Crimean Tom, Rocket Cats and the Felines of War

The fuzzy heroes of history


The dogs of war. We hear it all the time. But what about the cats of war? Who will account for the forgotten feline allies who’ve served so nobly over centuries of conflict?

Cats have played important roles in wartime. A good mouser keeps vermin out of supplies. A charismatic kitty boosts moral.

The British kept cats in the trenches of World War I as an early warning system against gas attacks. American troops in Afghanistan rely on cats to chase away rats. One Syrian rebel defends a town full of abandoned kitties.

But no war puss is as famous the little mouser from Crimea.

An Australian navy mascot. Photo via Flickr

The Crimean mouser

Sevastopol Tom is a legend.

Near the end of the Crimean War in 1855, British and French forces captured the Russian port city of Sevastopol after a yearlong siege. Their own supplies exhausted, the hungry allied troops searched the city for anything edible left behind by the Russians … and found nothing.

But they did find one very well-fed tabby. The British soldiers named the kitty Tom.

The cat was so healthy despite the carnage around him that the Brits grew curious. One day, they followed Tom among the ruins. The tabby ducked under some rubble … and didn’t immediately come back.

The soldiers cleared away the debris and discovered a hidden cache of food the Russians had squirreled away at the beginning of the siege. Tom had survived the battle by returning again and again to the same supplies.

The cat saved everyone from starvation. When the time came to return to Britain, a soldier named William Gair took Tom with him. The cat died a year later.

But his story endured. William stuffed and mounted Tom and presented him to the Royal United Service Institution. Today the preserved feline is on display at London’s National Army Museum.

The Egyptian cat god Bastet. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Whiskered warriors of the ancient world

The Persian empire used a cat vanguard to conquer Egypt.

In 525 BCE, the Achaemenid Empire invaded Egypt. At the Battle of Pelusium, the invading forces destroyed the Egyptians and claimed the Nile. Tens of thousands of Egyptians died. Few Persians did.

Their secret weapon? Cats.

According to Polyaenus , a Macedonian author, the Persians peppered their front line with “whatever animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The fear of hurting the animals ... checked their operations.”

In ancient Egypt, killing a cat was a crime punishable by death. The taboo was so strong that an Egyptian army simply would not fight any enemy surrounded by cats.

This is the earliest recorded incidence of weaponized cats. But it’s not the only example.

Earlier this month, the Internet exploded with stories about the rocket cats of the Middle Ages. University of Pennsylvania researcher Mitch Frass discovered several manuscripts from the 16th century describing and illustrating the use of kitties as bombs.

The concept is attributed to a 16th-century artillery master named Franz Helm. His books describe applications of gunpowder during German campaigns against Turkey. So how did Helm make use of cats?

“Create a small sack like a fire-arrow … if you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place,” Helm wrote. “Bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited.”

It was the wartime equivalent a bully tying firecracker to a cat’s tail. Skeptical, Frass called bullshit on the whole idea. Like any good researcher, he went digging for more evidence of incendiary cats.

He found a lot.

A Sanskrit tablet, an early Scandinavian text and a history of Genghis Khan all made reference to cats as a delivery method for artillery.

We’ve come so far as a species. Surely today no one would try strapping bombs to cats, right?

A page from Helm’s manuscript. University of Heidelberg scan

Apocalypse meow

World War II gave us the atomic bomb and anti-tank dogs. The global conflict also spurred America to try designing a better cat bomb.

The Office of Strategic Services, a sort of beta version of the CIA, observed that cats land on their feet and hate water. OSS reasoned that if it strapped high explosives to cats and dropped them from bombers, the animals would do their damnedest to somehow glide onto the decks of enemy ships.

The plan didn’t get past the testing phase. The cats kept passing out before they made it to their targets.

It wasn’t the last time the CIA recruited kitties. During the Cold War, America’s spies would try anything to get ahead of the Communists. They even wired cats for sound.

Project Acoustic Kitty came about when agents tailing an Asian head of state noticed cats wandered in and out of the target’s meeting area. The CIA agents conditioned a cat to follow the sound of human voices. They then ran a wire through the cats inner ear and down to a suite of recording equipment and a battery attached to the poor creature’s ribcage.

The CIA set the puss-puss loose to record the conversation. “They put [the cat] out of the van,” ex-CIA official Victor Marchetti told writer Jeffrey Richelson. “And a taxi comes and runs him over. There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials—and the cat was dead!”

This is but a small sampling from the annals of the cats of war.

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