More About Oscar

There is a wonderful and highly recommended website called Purr ‘n’ Fur which raises some doubts about Oscar, the Bismarck’s cat, which I would like to address. The entry for Oscar includes the following:

Is this a photo of Oscar?

“Some serious researchers of the matter believe that the tale of Oscar as given above, while it makes a marvellous story, is what would probably today be called an ‘urban myth’, and is highly unlikely to have happened in that way, or even at all.

I want to point out right away that there is no hard proof one way or the other at this point and there may never be, since fewer veterans of WWII are left each year. Let’s take a close look at the criticisms, however.

The reasons are several:
1. None of the survivors from Bismarck remembers there being such a cat on the ship — not even the Baron, who would have been in its likely home of the wardroom.

It isn’t surprising that the Bismarck survivors don’t remember a cat, since only 115 (or about five percent) of the crew survived. Were they all interviewed? Transcripts of interrogations are hardly likely to mention the cat. Was the wardroom Oscar’s home? Maybe, if he was a mascot. But if he was a working cat, helping control rats and other vermin in the bowels of the ship, he could have made his home anywhere. Most ships of that era carried a cat or cats for just that purpose. A website about the surviving crew states “Most of the survivors had only knowledge of their own part of the ship…”.

2. There is no photographic or documentary evidence of a cat on board (and there are plenty of surviving photos of and from Bismarck).

Again it is not surprising that photographic evidence does not show a cat. Mascots (and they did exist) on ships of Nazi Germany were rarely photographed. Most of the photos of Bismarck were for propaganda purposes, and unlikely to feature the ship’s cat. Personal photos taken by the crew might have shown the cat, but there is no guarantee they would.

3. A small animal like a cat in the sea could not have reached a rescue ship. Both of the rescue ships present (neither of which was the Cossack, incidentally) were high-sided vessels, and Bismarck’s survivors, covered in oil, had to climb ropes in heavy seas to reach safety — so how could an extremely wet cat have got on board? A sailor would not have been able to reach down and pick it up, either. And no cat could have survived for long, drenched through and very cold, to be picked up later.

Or is this Oscar, and who is that holding the painting?

HMS Cossack was present, though not as a rescue ship per se.  From Cossack’s Wikipedia page:

“In May 1941, she participated in the pursuit and destruction of the Bismarck. While escorting Convoy WS-8B to the Middle East, Cossack and 4 other destroyers broke off on 26 May, and headed towards the area where Bismarck had been reported. They found her that evening, and made several torpedo attacks in the evening and into the next morning. No hits were scored, but they kept her gunners from getting any sleep, making it easier for the battleships to attack her the next morning.” Oscar’s story doesn’t mention Cossack picking up any survivors, only that they spotted the cat on some floating wreckage. Whether they would have stopped to rescue him depends, I think, on her skipper. No sailor would necessarily have had to reach him. A bucket or some such could have been lowered, or if Cossack had a cargo net draping the side Oscar could have scrambled up on his own. Whether Oscar could survive long enough to be rescued depends on a great many circumstances. For instance, was Oscar “drenched through and very cold”? When the Titanic went down Chief Baker Charles Joughlin was able, through a unique set of circumstances, to step off into the water without even getting his hair wet! Could something similar have happened to Oscar? As a cat, being very agile, could he possibly have leapt to a piece of wreckage as the Bismarck went down?

4. Human survival instincts make it extremely unlikely that any sailor, German or British, as much as they liked their mascots, would have rescued an animal under the very poor conditions at the time, when all efforts were being concentrated on saving human lives.

The story places Oscar alone on a piece of floating wreckage. There is no mention of him being saved by one of the crew. Even so, it would not have been the first time in history that a ship’s cat had been tucked inside a sailor’s jacket and saved.

During World War II, Ivan T. Sanderson worked for British Naval Intelligence, later becoming a popular author of books about strange phenomena. He also owned a schooner and was thus no stranger to the sea. The following quote is from his book Invisible Residents.

“Then again, as I said way back, ship’s pets constitute a rather special category of pets and probably because of some age-old and even atavistic custom or belief.  How many brave men have lost their lives trying to save a pet when their mates were drowning?  You land lubbers may think me mad, but I’ve sunk more than once and only later did I realize that I behaved in a quite irrational manner in my efforts to save a pet at no disadvantage to my mates.  I repeat, it may sound quite mad but one just does not abandon ship and leave the ship’s mascot aboard – ask any sailor.”

5. The Ark Royal part of the tale sounds similarly unlikely. On that occasion the ship sank very slowly; there was time to evacuate all survivors in an orderly way, and no one had to be rescued from wreckage. If there had been a cat alive, unless it hid itself very well, it would not have had to be in the water at all.

This is very true, but an exaggeration doesn’t indicate that Oscar didn’t exist. Many war stories become embellished over time, more dramatic details being added with frequent retelling.

6. Lastly, there seem to be two different versions of Oscar! Our photo above, although copied a number of times, definitely shows a striped tabby. However, there is a painting in the British National Maritime Museum, supposedly of Oscar, that shows a ‘tuxedo’ (black-and-white) cat. They cannot both be correct — but is either of them? Did Oscar ever exist, or was he the figment of someone’s fertile imagination?

Painting of Oscar by Georgina Shaw-Baker

There are two key questions here. First, what is the origin of the photo? Is it just a cat or really Oscar himself? Second, did Georgina Shaw-Baker ever see Oscar, or was ‘artistic license’ used for the painting. She was a painter of war animals, her paintings including Prince, Mascot of the Staffordshire Regiment; Cat Mascot Jimmy, HMS Renown; Peggy, Bull Dog Mascot of HMS Iron Duke and The cat of HMS ‘Exeter’, all of which are faithful representations of the (then) existing animal. I see no reason to assume that her painting of Oscar was any less so than the rest of her work. My opinion is that the photo of ‘Oscar’ (perhaps that of a different ship’s cat) simply became attached to the story at a later date. But who is the sailor holding Oscar’s portrait and what is his connection to the tale?

Anyway, my personal opinion (for what it’s worth) is that Oscar did exist, and his story is basically true, though exaggerated in some of the details.

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2 Responses to More About Oscar

  1. Pingback: R. I. P. Ketzel | Mac1949's Blog

  2. Pingback: A Last Word About Oscar | Mac1949's Blog

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