite being bodily carried, many times, down the gangway onto the land. The cat would never leave the ship until the night of June 15th, 1965, when the "Rona Star" was in the wet dock at Rotterdam's Verolme shipyard, undergoing tank-cleaning. The moggy became extremely agitated, mewling and howling, and left the radio room. I watched it from the cabin window as it scooted down the gangway and disappeared. No sooner had it reached the shore than the ship exploded in a ball of fire and 16 persons were killed. To this day, I swear the damned thing sensed the forthcoming disaster. I never saw it again."

Bill Bunting wrote of a "famous cat who lived aboard the steamers of the Boston and Bangor Line, switching from one to the other quite freely. After being thrown off the Katahdin (presumably onto the wharf) it thereafter avoided that steamer." Bill Bunting noted that "rats were a big problem aboard ships employed in the California to Europe grain trade. Fumigation after discharging was evidently not completely effective. The problem was exacerbated when grain ships loaded a cargo of guano, the fumes of which drove the rats up into the cabin and forecastle. Poison was not the answer as the rats invariably died behind the cabin paneling. In 1879 the big Thomaston, Me. ship Joseph S. Spinney was reported as having 28 cats aboard in a rat control experiment."

Brett Soden: "That the day after the frigate HMS Pandora sank in 1791 of the North Queensland coast while trying to find a passage through the Great Barrier Reef. Some of the crew who had survived the sinking rowed back to where the ship sank, to see if they could salvage anything from the wreak, and there, sitting on one of the cross trees, was the ship's cat. What happened to poor thing after its rescue, no one knows."

Craig O'Donnell: "There was an article on using a sextant in THE RUDDER, date unknown, in which a kitten drinking milk from a dish is used as an example of an artificial horizon. He also mentioned that Conor O'Brien set out to sail around with world with his crew and a 'microscopic kitten'. In some of the photos of the sailing vessels of the Chesapeake you can see the ship's cat in some photos." Craig also mentioned Captain Cook's second in command on his last voyage, Charles Clerke, who was evidently a cat-lover. Clerke's own letters and journals have never been published, but his words have been quoted in Beaglehole's biography of Cook. Clerke refers to his "poor cats" who were kidnapped by Tahitians.

Brooks Rowlett: "When the Collier MERRIMAC was scuttled in the entrance to Santiago Harbor during the Spanish- American War in an unsuccessful attempt to seal the Spanish Squadron in, as one of the boats (Hobson's own?) was pulling away it was noted that the cat had been left aboard, and the boat returned to fetch it!"

Margaret Murray mentioned Jennifer Niven's book "The Ice Master" which contains details of the ship's cat on the Canadian expedition which was called Nigeraurak. To which Edwin King added a mention of other polar cats such as Mrs Chippy, which was killed following the wreck of Shackleton's Endurance (a "diary" of the cat was published not too long ago), and Tiger and Nigger (and their kittens), which were the ship's cats of the Discovery. He adds a cautionary note that English ship's cats (and other livestock) of the C18th and C19th contributed to animal extinctions.

Gavin Bull was reading the book 'Battleship Warspite' which mentions (and has a photo of) "Able Cat Pinocchio - HMS Warspite's Mascot 1943-1944". As is typical of photos of feline ship's mascots, Pinocchio is in a cat size sailor's hammock!

Andrew and Rebecca Hall wrote of cats on blockade runners: "William Watson, a Scot who ran the Union blockade under both sail and steam in the ACW, mentions that it was considered bad luck to have a cat aboard ship, but even worse luck to drop the creature overboard. In his autobiography, he recounts how one time in harbour his schooner, ROB ROY, was visited by several other blockade-running men he knew slightly. Shortly after the men returned to their own vessel, it was discovered that they'd left a cat on board ROB ROY, and Watson realized that the entire visit was an excuse to get rid of the unwanted animal. Watson and other men in the business have also recorded that no blockade runner carried live poultry, as was common in the period, for fear the rooster's crowing at dawn would draw the attention of a blockade ship waiting in the darkness."

Hampshire Telegraph, 2nd January 1931

It was Christmas Eve in the last year of grace, on board one of his Majesty's battleships, on the Mediterranean Station. Amidst all the jollification and thoroughness with which Jack decorates his floating home for the one day in all the year on which he is allowed to smoke on the mess-decks and generally do what he pleases, a certain happy event took place. “Min,” one of the ship's cats, had chosen the hammock netting in the Chief Petty Officers’ Mess, in which to present the world with five lusty offspring. ‘Min " was just an ordinary white cat, of no known pedigree, but nevertheless loved by the crew, as all animals are loved by sailors. The domestic event in which she was intimately concerned was not announced in the “hatch, match and despatch” columns of the Press, but nevertheless the usual remark on such occasions was applicable in her case, with the exception tht instead of “Both doing well” it would have been more truthful to chronicle “All doing well.”

Christmas Day came, and with it the time-honoured custom observed on board his Majesty’s ships throughout the Senior Service. The ship's officers and their ladies, from the Admiral downwards, walked round the gaily decorated mess-decks, sampling here and there the good things offered them, with which each mess strived to outdo its neighbour. Some of the officers and their friends were privileged to see the latest joined members of the ship’s company nestling in the hammock netting with their dam, in whose eyes glistened the joy and pride of motherhood. Four of the five kittens were eagerly bargained for on the spot, and were delivered in due course to their respective claimants ashore in Malta, save one, which sickened and died. The fifth remained on board, to grow up with her mother, and great fun they had together, for the youngster appeared to instal renewed vigour into her maternal parent. (It is to be regretted that her paternal parent belonged to the great unknown).

“Min's” remaining daughter executed such antics that she was dubbed “Crackers” by a member of the mess who was evidently s past master in the nomenclature of pussies. “Crackers” possessed a freak of nature inasmuch as though both her eyes were blue, one was of much lighter hue than the other, which caused her to “lord it” over the remainder of the feline species on board.

In course of time the greet battleship in which “Crackers" was bred and born visited “The Rock,” and was made fast alongside. During the ship's stay there, “Min” was in the habit of paying visits to Spanish cats – as a matter of international courtesy, no doubt. Then came the first tragedy in “Cracker’s” life. The time came for leaving Gibraltar, and “Min” was nowhere to be found. It can only be assumed that she either fell in love with a Spanish pussy and wantonly deserted her offspring, or else that Spanish gentleman cats are in the habit of using “cave-man" methods to secure their prospective brides. Howbeit, “Min” was never seen again, and poor “Crackers” was left a total orphan.

In the fulness of time “Crackers” forgot her bereavement, or appeared to, and resumed her former happy-go-lucky outlook on life. Then came the joyful news that the vessel had been ordered home. On her arrival at one of our big Naval ports there were happy reunions with sweet-hearts and wives - the happier because the warship was home earlier than was at first expected. The jovial member of the mess who had been responsible for naming “Crackers,” and who surely would have become the ship's jester had there been such a rating on account of his ever-present mirth-provoking witticisms, had arranged to take puss ashore to his home. Alas! his better half already possessed a cat, and was quite definite about not requiring another. So “Crackers” remained on board.

Then came sudden tragedy. The whole mess was startled and grieved one morning at breakfast to learn that “Crackers” had been discovered the previous evening hopping around on three legs, with the fourth hanging limp. What had happened nobody could discover. It was evident she was in pain, so with utmost tenderness she was carried to the sick bay and X-rayed there and then. With great promptitude the sick-berth rating on duty developed the negative. Sad to relate, it told the story of a break in the bone of the helpless le,. high up near the body. Poor little “Crackers”! What a contrast to her former lively self she looked; so pitiful, as much as to say, “What have I done to deserve such a fate?”

Of advice there was plenty, and if money could repair the damage, the mess would gladly foot the bill. In the end it was decided to take “Crackers” ashore to the Animals’ Dispensary, there to get expert advice. So she was gently laid in a hamper and carried ashore for the first and last time in her life. Everyone hoped there would be s chance of recovery, but the veterinary surgeon decided otherwise; and, to the regret of all, poor “Crackers” was painlessly put to sleep.

The memory of her remains, for she had such quaint. lovable ways; and although life on board a man o° war is not all beer and skittles for a cat, we like to think that everything possible was done for “Crackers.” If there is an afterlife for animals (and who shall say there is not?) perhaps even now she is looking at us with her odd eyes, the while purring her gratitude for all that was done tor her during her short but eventful life in the Royal Navy. –A.R.C.


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