Cats are generally dismissed as being rather egocentric, independent and not all that fussed with humans aside from requirements at teatime. They do their own thing and hang anyone else. However, in 1949, a little black and white stray named 'Simon' became a constant companion and prodigious rat-catcher aboard the HMS Amethyst when a naval siege saw the ship attacked and the crew trapped on the Yangtze River by Chinese Communist Forces (later referred to as the 'Yangtze Incident'). During the siege, Simon was an ever present sight, even after he sustained life-threatening injuries.
Finding his 'Sea-legs'
Simon was most likely born some time towards the end of 1947, on Stonecutters Island, Hong Kong - a busy naval dockyard at the time. The cat was 'drafted' a few months later, in March 1948, when the Royal Navy's HMS Amethyst called there for supplies. Found in the dockyard by 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom, the cat was smuggled aboard under George's tunic. With quarters situated near the captain's cabin, it wasn't long before Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths and the new shipmate met. Though we might expect such an incident to become a disciplinary matter, Simon was instead welcomed aboard; rats were always a threat to food supplies and posed a health risk to the crew, and he filled the position of rat-catcher rather well. Griffiths did warn Hickinbottom that it was be his responsibility to ensure that Simon didn't soil the deck. Thanks to the efforts of his fellow crewmen (who called the cat 'Blackie'), Hickinbottom managed to clear up after his cat and avoid being put on a charge.
Simon divided his time between Hickinbottom's quarters and the captain's cabin, where he'd often be found curled up in the captain's cap. Though Hickinbottom was nominally responsible for him, Simon soon made friends and gradually became part of the crew; with so many protectors, he never went hungry and when Lieutenant Commander Griffiths was given a new command in 1948, his replacement Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner allowed Simon to remain onboard and retain all his privileges.
In April 1949, the Chinese Revolution and Civil War was still in its early stages. The Amethyst received orders to relieve the HMS Consort, which was guarding the British Embassy in case the Communist People's Liberation Army (PLA) captured the town and personnel had to be evacuated. The Amethyst was only a short way along the Yangtze River when it came under heavy enemy fire. After more than an hour of attacks, the Amethyst ran aground. 25 of the crew were dead or mortally wounded. Simon the cat was in the captain's cabin when it took a direct hit. When Simon finally appeared on deck, his whiskers and eyebrows singed off, his back caked in blood. Shocked and badly dehydrated though he was, a cat would never be the highest priority onboard a military vessel, but perhaps for the important purpose of morale-boosting, the cat was given medical care: shrapnel was removed from four different wounds and his badly-burned face was treated.
Lieutenant Commander Skinner was killed in the attacks and Simon made a speedy recovery to attend his funeral. But Skinner's replacement, Lt Cdr John Simons Kerans, was not as tolerant of a cat in his cap as his predecessor had been; Simon was abruptly evicted from the Captain's cabin.
Disturbed by the enemy gun fire, hoards of rats had started to raid the Amethyst's food supplies and were even invading the sleeping quarters. As the crewmen tried to rest, the rats were literally nibbling at their toes. Simon quickly fell into his duties and when he caught his first large rat, the crew were ecstatic. The cat began to work his way through the rat population of the ship and was soon averaging at least one kill a day.
Negotiations with the Communist Forces for the ship's release dragged on, mainly because the Chinese wanted an admission that the Amethyst had fired first - a claim that was continually denied. Simon soon found another important role, other than rat-catcher. Several sailors were confined to the sick-bay, and with the Medical Officer direct orders Simon was allowed to keep them company. The cat's nasty injuries obviously helped the unwell men relate to him and Simon's visits definitely improved morale. A cuddle with a purring mog seemed to do no end of good!
Also during the siege, a particularly large rat was causing major problems with the food supplies. Nick-named 'Mao Tse-Tung', the crew's attempts at capturing him were unsuccessful. Simon, even in his enfeebled state, sprang upon the creature and killed it mercilessly. The ship's cat was proclaimed a hero and quickly promoted to the enviable position of 'Able Seacat'.
Together with the ship's dog 'Peggy', Simon kept up the crew's flagging spirits. All came to a head, when on the night of 30 July, 1949, the Amethyst quietly slipped anchor and managed to flee the siege. With the ship at last heading to safer waters, King George VI sent his congratulations and ordered that 'the mainbrace be spliced1'.
While the Amethyst was being repaired in Hong Kong, a message was received that Simon should be awarded the Dickin Medal. Maria Dickin (founder of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) had instituted the Dickin Medal for acts of bravery in wartime by animals serving with the police, Civil Defence, or any branch of the armed forces. Cast in bronze, the medal bears the initials of the PDSA and the words 'FOR GALLANTRY' and 'WE ALSO SERVE', surrounded by a laurel wreath. The medal ribbon is green, dark brown and pale blue, representing water, earth and air, symbolising the naval, army, civil defence and air forces. On 8 August, 1949, a letter from the secretary of the Armed Forces Mascot Club confirmed Simon's award, and he was sent a collar in the colours of the ribbon. Not only was Simon the first cat to gain the medal, but it was the first time a Royal Navy animal had received it.
Simon soon became famous in his own right with letters, poems, gifts of food and even cat toys being sent by post; a special 'Cat Officer' was even appointed to handle all correspondence. But Simon was a reluctant star, and he often found no difficulty in avoiding visiting reporters and photographers on the ship. He even went ashore once, something he had never done before, and the captain and crew were so alarmed a full search party was sent out. The team failed to find Simon, but he was seen onboard just three hours later, none the wiser for the commotion he had caused.
A Lonely End
On 1 November, 1949, the Amethyst sailed into Plymouth to a hero's welcome, but while the crew were reunited with family and friends, Simon was sent to quarantine kennels in Surrey. He was to be presented his medal on 11 December, 1949, with the Lord Mayor of London and Maria Dickin herself present, but sadly, before the ceremony, Simon became ill. A vet was sent for and the cat managed to hold on for nearly three weeks until 28 November, 1949, when he finally passed away. Members of the crew who visited him in quarantine were convinced Simon had died of a broken heart and only a few days later his body, wrapped in cotton wool and his tiny coffin draped with a Union Jack, Simon was laid to rest in plot 281 of the PDSA pet cemetery in Ilford, Essex, with full Naval honours.
When Simon's death was announced, his photograph and a tribute appeared in the obituary columns of Time Magazine. His Dickin Medal was later awarded posthumously, accepted by Lt Cdr Kerans in the company of the officers and men of the Amethyst. There was an immediate search for a new ship's cat, and a black-and-white tom named Simon II eventually joined the crew.
More than Nine Lives
In 1956, a film was made based on Lawrence Earl's book Yangtze Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst, starring Richard Todd as Lt Cdr J S Kerans, Donald Houston as Lt Weston, William Hartnell2, Barry Foster and Bernard Cribbins as a sonar operator. The real HMS Amethyst, then in reserve, took part in the film and re-enacted the 'Yangtze Incident'. Although there was no direct mention of Simon in the film, a black-and-white cat (perhaps Simon II) was visible in a some scenes, either angling for treats in the ship's galley, comforting a sailor, lazing on deck or down below, commandeering someone's hammock.
Simon also received the Blue Cross Medal of the Dumb Friends League, and of 53 Dickin Medals issued, his was the only one ever awarded to a cat. When it was auctioned at Christie's in May 1993 it sold for £23,467, a record for the Dickin Medal, which has now been replaced by the PDSA's Silver Medal.
HMS Belfast was not directly involved in the 'Yangtze Incident', but it was part of the Royal Navy's South China Sea Squadron at the time. Due to this connection, the ship has a small display about the Amethyst; a scale model of the ship, original bell, and related photographs and artefacts including pictures of Simon.
With grateful thanks to Patrick Roberts of www.purr-n-fur.org.uk, whose original article brought this story to our attention.