Cats at sea
Winston Churchill meets ship's cat Blackie on HMS Prince of Wales in 1941
Cats at sea
Would you want a ship’s cat on your offshore voyage?
Submitted by CURRENT

Cats have become so popular that they even have their own day – it was National Cat Day a few weeks ago – but way before that, cats were most commonly found running around on ships’ decks. They might not have played such a prominent role in our military history as horses, but from mouse catchers to companions, a ship’s cat was essential cargo on board trading, exploration and naval ships for hundreds of years.  

Ancient Egyptians began taking cats on their trade ships to catch rodents. This practice was gradually adopted by other countries, which is how cats spread throughout civilisation. This led to them becoming domesticated and, eventually, the most popular pet in the world.

A sailor holds Pincher, ship's cat and mascot on board HMS Exeter

Ships’ cats were especially important during times of conflict. Supplies of food were limited so they had to be guarded from rats. France’s Louis XIV liked cats (or hated rodents) so much that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all ships in the French Navy’s fleet had to have two cats on board.

Able Seacat

Perhaps the most notable ship’s cat was Simon, the black and white moggie of HMS Amethyst. Born in the 1940s at a busy Hong Kong shipyard, Simon was smuggled on board by 17-year-old Able Seaman George Hickinbottom, who hid him under his tunic. Following these simple beginnings, this particular feline would go on to receive an award for gallantry under enemy fire.

Simon with fellow crew members (and a massive pie) on board HMS Amethyst

After filling a position for a resident rat catcher, Simon was on board when the Amethyst received orders to move up the Yangtze River to guard the British embassy in Nanking, during the conflict between the Communists and Nationalists in China.

The ship was shelled, and Simon was among the wounded. Once the human casualties had been treated, an RAF medical officer stitched Simon up and he pulled through, helping the wounded soldiers to recover as well by keeping their spirits up. One sailor from this ship was recorded as saying: “Simon was a comforting reminder of home when home seemed so very far away.”

A hero’s welcome

After returning to duty and killing a particularly huge rat, Simon was promoted to the rank of Able Seacat, and he received the Amethyst’s Campaign Ribbon in recognition for his services. Unfortunately, Simon’s injuries had left his heart weakened, which shortened his life, and he died shortly after his arrival in England in November 1949. He was buried with Naval honours and was much missed by his captain and crewmates. “Cats have been valued not only for their pest-control attributes and for their remarkable ability to adapt to new surroundings,” says Patrick Roberts, a researcher on the topic, “but for the companionship and sense of home and security they gave to sailors away from home.”

Simon and Lt Cdr Kerans, Captain of HMS Amethyst

Following Amethyst’s escape from the Yangtze, Simon was awarded the Dickin Medal, described as the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, but unfortunately he died before it could be presented to him. As well as the only cat, he is the only Royal Navy animal to have received it.

Despite cats providing a valuable service to ships, it wasn’t to last – in 1975 the Royal Navy banned them on board all their vessels, for hygiene reasons and because of quarantine issues. But to show appreciation for the cats and other animals that served their country, an ‘Animals in War’ memorial has been erected in London. It cost £2million and was unveiled by HRH The Princess Royal in 2004, the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I. Among the heroic horses and dogs is a lone cat, walking alongside its comrades.

The Animals in War memorial in London

Special thanks to for their help with this article, and where you can read more about ships’ cats and their various roles in our military history.