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Sam the Unsinkable Cat Survived Multiple WWII Shipwrecks

Rosario Pérez · Photos: Public Domain

Sam The Unsinkable

Sam the Unsinkable: The Cat that survived multiple shipwrecks during World War II

Various publications and even a painting tell the story of the cat that was rescued from three different sinking ships during World War II, two of them near Gibraltar.

Sam The Unsinkable is the name of one of the most “famous” cats of the 20th century: a feline that appears to have somehow survived at least three shipwrecks during the height of the Second World War, and who spent a part of his hectic life in Gibraltar.

Sam the Unsinkable
Sam the Unsinkable

While a few newspapers and testimonies from the era provide accounts of his adventures, even today, it remains difficult to prove how many of these stories are true, and how many of them are fiction.

They appear in several written publications and even in a painting by Georgina Shaw-Baker, which was exhibited at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Legend or reality, those who have written about him agree that Sam (whose first name was Oskar) was a black and white cat that “served” on a German Kriegsmarine warship and, after being rescued unharmed from the first shipwreck, was then “enlisted” in the British Royal Navy, and survived at least two more ship wrecks.


While these days it may sound surprising that a war ship would have a pet onboard, historians confirm that the practice of recruiting cats goes back thousands of years, and there is a logical explanation: they served to kill rats, mice and other pests that could damage the structure and equipment of the ships.

In respect to Sam, his first known journey took place aboard the German battleship Bismarck, during the height of the Nazi regime, when it sailed off on May 18th, 1941 to participate in its first and only mission: operation Rheinübung.

HMS Bismark WWII

Following a fierce naval battle, the Bismarck was sunk on May 27th, and only 118 out of 2,200 men survived. According to the newspapers, the cat – named Oskar– was found a few hours after the wreck, clinging to a board floating in the water, and was rescued by British destroyer, HMS Cossack, along with 114 other survivors.

In the following months, the cat served aboard the Cossack, which carried out convoy escort duties in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic.

It sank on October 27th, 1941 just west of Gibraltar, three days after being hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine. While part of the crew was transferred to the destroyer HMS Legion, the initial explosion had resulted in 159 casualties; Sam was not one of them, and was rescued on this occasion too.


Now referred to as “the Unsinkable”, the cat was transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (which, coincidentally, had participated in the destruction of the Bismark) and, as fate would have it, he experienced yet another shipwreck, when his new ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on their return from Malta on November 14th, 1941.

The aircraft carrier slowly sank 30 miles from the coast of Gibraltar following various desperate and fruitless attempts to tow it.

However, there was enough time to save the entire crew, including Sam. Newspapers of the time reported that the fortunate cat was found clinging to a wooden board of the boat, “angry but unharmed”.

HMS Ark Royal

Before finishing his “career” with the British Navy, the famous feline passed through two other ships: the HMS Legion and the HMS Lightning, both of which sank later, the first in 1942 and the other in 1943.

But Sam, after a period of chasing rats on dry land within the offices of the British government in Gibraltar, had been transferred to Belfast, Northern Ireland where he spent the rest of the war in a Naval Officer’s home until his death in 1955.

An Unsinkable Sam Look-Alike Enjoying Reach

Sam the Unsinkable: The Cat that survived multiple shipwrecks during World War II

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