Cats have always been welcome on battlefields and battleships for their ability to protect food stores from rodents. They have also been appreciated as stress reducers, providing love, affection, and comic relief for soldiers. During WWI, cats were considered so valuable to the war effort that a ration of powdered milk (funded by the British and U.S. public) was provided to “all cats engaged in work of national importance.”
In addition to the more conventional roles cats have played in times of war, military strategists have occasionally come up with unusual plans to gain a strategic advantage. From the epic victory of the Persian army to the miserable failure of the CIA’s ill-fated feline cyborg project, the use of cats in warfare has had an interesting history.
Cats as early warning systems
The ancient Persians defeated the Egyptian army using a simple ploy. Aware of the Egyptian reverence for felines, Persian soldiers gathered all the cats they could find and released them onto the battlefield, and the Egyptians chose to surrender rather than endanger them. Although cats never again led to the defeat of an entire army, they often proved useful as warfare grew more technologically complex.
Over the past century, cats were often used to alert soldiers and citizens to war-related dangers – for example, the presence of poisonous gas – and from time to time, cats have provided early warnings of impending bomb attacks.
Andrew, the Allied Forces Mascot Club’s mascot, saved lives with his acute senses. Based in London during WWII, the large tabby always seemed to know in advance when a bomb would come crashing down nearby. When Andrew ran for cover, the humans around him did likewise.
Another British cat, the aptly named Bomber, had the helpful ability of being able to distinguish between the sounds of distant German and British planes. Thus, he was able to alert those around him when the enemy was approaching so that they could get out of harm’s way.
Some war cats were recruited for more official jobs. During the German siege of Stalingrad (1941-1943), a cat named Mourka was also used to warn of enemy emplacements by carrying messages from Russian Scouts.
Cats as good luck charms
In addition to their practical uses, cats may have provided more intangible benefits in times of war. Colonel Fred J. Christensen, a WWII flying ace credited with the destruction of 22 German warplanes, attributed his good fortune to his flying companion – a black cat named Sinbad who often flew in the cockpit on Christensen’s missions.
In addition to Christensen’s stellar record, a particular incident enhanced Sinbad’s reputation as a good luck charm. When a photographer attempted to photograph the cat for a news story, Sinbad refused to cooperate, instead playing amongst a batch of parachutes. Later, all pilots whose parachutes had been touched by Sinbad not only returned safely, but also achieved many victories in the air.
Sinbad survived the war without incident and in 1944 went to live with Christenson and his family in the United States. He eventually surprised his owners by producing a litter of kittens, proving that he had been female all along.
Although considered good luck in many parts of the world, black cats have historically been perceived as unlucky in the United States. This superstition led a Pennsylvania family to send their black cat over to Europe during WWII, hoping that he would cross Hitler’s path.
Cats as food finders
Cats could also be useful for leading soldiers to much needed supplies. On such case was Crimean Tom, who was adopted by Lieutenant William Gair of the British forces during the Crimean War after surviving the capture of Sevastopol.
Crimean Tom was lodged with British officers, who noticed how plump the cat was getting despite the lack of food in Sevastopol due to a nearly year-long siege. They were all on minimal rations, including the cat, so they knew that he must be feasting on mice, and if there were plenty of mice around, there was bound to be a supply cache nearby. Men from the British and French armies followed Crimean Tom to a secret storeroom in an area that had been hidden by rubble, finding a stash of provisions that saved them from starvation. Crimean Tom subsequently led them to additional food caches near the city docks.
Gair brought Crimean Tom back to England with him, but the cat died shortly thereafter, age unknown. Gair had him stuffed and donated him to the Royal United Services Institution. A stuffed cat that may have been Crimean Tom was purchased from the Portobello Road market by Lady Faith Compton Mackenzie sometime in the 1950s and donated to the National Army Museum where it remains on display, though it has not been confirmed as Crimean Tom.
Crimean Tom may also be featured in a painting called “A Welcome Arrival, 1855” by John Dalbiac Luard. However, like the stuffed Crimean Tom on display at the National Army Museum, the identity of the cat in the painting has not been confirmed.
Acoustic Kitty – a feline cyborg espionage device
Acoustic Kitty was a Cold War era project that involved surgically implanting batteries into a cat and having its tail act as an antenna, among other technological enhancements. The CIA spent five years and approximately $20 million perfecting their feline cyborg, after which they brought him to a park and set him loose to spy on the enemy. Acoustic Kitty was run over by a taxi moments later, bringing the ill-conceived endeavour to an abrupt end.
Acoustic Kitty was not the CIA’s first failed attempt at using a cat to gain wartime advantage. During WWII, the CIA’s precursor, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, came up with the bright idea of attaching cats to bombs and dumping them near enemy ships. It was assumed that because cats hated water, they would find a way to get themselves up onto the decks of German ships, dragging the bombs along with them. Unsurprisingly, the plan was a dismal failure.
Cat-and-rat teams for landmine detection
A more positive use for cats has been helping with efforts to dismantle the dangerous artifacts of war. Landmines have killed and disabled many thousands of people in Colombia. To address this problem, Colombian police have trained rats for landmine detection. Rats make great detectors because their accuracy rate is around 96% and they are too light to set off explosions, but their fear of predation makes it difficult for them to freeze in front of landmines, as they have been taught to do.
To combat the problem of rats panicking and running off, the police have begun raising them with young cats, which wear claw shields. Having a feline friend overcomes a rat’s natural fear of this common predator, and thus makes him more effective in the field.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Associated Press. (24 July 2007). “Rats, Cats Work Together to Sniff Out Landmines.” MSNBC.MSN.com.
- Choron, S.; Choron, H.; & Moore, A. (2007). Planet Cat: A CAT-alog. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Edwardes, C. (4 November 2001). “CIA Recruited Cat to Bug Russians.” Telegraph.co.uk.
- Kitchener, G. (16 march 2006). “Pentagon Plans Cyber-Insect Army.” News.BBC.co.uk.
- Morris, D. (1987). Catlore. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
- Roberts, P. (2010). “Cats in Warfare.” Pur-n-Fur.org.uk.