In May of 1941, several months before the United States officially entered World War II, Nazi Germany’s battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen scoured the Atlantic Ocean on a raiding mission to thwart Allied shipping between the United States and Great Britain. On May 24, the two ships entered into battle with two Royal Navy ships, the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood, nicknamed “the Mighty Hood,” in what is now referred to as the Battle of Denmark Strait.
The battle has been memorialized in books, songs, films, and other media including Johnny Horton’s 1960 hit song “Sink the Bismarck.” In the song, Johnny Horton sang that “The Bismarck was the fastest ship that ever sailed the sea, on her deck were guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees,” followed by the war cry “We gotta sink the Bismarck cause the world depends on us.”
Within the first ten minutes of the battle, one of the Bismarck’s “shells as big as trees” struck the Hood near one of its ammunition magazines. Within seconds, the Hood exploded with a violent shudder and sank. In less than thirteen minutes after the Hood fired its first shot, as Johnny Horton sang, “The Mighty Hood went down.” Only three of the Hood’s 1,418 sailors survived the sinking.
News of the Hood’s fate was devastating to British morale, but they soon rallied. The Royal Navy was determined to sink the Bismarck. It became their prime target. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered all ships in the region to search for the Bismarck.
Within hours, the British fleet located the Bismarck. Bi-planes from the Royal Navy’s Ark Royal dropped torpedoes on the Bismarck. The first torpedo struck the Bismarck but only caused minimal damage. The second torpedo struck nearby and jammed the Bismarck’s rudders. The Bismarck was unable to steer but kept moving in a large circle. The battle continued throughout the night and into the morning of May 27, 1941. Continuous attacks by several British ships destroyed the Bismarck’s guns. At 10:40 a.m., the Bismarck disappeared beneath waves. Of the 2,200 aboard, only 114 survived.
Hours after the sinking of the Bismarck, sailors aboard the British Ship Cossack saw Oscar sitting on a piece of floating wooden wreckage. Oscar was the only survivor of the Bismarck to be picked up by the British Ship.
At first, the sailors on the Cossack were unsure what to do with Oscar. They put Oscar, not in the brig, but in a room where they could keep a close eye on him. With each passing day, the crew gave Oscar more and more freedoms. Before long, Oscar was performing the same task on the Cossack for the Royal Navy that he had performed on the German Bismarck. He was working for his country’s enemy.
On October 23, 1941, the Cossack was escorting a convoy of ships from Gibraltar to the United Kingdom. Unbeknownst to the crew, a German submarine U-563 had spotted the ship. Without warning, an explosion rocked the Cossack. The German U-boat had fired a single torpedo and disappeared. The Cossack was damaged and unable to steer, but stayed afloat. Two days later, a tugboat from Gibraltar arrived and towed the Cossack toward land. On the following day, October 26, a storm moved into the area. The tugboat was unable to keep the tow line attached to the Cossack in the high sea. On October 27, the Cossack floundered to the turbulent sea and sank into the Atlantic Ocean. 159 crew members died as a result of the ship’s sinking, but not Oscar. He was among those rescued by the HMS Legion. The Legion transported the survivors to Gibraltar.
The crew of the Cossack spoke so highly of Oscar that he was not jailed for being an enemy combatant, but was put to work on the HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier. Two weeks after Oscar joined the Ark Royal, on November 13, a German U-boat fired a torpedo at the aircraft carrier. The explosion shook the ship. Several of the crew were launched into the ocean by the blast but only a single crew member died. It took nearly three hours for the Ark Royal to sink. In that time, the HMS Legion was able to rescue all of the Ark Royal’s crewmen. As had happened when the Bismarck sank, sailors found Oscar clinging to a floating board.
Oscar’s days at sea were over. For reasons which remain unclear, the Royal Navy transferred Oscar to the seamen’s home in Belfast, Ireland. Oscar never returned to Germany, but stayed at the seamen’s home for the remainder of his life. From May until November, 1941, Oscar had survived the sinking of three ships. His job in the German Navy and then in the British Navy was an important one, pest control. You see, Oscar was not a typical sailor. Oscar was…a cat.
- The Pittsburgh Press, May 27, 1941, p.18.
- The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), May 27, 1941, p.1.
- The Morning Post (Camden, New Jersey), May 28, 1941, p.2.
- The Windsor Star (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), November 14, 1941, p.1.
- Royal Museums Greenwich. “Oscar, Cat from the German Battleship ‘Bismarck‘.” Accessed June 21, 2021. https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/203480.html.
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