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Patrick Roberts

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Cats in Wartime

NOTE: We'd be delighted to hear from anyone who can add to our account of cats in wartime – on land, sea or in the air – from any part of the world. Photos would be even better!

1.  On Land and in the Air

On this page, below:

Wartime Cats on Land
Wartime Cats in the Air

[ see this separate page for wartime cats at sea ]

Cats do not have a natural or important place in mankind's wars in the same way as dogs, horses and some other animals do, since (as cat owners will know!) it's very difficult to get a cat to do what you want. There were stories that the Americans tried to use cats during the Vietnam war, but they were too easily distracted and either started playing or disappeared into the jungle! However, these tales are apocryphal. During the nineteenth century it is said that the Belgians tried using cats to deliver letters, but with a marked lack of success. (See the introduction to our Post Office Cats section for more about this curious scheme.)

There is one function that cats have fulfilled since time immemorial, though, and that is as ship's cats (see our second Cats in Wartime article), where they kept the vessel's stores free from rodents and also acted as mascots and companions to the crew. They were especially important in wartime, when supplies could be short, and men were far from home for extended periods and welcomed feline companionship. Sadly, since 1975 the British Royal Navy has banned cats, and indeed all animals, from its ships.

Many of these wartime tales are short and without photos, as they date from decades ago now; information is sparse and snippets have been gleaned from many sources.

A memorial to all the animals that have been caught up and have suffered in human wars has been erected in England, in London's Park Lane. Read more about the Animals in War Memorial and see some photographs.

Wartime nurse with feline friend

War on Land

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Cat in helmet It is said that the ancient Persians took cats into battle against the Egyptians, because they knew it would give them an advantage. The Egyptians, with their reverence for cats, would do anything to avoid harming one, so would be reluctant to attack anyone with a cat.

In the 16th century German artillery officer Christopher of Hapsburg came up with a plan to use cats as gas bombs. The cats, he proposed, would have jars of poison gas attached to their backs (with the openings facing backwards) and be driven amongst enemy troops to spread alarm and poisonous fumes. His plan was presented to the Council of One and Twenty in Strasbourg, but was never put into use. During the Crimean War (1854-55) it was reported that some captured Russian soldiers were found to be carrying kitten mascots beneath their coats. See also the story of Sevastopol Tom from the Crimean War.

WW1 tank mascot In World War I, the British army employed 500,000 cats as gas detectors and ratters in the trenches. During World War II, cats as guardians of food stores were so important to the war effort that thousands of them were donated by the British public and also by the US via a Cats For Europe scheme, with an official powdered milk ration for 'all cats engaged in work of national importance'. During that war, in Britain and many other countries, all pet animals, including cats, were hard hit by rationing — those that survived, that is: and many did not. In Britain it was actually illegal to give cats milk to drink and they were obliged to drink water (which we now know is better for them anyway). There was some heavy lobbying, though, on behalf of warehouse mousers that had a job to do, and sick cats, and for these the rule was relaxed so that they could have a dried-milk ration.

Soldiers have always felt better for adopting mascots, and many cat mascots have earned their keep as 'stress-busters' — such as the kitten here (above right), which was a tank mascot in WW1. See also Pfc Hammer under 'Iraq cats' at the end of the following Land section.

Andrew, Allied Forces Mascot Club, 1940s

   Andrew became the mascot of the Allied Forces Mascot Club. This organisation was formed by the PDSA in 1943 to obtain recognition for all the animals and birds that served their country during WW2; membership was confined to creatures serving with the Allied Forces (not necessarily British) and the Civil Defence services. It met with great success and approval and there was a very large membership. Although Andrew did not himself go to war, he was based in London and was in the front line for air attacks (he slept through most of them!); but he had a very useful attribute — he seemed to know when a flying bomb was going to fall near his home. When he took cover, everyone around knew they should do the same. Weighing in at nearly 14 pounds (over 6 kilos), he was a very large fawn-and-brown tabby with spotless white front, tummy and 'socks' and an inverted 'V for victory' on his nose.

Bilgewater, of the US Coastguard Academy

bullet   This charming picture, dating from 1944, shows Bilgewater of the US Coastguard Academy checking out part of the new, grey cadet uniform for comfort.
Source: USNI: Cats in the Sea Services.

   While the 42nd Royal Highlanders, the renowned Scottish regiment known as the Black Watch, were encamped in 1854 near Varna, in Bulgaria, before embarking to do battle in the Crimea, a soldier felt a furry body rubbing against his legs and looked down to see a thin tabby cat. She was very friendly and clearly wanted food, but after being fed she did not leave and seemed to want to stay. She became the regiment's unusual mascot and was named Bulgarian Belle. On arrival in the Crimea she was assigned a soldier's knapsack for transportation — a popular duty as whoever carried her had no other fatigue duties that day! Safe in her knapsack, she advanced with the regiment when they routed the Russians at the battle of Alma; she must have heard all the cacophony of war, but could not see what was happening until the Russians had retreated and she was allowed out after the battle.
     Belle then accompanied her regiment to Balaclava, where it was decided not to risk her life by taking her into action again and she was sent to the safety of the regimental hospital. But she sickened and died anyway, apparently missing active service and pining for the companionship of her soldier friends. Hers was a brief career, but she had become part of the proud tradition of one of the most gallant regiments.

   One World War II widow had a 10-year-old son to support and a feline companion known simply as Cat. The day came when she could no longer afford to feed Cat, who was told by her grieving mistress that she was going to have to be 'put to sleep' the following day. Cat seems to have taken in this information, for early next morning she went out and returned later with a dead wild rabbit for the pot. Thereafter, for the duration of the war, Cat's hunting skills earned her keep; three or more times a week she brought in rabbits that were often bigger than she was. She always waited patiently for her share.

   During 1942 in Malden, Essex, south-east England, an area subject to heavy bombing, a 19-year-old cat called Jim saved his owners when their house caught fire. He ran upstairs and woke them in time for them to be able to get up and get the fire under control. Jim was awarded the Blue Cross Medal (see picture below), which was instituted for animals that had helped to save human lives and was only sparingly given.

Little One with his special NARPAC collar

   Little One is seen with his owner Mrs Day, London, 1941. He is wearing a NARPAC collar, standing for 'National Air Raid Protection for Animals Committee'. This was described officially as an 'animal lovers' voluntary wartime organisation that ensures, should he stray in blitz or blackout, he will be returned safely to his owner'.
Image © and reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London - see notice above.

Mike, studio cat of a WW2 Australian Army broadcasting station

   Mike was the studio cat and mascot of the wartime (WW2) Australian Army broadcasting station at Bosley Field, Bougainville in what was then the British colony of the Solomon Islands.

Miss Hap the kitten with Marine Sergeant Frank Praytor, Korean war, ca 1953

   Accepting her fate as an orphan of war, Miss Hap, a two-week old Korean kitten, chows down on canned milk, piped to her by medicine dropper with the help of Marine Sergeant Frank Praytor in c.1953. The Marine adopted the tiny kitten after her mother was killed by a mortar barrage near Bunker Hill. The name Miss Hap, Sergeant Praytor explained, was given to the kitten 'because she was born in the wrong place at the wrong time'.

Misfire the kitten, Fort Totten, New York, 1942

   The kitten sitting in the sousaphone, with Corporal Manuel Campos we hope only pretending to blow it, was called Misfire; it would be interesting to know why! She was a mascot in 1942 at Fort Totten, New York, a Civil War-era fort that formed part of America's coastal and aerial defences until 1967.

Said to be Mourka of Stalingrad in WW2, but this is unconfirmed

bullet   Mourka was a cat during the terrible German siege of Stalingrad (now called Volgograd) in 1942-43, who risked all his nine lives carrying messages about German positions from a group of Russian scouts back to their headquarters. He was probably well rewarded for his efforts and devotion to duty, as there was a kitchen in the HQ building. The image shown is said to be of Mourka, but we are unable to confirm this.
Image source: WWII in Color.

Kitten playing with hand grenade, WW2 Nina the bunker kitten, WW2

bullet   This WW2 photo of unknown date shows Estonian volunteers of the 20th Waffengrenadier Division of the German SS, judging from the collar tabs and the national colours on the sleeve of the soldier to the right (this information from a commentator on the image, which comes from WWII in Color). The kitten is playing with an 'egg hand grenade'. The second photo, where she's playing with a piece of string, identifies the feline as 'Nina, the bunker kitten' — this caption is printed in Dutch. Thanks to Jim Winchell for supplying this photo.

   An unusual story involves a cat and a rabbit. Both were mascots of a Bofors gun team of the Royal Air Force Regiment; the rabbit was called Bofors and the cat, a female, was known as Preedy. She was described by one of the team as 'a beautiful pet who has made herself quite at home with us. She is always on duty with me during an alert; in fact she follows all of us as we go on duty, day or night.' Cat and rabbit were on 'quite good terms' and ate together; but Preedy could not understand why Bofors wasn't interested in mice. She would catch one, play with it for a while, then bring it to the rabbit — which would ignore it and let it escape! When the time came for the team to be moved to a different position, Preedy did not wish to go; she was put in the luggage truck six times, escaping each time; finally she was put aboard it in a box. But when someone opened it to see how she was faring, she shot out like greased lightning and was never recovered.

Blue Cross Medal

   A cat called Pussy (names don't seem to have been as imaginative in those days as they are now!) did the same as Jim, mentioned above, when fire broke out downstairs where she lived, and she also gained the Blue Cross Medal (left).
Whiskey, belonging to a Corporal Witcomb, saved his family in similar circumstances, although it isn't recorded whether he too received a medal.

   Queenie was a tabby cat befriended by the famous 'Desert Rats' when they were battling for Tobruk in North Africa during WW2. She has an 'honourable mention' in a little book I have about WW2 animals.

   Sevastopol Tom (aka Crimean Tom) became something of a saviour to the British troops following the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean campaign in the mid-1850s: he still 'lives' today and his story is here.

Tillie, American Army Coast Artillery, 1941

   Tillie, pictured with her own 155mm. artillery piece and First Lt C.A. Gross, was the wartime mascot of an American Army Coast Artillery unit. The photograph dates from 1941.

   Tom Cat was a Confederate mascot at Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the American Civil War: his story has a slight twist and can be read here.

   Many cats were adopted by shore-based establishments. One 'Wren' (Women's Royal Naval Service) depot had a cat that wore 'a black coat with a white shirt-front and knee stockings, not to mention whiskers'. She was named Wren Figaro and was affectionate, an excellent mouser, and 'a most convenient cat' because she preferred dried milk to the real thing. Morale at the depot increased when she was adopted, even when 'she devoured part of the Chief's lunch while he was out of his office'. Sadly, as happened to many cats, she disappeared one day, and was much mourned.

New Zealand Army cats

Several cats as follows have been mentioned that were with New Zealand troops during their North African and Italian campaigns during WW2, in 20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment; whereas Snowy the tunnellers' cat dates from WW1.

   Mrs Rommel was caught during the 1941 Libyan campaign and cared for by C Company. After the battalion returned to Baggush she produced two kittens, selecting for their maternity couch the bed of Lieutenant Charlie Upham (later awarded a VC and Bar). When he came into his tent and saw what had taken place, Charlie, with true courtesy and consideration for a lady in distress, slept that night on the sand. The kittens were named Tiger and Tankie.

   Tankie was acquired by Tom O'Connor of the quartering staff. Most army cats are pretty hardy as regards diet, but a few meals of bully beef made Tankie very unwell! However, he lived to accompany the battalion to Syria. While riding in the cab of the Quartermaster's truck one day he made it plain that he thought it high time for a wayside stop. This was not possible while in convoy, and Tankie became desperate. Finally, escaping from the cab, he scampered over the top of the engine (the bonnet covers being open) and, miraculously avoiding injury from the whirling fan blades, gained his urgently desired temporary freedom. Tankie was finally lost in June 1942 when the battalion came through the minefield after leaving Mersa Matruh.

   Tiger became cat mascot of the former transport platoon, and particularly of truck driver Corporal Hamilton. The corporal had been left behind in a base camp in North Africa and was fed up with the routine and the boring duties, so he managed to bluff his way to the action in Italy, taking Tiger with him. Tiger enjoyed a lordly life under the protection of the transport platoon; he had a special bed and a handsome collar bearing an Egyptian coin on which his name and unit were inscribed. After being smuggled across the Mediterranean, it was bad luck that he should become one of the first casualties in Italy when he was run over in the street in the town of Atessa. After the death of his pet 'Hammy' seemed to lose interest in Italy and returned to Egypt, in much the same irregular manner as he had left.

   Wallad, originally a native of Syria, was a handsome cat with beautiful markings and belonged to New Zealander George McAllister. Wallad was a dandy and incurably lazy, disdaining to hunt. It is on record that on 12 October 1942, with the help and encouragement of a noisy mob of troopers, he caught his first mouse. At moments during the chase Wallad was markedly reluctant to come to grips with his prey, and as soon as the exhausted victim was within his paws he promptly went to sleep!

Snowy, mascot of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, Dainville, near Arras, France; 16 July 1918. Image may not be copied or reused without permission.

   Soldiers playing with Snowy the cat, the New Zealand Tunnelling Company mascot, in Dainville, near Arras, France. A row of huts can be seen in the background. Photograph taken by Henry Armytage Sanders on the 16th of July 1918. (Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association Collection, reference number: 1/2-013371-G). Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Source: New Zealand History Online.

Unnamed cats

Members of the Polish Carpathian Lancers photographed with a tabby kitten

   The photo shows members of the Polish Carpathian Lancers Regiment with a tabby kitten. The Lancers were a group of 33 cavalry regiments who escaped via the Carpathian Mountains following the German occupation of Poland in 1939. With the horses soon replaced by armoured vehicles and then tanks, they served with great distinction in North Africa under Allied command, and then in the Italian campaign, after which they came to Britain. After the war they were unable to return home because of the communist takeover of their country, and for a time they camped at Weelsby Wood, near Grimsby, Lincolnshire in eastern England, where this photo with a kitten was taken. The camp was disbanded in 1947 and many of its inhabitants settled in the area. See BBC News Humberside for a recent memorial to them.
Many thanks to our 'Polish correspondent' Bartlomiej for sending the photo.

Kitten at Arras, 1918

   This delightful photo, sent from the US courtesy of Mary Ann Brown, turns out to be originally an Imperial War Museum image, and shows 'an officer of 444 Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), smoking a pipe as he supervises a kitten balancing on a 12-inch gun shell near Arras in France'. The photo was taken in July 1918. Further information gleaned from the backing on which the print was mounted says that the little feline had been found in a devastated part of France by the Germans, who looked after it. However, maybe they rubbed its fur the wrong way, as apparently it then stalked out of a German dugout and joined the advancing British forces in the Champagne sector of the country, and became an official British mascot.
Image © and reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London - see notice above.

Mrs Chisholm and cat, Suez Canal Zone, 1918

   November 1918: A canteen supervisor named Mrs Chisholm is pictured with an unnamed cat at Kambara, Egypt, in what was then the Suez Canal Zone.

WW1 trench mascot Cat with Private Francis Bilton, Australian 5th Battalion, WW1

   Many soldiers kept pets of various kinds during World War 1 to alleviate the horrors and the boredom of the trenches. At outer left is one such, but we have no further information about this photo. Inner left is a 1915 portrait of Private Francis Edmund Bilton, of the Australian 5th Battalion, with a cat curled up asleep in the corner by the tent. It is one of a series of photographs taken by the Darge Photographic Company, which had the concession to take photographs at the Broadmeadows and Seymour army camps during the First World War.
Bilton image source: Australian War Memorial.

Gaza kitten, June 1940

   Gaza, Palestine, June 1940: Australian Pte D. Norman is pictured with a kitten in between air raids.

Air raid warden returns cat to its owner, London, Nov 1940

   Animal ARP (Air Raid Precaution) volunteers did sterling work during WW2 rescuing family pets and abandoned or injured animals from bombed-out buildings. Here a cat is rejoining its owner who is returning to her house following an air raid during the dark days of Londonís blitz, November 1940.
Image © and reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London - see notice above.

Wharf cat, Haifa, Dec 1940

   Haifa (now in Israel), December 1940: a wharfside cat was photographed as a batch of Italian prisoners-of-war invaded her domain.

POW with pet cat, Murchison Camp, Australia, 1942

   An inmate of Murchison prisoner-of-war camp in Australia is photographed with his pet in December 1942.

Dockside cat, Sydney Harbour, 1943

   In April 1943 an Australian army detachment was working at Sydney Harbour during a strike of dock workers. A member is shown befriending a young cat (although the cat doesn't seem sure about it!).

Cat waiting in bombed out building, World War 2

   This cat awaits rescue from a bombed building. Cats might flee during an air raid, but would often return to the wreckage of their former homes.
Image © and reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London - see notice above.

French Resistance officer Claudette Blance with her cat, WW2

   The photo shows Claudette Blance with her cat. She was an intelligence officer in the French Resistance (the Maquis) and an officer in the Free French Army. Her home was used as a safe house by the SOE (Special Operations Executive) Jedburgh team during 1944.
Image © and reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London - see notice above.

Australian war artist Arthur Murch with his cat, 1945

   Official Australian war artist Arthur Murch is shown with his cat in 1945.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Coming more up to date, I was interested and impressed to learn that Israel had a Cat Welfare Society (CWSI) that attempted to rescue cats which had been left abandoned or injured by wars or terrorism. Begun following the Gulf War of 1991, when thousands of pets were abandoned as their owners fled their homes in panic, it aimed to provide shelter for abandoned cats, organise teams of people to feed feral cats, set humane traps and search for injured cats after attacks. Practically all their money came from donations and fund-raising activities. A symbol of their work was a cat called Phoenix, who survived a direct missile attack on his home that killed his owners; taken in by a CWSI volunteer, he lived another 12 years in relative peace.

The organisation was based in an agricultural town called Even Yehuda, and its shelter provided boarding facilities for cats, veterinary care, pet supplies, educational groups to teach children how to care for cats, and a nationwide spay-and-neuter programme. Unfortunately, as of mid-2009, the CWSI is no longer operating. We do not know exactly when it closed, but the cause was a lack of funds.

However, the Israeli animal-rescue organisation Hakol CHAI continues to work for animals in distress, and did sterling work helping abandoned animals during and following the Israeli conflict with Hezbollah in 2006. See also the CHAI home page (English version; also available in Hebrew and Arabic from menu links).

Also in 2006 a number of abandoned cats and dogs, 150 of each, were flown to the USA for rehabilitation and rehoming, under an agreement between the humane society Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA) and America's largest refuge for abused and abandoned animals, the Best Friends animal sanctuary based at Kanab, Utah. This was part of the 'Paws for Peace' programme.

It's heartening to learn that there are such organisations dedicated to animals caught up in human wars through no fault of their own.

Iraq cats

Daniel Kemp tells the story of a cat he met when serving in Iraq:
'The cat was a permanent fixture in the ammunition holding area, which also kept him safe from higher-ranking officers. No one ever wanted to go back around the ammo bunkers looking for unauthorised pets. He lived there for a few months, then the brigade maintenance officer took him in for the second half of the deployment. When we were rotating out, I found the little guy a happy home with the camp manager (a private contractor) who was also a cat person. Good friendly cats were a combat-multiplier over there and he was well taken care of in return for his mousing and companionship duties. Besides, I already had three back in the States.'

Pfc Hammer gets a new home
Pfc Hammer, the cat rescued from Iraq In 2004, when the Iraq war was at its height, an American unit called the Hammers befriended a kitten born at their site; he played with them, kept their quarters rodent-free and acted as a significant morale booster. When the time came for the unit to leave, Staff Sergeant Bousfield didn't want to leave the cat behind, as he was regarded as one of their team. With the help of the American organisation Alley Cat Allies the leggy Egyptian Mau, now known as Private First Class Hammer, was taken to Kuwait and put on a flight to San Francisco. From there he was flown first class to Colorado Springs, where he was met by Rick Bousfield to start a quite different and mortar-free life with the Bousfield family and their various animals. See the full story here.

War in the Air

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Cats were nothing like as commonly found on aircraft as on ships, but there were a few exceptions; and there were those that lived at air bases.

Aircrew, kitten mascot of Cressy flying training school, Australia, 1943

   This delightful kitten was called Aircrew and was the WW2 mascot of the flying training school at Cressy, in Victoria, Australia.

Six kittens with pilots, Cressy airbase, Australia, 1943

   Six kittens were airbase residents at Cressy, shown in March 1943 with three sergeant-pilots of the Royal Australian Air Force relaxing between flights.

Jinx, cat at Texas military base mascot, WW2

   Jinx was wartime mascot at a Texas base for training heavy-bombardment crews. Although she didn't see any action, she was a real 'flying cat' and chalked up plenty of hours in the air.

Kitty, cockpit of American B-25 Mitchell bomber with 91st Photo Mapping Squadron, 1944

   This astonishing photo, kindly sent by Kent Jeffrey, shows a cat in the cockpit of an American B-25 Mitchell bomber belonging to the 91st Photo Mapping Squadron, part of the 311th Photo Wing which operated throughout Central and South America. It dates from 1944 and is likely to be the only known photo of a cat in the cockpit of a military aircraft during flight in wartime. The calico kitten was, unsurprisingly, called Kitty, and the photo was taken by pilot Ole Griffith. The circumstances were a move from one base to another, when it was not wished to leave the cat behind — although it was against regulations to fly animals on the planes. Later the picture was published in a magazine and a couple of books, but Ole says he was saved from disciplinary action by the Statute of Limitations (generally 5 years)!

Pincher, of aircraft carrier HMS Vindex, WW1

   Pincher was the WW1 mascot of HMS Vindex, which was one of Britain's first aircraft carriers. He is seen here sitting on the propeller of one of the seaplanes the ship carried, which is the reason for his entry being here in the Air section as well as on the separate 'War at Sea' page.
Image © and reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London - see notice above.

Pyro the air cat who flew with military photographer Bob Bird in WW2

Pyro the WW2 air cat, who in 2011 received a posthumous commendation from the PDSA

bullet   Pyro was a tabby kitten found in 1942 at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment in Helensburgh, Scotland, by Liverpool-born military photographer Bob Bird. The cat was looking for a warm place to stay in the darkroom, and Bird decided to adopt him after accidentally trapping his tail in a door and having to take the animal to the base's medical officer for treatment. He was named Pyro from the photographic developing chemical pyrocatechol.
     After that Pyro would hang around the base waiting for Bob to return from his flying missions: but Bird noticed that the cat was miserable when left alone, so he began carrying him in his flight jacket. Bird's son Robin said, 'Pyro used to love to fly. He wasn't scared at all. My mother told me that Bob would whistle when he was going flying and Pyro would come running.' He said Pyro earned his wings one winter's day in early 1943 when, flying at 20,000 ft (about 7000 metres), ice covered the plane his father was flying in. The photographer took off his glove to change a lens and started to get severe frostbite in his fingers, but was able to use the heat from the cat in his jacket to warm his hands. After a two-week stay in hospital recovering, he was told by doctors the cat had saved his fingers.
     The pair continued their partnership throughout the rest of the war, and the aircrews from the base believed that Pyro kept them safe during the dangerous experimental flights over the Atlantic. 'Those missions were very dangerous and a lot of crews died,' said Robin, 'so they were very superstitious and Pyro was very important for morale.'
     In 1945 photographer Bob was transferred to RAF Beaulieu in Hampshire. He took Pyro with him, but the tale ended in tragedy when he returned to base one day to find Pyro, who was by then fully grown and too big to fly, had been hit by a truck and killed. Robin Bird added: 'My dad used to talk about Pyro all the time. He had a really strong affection for him and he was devastated when he got killed.'
     Now, in November 2011, Pyro's wartime exploits have been belatedly honoured by the award of a special posthumous commendation from the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals charity (the PDSA). Accepting the award, Robin Bird said, 'Judging from my dad's stories Pyro deserved to be honoured, which is why I nominated him for this award.'

Salty and kitten, first cats to attend US Coast Guard rescue mission

   Salty was a US Coast Guard mascot and became the first cat to take part in a rescue mission when she stowed away, with her kitten, on an amphibian reconnaissance plane just before it took off to effect the rescue of a pilot who had come down at sea. She was based at the San Diego Coast Guard Air Station in California.

Sinbad and Fred Christensen, Spitfire cockpit

Sinbad the kitten on parachute stack

Sinbad the cat and Fred Christiansen

   Colonel Fred J Christensen was an American World War 2 flying ace, thought to be the last surviving one until he died in April 2006. He flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 56th Fighter Group, known as the Wolfpack; he is credited with shooting down 22 German warplanes, including an amazing six in just a few minutes of one day in 1944. From early in 1943 the Wolfpack was based in Britain.
    Christensen attributed much of his good luck to a small black kitten he had found and adopted while in Britain; he called it Sinbad and it flew in the cockpit with him on many of his missions. The cat might not have been taken on high-altitude missions, which could have harmed it, but in any case the Thunderbolt flew mostly on lower-altitude support sorties. One of the colonel's daughters, Diane Haagensen, said that seeing her father return safe and sound from his missions, complete with Sinbad, was a great help in motivating other pilots.
    One day a reporter and photographer came to the base to do a feature on the Wolfpack, and of course wanted a picture of Sinbad — but the cat played hard to get and kept leaping around and cavorting among the stack of parachutes! Eventually a photo was obtained (middle left) — and it is reported that all the pilots whose parachutes Sinbad touched that day returned safely, many with victories to their credit. Naturally this increased the cat's prestige and reputation for being lucky.
    Sinbad survived all the flying unscathed and in September 1944 returned with Christensen to the United States, when his tour of duty ended, to live with his family — and surprised them all by producing kittens! Sinbad had been a female all along, and went on to have several litters of youngsters. Sadly, as with all too many cats and although she had survived the perils of WW2 flying, she was killed by a car in the early 1950s.
    The photo of Sinbad and Fred Christensen in the aircraft cockpit was taken in a Spitfire and not a Thunderbolt; it isn't known why. Maybe Spitfires flew from the same base, or one was visiting, and it was thought appropriate to photograph a British kitten in a British plane.
    There's a silent, and rather shaky, Pathé news clip that was taken in July 1944, during the Wolfpack's term in Britain, and shows Christensen and aircrew with three kittens. We presume the black one held affectionately by Fred is Sinbad. This would have been not long before the pair returned to the US in September 1944.

   During WW2 a German bomber was shot down near Newport, in South Wales, and was found to have a cat on board. He became the first feline prisoner of war when he was taken to an animal shelter in the area, run by Our Dumb Friends' League (later part of the PDSA). He was named Tiger, and initially was said to 'show several German characteristics' (not enlarged upon). After living in the League's care for a while, he apparently became 'a docile, well-mannered and well-behaved cat'.

   As well as his well-known black Labrador dog Nigger, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, of Bomber Command and Dambusters fame, had a cat named Windy that apparently accompanied him on many of his hazardous wartime missions. He was described as 'an all-swimming, all-flying cat, who put in more flying hours than most cats'!

Miss Hap the kitten with Marine Sergeant Frank Praytor, Korean war, ca 1953

   VP-12 Squadron commanding officer Commander Clarence Orville Taff is shown with the black cat mascot Yardbird. VP-12 was the original Black Cat Squadron, which flew Consolidated PBY 'Catalina' flying boats on reconnaissance missions from December 1942 to February 1945 and was based at Guadalcanal. The planes were painted black for night work, hence their name.
Several more images of Yardbird can be seen at David Hanson's photo gallery for the Black Cats.

Continue to our second Cats in Wartime article, covering
War at Sea

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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.

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Page created December 2006, with later revisions and additions