It was during a family day out to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, that we acquired a new cat…. Not a real one, I hasten to add – but a replica of Able Seaman Simon…. We thought he would be an amusing addition to No.3, as being so realistic he would be bound to catch a few unsuspecting visitors out – and he has, he’s given us a few laughs….
Whilst researching for my last blog post – “A black cat called ‘Lucky’….”-I kept stumbling across references to the real Simon and intrigued, I realised I had to know more….
Ships have had cats since ancient times…. The Ancient Egyptians carried them on their Nile boats. The Vikings are known to have had them as far back as the 8th Century…. It was Phoenician* cargo ships that first brought cats to Europe, approximately 900BC…
*An ancient civilisation on the Eastern Mediterranean coastal region : now known to us as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Gaza and Syria.
Ship’s cats are thought to have spread cats across the World…. Moggies on ‘shore leave’ had ‘romances’, genes spread, as kittens grew and had families of their own, so the kitties we know today came to be….
Cats were an important part of the crew of ships in days gone by; trading, exploration and naval ships all employed their services to control rodents….
It wasn’t just the cargo that needed protecting from vermin. Rats and mice are notorious gnawers; ropes and wood were chewed and in time and with progression they happily munched their way into electrical wiring too…. Then the ship’s supplies had to be taken care of, a crew of hungry men away at sea for months, maybe years at a time, needed sustenance…. Plus rats and mice carry disease. What better way to deal with this, than with a mouser? Cats also gave comfort to these men….away from home for long periods of time, they provided a link to the life left behind….and then there was superstition….
The ship’s cat was also thought of as a mascot, it brought luck. It was believed the resident moggy could protect against the elements of the weather. There was also a belief storms could start from the magic stored within their tails…. If a cat fell or was thrown overboard a terrible storm would ensue…. If the ship managed to survive this, then it would have to endure nine years of bad luck…. The cat’s behaviour also gave signs to the sailors. If when grooming, it licked its fur against the grain – a hail storm was coming. If it sneezed, rain was on its way, if it started to act in a frisky manner, the wind was going to get up…. There is some truth in all this…. A cat’s inner ear is very sensitive, (this is what allows it to land in an upright position when falling) – this sensitive inner ear is able to detect changes in the weather…. low atmospheric pressure can often make our own domestic cats nervous and restless….
Black cats were the preferred choice, as they were thought to be extra lucky. Polydactyl cats were also very popular. Polydactylism is a congenital physical anomaly, which results in there being more toes than usual on one or more paws. Normally a cat has a total of 18 toes, 4 on each hind paw and 5 on the front ones. Polydactyls can have as many as 8! They were favoured by sailors because of their extraordinary climbing and hunting abilities….
Many ships still have cats onboard today, although the Royal Navy banned all animals in 1975 for hygiene reasons. There have been many notable feline voyagers, such as Jenny, the Titanic’s cat. She survived the sinking of the Titanic on that disastrous maiden voyage and was transferred to Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, where she lived in the ship’s galley, along with her kittens…. Tiddles served on a number of Royal Naval aircraft carriers; born on HMS Argus and then spending time on vessels such as HMS Victorious, Tiddles clocked up over 30,000 miles on his travels…. Or, what about Blackie? The little cat Churchill found so endearing. Blackie resided on HMS Prince of Wales during World War 2. The ship carried Churchill to meet Franklin D Roosevelt to agree the Atlantic Charter. On leaving the ship, Churchill stopped to say ‘good-bye’ to Blackie. Caught on camera, the resulting photograph went the equivalent of today’s ‘viral’…. Blackie was renamed Churchill and went on to survive the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales…. Then, there was Emmy – of RMS Empress of Ireland. Emmy was an orange tabby who never missed a voyage, until May 28th 1914, when she darted off and refused to be coaxed back. Reluctantly, the ship had to leave without her; not having their lucky mascot was a bad omen for the crew. The following morning, in thick fog, RMS Empress collided with SS Storstad at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Over 1,000 lives were lost…. Did Emmy have a premonition? But of course, the ship’s cat I’m here to talk about is Able Seacat Simon….
Simon’s story, as a sea cat, starts in March 1948, when he was found wandering the dockyards of Hong Kong, by 17 year old Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom. The cat was then about a year old and in a bad way, he was starving and unwell. George, obviously being a bit of a softy, smuggled the puss back onboard the ship he was serving on, HMS Amethyst – a Royal Naval modified Black Swan-class sloop, modified after World War 2 and re-designated a frigate….
Simon quickly became a favourite amongst the officers and crew alike. He earned his keep by catching the rats which were a problem on the lower decks of the ship. He was a cheeky little chap, who liked to leave presents in the beds of his fellow crew mates, in the form of dead rodents….and one of his most favoured sleeping places was in the Captain’s cap….
The ship changed command. The new Captain, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner, instantly fell in love with Simon. Skinner’s first mission, in command of HMS Amethyst, was to replace HMS Consort as guard ship to the British Embassy in China…. Sadly, it was to be his first and last….
April 20th 1949 – HMS Amethyst was steaming up the Yangtse River, between Shanghai and Nanking (Nanjing), when it was fired upon by the People’s Liberation Army, the armed forces division of the Communist Party of China; what was to unfold was the Amethyst Incident or better known as the Yangtse Incident…. The ship was about to become trapped on the Yangtse River for three months, during the Chinese Civil War….
It was 8.30am and a burst of small arms fire from the PLA suddenly erupted from a field gun battery situated on the North side of the river. It fell well short of Amethyst and the crew assumed its intended target had been the south bank; so, unfurling their large Union flags and increasing speed, they carried on their way….
An hour later, further up river at Kiangyin (Jiangyin) they came under fire again, this time it was more than obvious that it was intended for them. The first shell passed overhead but then in quick succession the wheel house, bridge and power room were all hit. Commander Skinner was in his cabin at the time, along with Simon…. A shell tore through, severely wounding Skinner, who died of his injuries soon after…. Simon was also badly hurt and fled into the depths of the ship….
All personnel on the bridge had been injured; out of control, Amethyst turned violently to the left and grounded on a bank. Unable to defend herself, as the firing circuits to her guns had been disabled when the power room was hit, the ship was helpless….
First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston assumed command, even though he himself had been injured too. Still the PLA shells continued, exploding in the sick bay, port engine room and finally the generator. The last transmission made from Weston stated : ‘Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.50′ East. Large number of casualties’. These co-ordinates were actually incorrect, the ship was 32.20′ North, not as stated; it is unknown how this error was made, it could have been Weston himself, the signal operator or recorded wrongly in the log books….but it just shows how chaotic the situation must have been at the time….
The order was given to fire the ship’s guns in local control but as Amethyst was positioned in such a way and totally disabled, the guns could not be turned on the PLA batteries. Only the stern turret was operational but was soon hit. Still the PLA kept on firing….causing more and more casualties on Amethyst….
At some time between 10 and 10.30am, Weston ordered anyone who could be spared to leave the ship and get ashore. A small boat was launched and some crew members swam, immediately the PLA’s attention was turned on them….evacuation had to be aborted. In total 59 crew and 4 Chinese mess boys successfully made it to shore. (The following day, with help from Chinese Nationalists and a sampan, the wounded from Amethyst were got to shore and then taken to hospital. That left 60 unwounded men and Simon onboard). At 11am the shelling stopped but movement was restricted for fear of attracting PLA sniper fire…. 22 men had been killed and 31 injured….
At 3pm HMS Consort arrived, having been summonsed to Amethyst’s aid – Consort was flying 3 Union flags and 7 white ensigns; she was immediately fired upon and had to pass the stricken Amethyst at speed. Two miles down river, she turned and headed back to try again, once more heavy fire meant she had to abandon the attempt (but not without using her full armament on the PLA). Consort herself had now sustained serious damage, 10 men had been killed and 23 injured….
HMS Amethyst was refloated at just after midnight on the 21st of April. A message came through to say HM Ships London and Black Swan were on their way to escort the damaged Amethyst – and to be ready…. When they arrived, they too were heavily shelled and had no choice but to retreat : 3 were killed and 14 wounded….
On April 22nd, The Assistant British Naval Attaché, Lieutenant Commander John Kerans, came aboard and took command. Over the next few days, Amethyst attempted to move several times but was unable to make much progress as each time she came under fire. Eventually, she was forced to anchor off of Fu Te Wei….
Five days after his retreat to the depths of the ship, hunger forced a badly injured Simon up on to the deck. Immediately he was taken to the medical bay. His face was severely burnt, he had lost all of his whiskers and he had to have 4 pieces of shrapnel removed. His heart had been seriously weakened, he was not expected to survive the night….
Against all the odds, Simon did make it through to the following morning and slowly he made a recovery. He spent his time in the sick bay snuggling up with and comforting the injured seamen….
On April 30th, the PLA demanded that Britain, France and the US immediately withdraw all their troops from China. They also wanted an admission that it was HMS Amethyst that had fired first and that she was unlawfully in Chinese waters. The PLA did not recognise any treaties made by the previous Chinese Government and Britain. Kerans refused to accept the demands and Amethyst stayed under PLA siege for 10 weeks; vital supplies were prevented from being taken onboard, the Communists determined to make conditions as difficult as possible…. It wasn’t until 1988 that the PLA Commander, Ye Fei, finally admitted the Communists had fired first….
During these weeks of imprisonment, Simon made himself useful. Over the weeks, anchored in the river, Amethyst had become over-run with rats; the little black and white cat made it his mission to get rid of them, including the notorious, hard to catch, king-rat, ‘Mao Tse-tung’ – so named by the crew…. The affectionate little soul raised the morale of the marooned sailors and managed to bring a little cheer….
On July 30th 1949, under cover of darkness, HMS Amethyst slipped her chain and heading down river, made a mad dash for freedom. She followed closely in the wake of a passenger ship, Kiang Ling Liberation, in the hope of confusing the PLA. It worked….the Communists turned their fire on the passenger ship, as a result, sinking it with heavy civilian casualties…. Amethyst was able to make her escape….
At 5am on July 31st, HMS Amethyst approached the PLA forts at Par Shan (Baoshan) and Woosung (Wusong) for a pre-planned rendezvous with the destroyer HMS Concord, who had been ordered to be ready with full gun support. Luckily, Amethyst went undetected by the PLA batteries and the famous signal was sent : ‘Have rejoined the fleet south of Woosung. No damage. No casualties. God save the King’. The two ships managed to make it down river, clear the river mouth and eventually at midday they arrived at the Saddle Islands. After a brief stop, HMS Concord lent HMS Amethyst sailors to form a functional crew and both ships sailed to Hong Kong. If the mad dash for freedom had not of worked, then the intention of the Captain was to blow the ship up….
A film was made of the Yangtse Incident, with Amethyst being brought out of storage to play herself…. Her engines were no longer operational and her sister ship ‘Magpie’ was used for any movement scenes…. Amethyst was scrapped soon after the film was made….
Simon became famous, the World’s press taking his story to heart. He was awarded the Dickin Medal, (the animal equivalent to the Victoria Cross), initially instituted in 1943 to honour the working animals in World War 2. He was also awarded a Blue Cross Medal, the Amethyst Campaign Medal and given the rank of ‘Able Seaman’. Lt. Stewart Hett was appointed ‘Cat Officer’ to deal with the thousands of letters sent to Simon by well-wishers and on Amethyst’s return to Plymouth there was a huge welcome for him….
The Nation loved him – but like all animals entering the UK, Simon had to go into quarantine. He was sent to an animal centre in Surrey; he hated it and was thoroughly miserable. Whilst in quarantine, Simon contracted a virus…. Although everything possible was done for him, due to complications from his war injuries, Simon passed away on November 28th 1949; four days before actually receiving his Dickin Medal, which had to be awarded posthumously….
Simon was buried at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery in East London. Hundreds of people, including the crew of Amethyst attended his funeral…. Simon was just two years old….