Caturday felid: Simon, able seacat

January 5, 2013 • 5:04 am

I bet you didn’t know that the People’s  Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a British veterinary charity, awards, on rare occasions, a medal for animal heroism in time of war. The Dickin Medal was first awarded in 1943, suspended in 1949, and then revived in 2000.  Between 2000 and today it was given to nine animals, all d**s.  But between 1943 and 1949 it was awarded to 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, three horses—and one cat.  Who was that cat?

It was Simon, Able Seacat, lauded for his heroism during the “Yangztze incident” in 1948, when Chinese Communist guns fired on the H.M.S. Amethyst cruising up the Yangtze River to replace a “duty ship.” Aboard that ship was a black and white moggie named Simon, the ship’s mascot. He was two years old.

Simon and the crew
Simon and the crew

Simon’s tail and his heroism are recounted at Purr-n-Fur as well as in a much shorter version at Wikipedia.

One day Simon, looking in need of a good meal, was found in the dockyard by Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom from the ship. George was a 17-year-old at the time and had joined in the previous November. The cats of Stonecutters Island were well known for becoming ships’ cats, and George decided to smuggle the waif aboard. To avoid the man on watch, he concealed the cat under his tunic and took him to his tiny space — hardly a cabin — which served as his accommodation. George had been appointed ‘captain of the fo’c’sle’, meaning that he had to ensure everything there was kept shipshape and in good order. As such, he was quartered close to the captain’s cabin.



Simon proved adept at catching rats, particularly a large and vicious rat named Mao-Tse-Tsung “that had evaded all human attempts at capture.”  But one fateful day Simon was called to duty (read the Purr-and-Furr piece for the whole story; here’s a concise version from Wikipedia):

The crew viewed Simon as a lucky mascot, and when the ship’s commander changed later in 1948, the outgoing Ian Griffiths left the cat for his successor Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner, who took an immediate liking to the friendly animal. However, Skinner’s first mission in command of the Amethyst was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanking to replace the duty ship there, HMS Consort. Halfway up the river the ship became embroiled in the Yangtze incident, when Chinese communist gun batteries opened fire on the frigate. One of the first rounds tore through the captain’s cabin, seriously wounding Simon. Lt Cdr Skinner died of his wounds soon after the attack.

The badly wounded cat crawled on deck, and was rushed to the medical bay, where the ship’s surviving medical staff cleaned his burns, and removed four pieces of shrapnel, but he was not expected to last the night. He did manage to survive however, and after a period of recovery, he returned to his former duties in spite of the indifference he faced from the new ship’s captain, Lt Cdr John Kerans. While anchored in the river, the ship had become overrun with rats, and Simon took on the task of removing them with vigour, as well as raising the morale of the sailors.

Following the ship’s escape from the Yangtze, Simon became an instant celebrity, lauded in British and world news, and presented with the “Animal Victoria Cross”, the Dickin Medal, as well as a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal, and the fanciful rank of “Able Seacat”. Thousands of letters were written to him, so much that one Lt Stuart Hett was appointed “cat officer” to deal with Simon’s post. At every port Amethyst stopped at on its route home, Simon was presented with honour, and a special welcome was made for him at Plymouth in November when the ship returned. Simon was, however, like all animals entering the UK, subject to quarantine regulations, and was immediately sent to an animal centre in Surrey.

Here’s Simon with his collar; the medal (which he received posthumously) is below:


The Dickin Medal
The Dickin Medal

But Simon’s tail has a sad ending:

The [Dickin] medal presentation was set for 11 December, and the PDSA’s founder and instigator of the medal, Maria Dickin, then 79, was to be present, as indeed was the Lord Mayor of London. But it was not to be. Simon became listless, and when a vet was urgently sent for, the cat had a high temperature and acute enteritis. He was given an injection and tablets, and then seemed to sleep. His carer sat with him all night; but by the morning of 28 November he had died. He was still a youngster. The vet felt that he would have recovered from the virus had his heart not been weakened by his war wounds: but it just could not cope. Maybe the fact that he was in a strange place, rather than at sea on ‘his’ ship with his friends, did not help.

I like what one of his biographers wrote:
. . . the spirit of Simon slipped quietly away to sea.

Lt Cdr Kerans and the crew were devastated; and when Simon’s death was announced, cards, letters and flowers began to arrive at the quarantine shelter by the truckload. His photograph and a tribute appeared in the obituary columns of Time magazine. He was buried in the PDSA’s animal cemetery at Ilford, east of London; a specially made casket was fashioned to hold the small body, wrapped in cotton wool, and was draped with the Union flag. Father Henry Ross, rector of St Augustine’s church, held a short ceremony, after which Simon was buried with naval honours. Following the burial, a wooden marker was placed, with the legend:

In honoured memory of Simon, DM
HMS Amethyst
Died November 28, 1949

Later on a specially designed stone monument was erected instead of the temporary marker, and it remains to this day.

La voilà:

Simon's resting place at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford.
Simon’s resting place at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford.

And here is a very short video showing Simon alive.

In the comments, reader smokedpaprika found two more Simon videos that I’ll add:

This is a good one, as it shows Simon lapping milk and describes the auction of his Dicken medal—for 23,000 pounds!


Let us toast this weekend to Simon, Able Seacat, who didn’t live long enough to enjoy his fame.

h/t: Will

31 thoughts on “Caturday felid: Simon, able seacat

    1. The British quarantine practices don’t make any sense to me, at least not in the modern world. I could understand requiring a medical examination, proof of current vaccination, and quarantine and / or refusal of entry for any animal (or person!) showing signs of illness.

      But six months?

      That’s bullshit.


      1. Six months quarantine was certainly a big disincentive to anyone planning to bring their pet to Britain but the rules have changed. It is now possible to travel with pets including cats, dogs and ferrets without having to place them in quarantine on return provided certain conditions are met. Up until now this covered travel between other EU countries and the UK but I believe it is being extended. More info here

      2. The British quarantine practices don’t make any sense to me, at least not in the modern world.

        Britain’s quarantine regulations were not the product of the modern world – they were the product of 1949.
        In particular, Britain was (and still is!) an island offshore Europe. Europe had a variety of animal-hosted diseases “in the wild”, which Britain didn’t have. Two in were of particular concern, rabies and Foot-and-mouth disease.
        We’re still rabies-free (bats being a possible exception), and if you didn’t see the devastation caused by the last import of foot-and-mouth, we certainly did. That these disease are still not a problem is in no small part due to strict control of the movement of animals into the country.
        That said, regulations have changed considerably since then. We did look at the prospect of bringing my wife’s pets (guinea pig and tortoise) over from Russia when she settled, but we decided against it and re-homed them within a couple of thousand kilometres of her home. It’s still a lot of hassle to import an animal.
        And I’m perfectly happy about that. And I’ve got a vote in the matter.

    1. Great video and song. Thanks!

      John Kerans was apparently the officer commanding HMS Amethyst during the Yangtze Incident. For purposes of the lyrics, it probably scans better than “Amethyst’s”.

      Now I have to add the movie “Yangtze Incident” to my list, so I can see if Simon is depicted. (Of course, Amazon only lists the Region 2 disc.)

      1. Yes, I had read that in the Wikipedia excerpt; also that Kerans was indifferent to the cat, then later was devastated at his death. Guess Simon grew on him. Cats tend to do that.

        1. Maybe, as ship’s commander, he felt it appropriate to hide his sentiment, while Simon was alive. He might even, deep down inside, have light-heartedly considered it inappropriate to show favoratism to one member of the crew over the others.

    1. Ha! After being rescued for the *third time* off a sinking ship, he was described as “angry but quite unharmed.” I’ll bet he was!

  1. Simon’s story is a good one — a tear jerker, as my own used tissues attest, and a good one. Cats make wonderful service animals. It’s time they received their due recognition as such. JAC, thanks for posting this very special one.

  2. I believe all licensed veterinarians operating in the UK are assessed a modest sum in order to provide funds for the PDSA which provides vet. services, either free of charge or at reduced rates at veterinarians’ offices. It is a wonderful service – we have tried to set up something similar in Canada, but so far no success, but there are several local societies
    for example our PALS, Protecting Animal Life Society, which will help with vet.bills for people who have difficulty paying for

      1. Agreed! Poor cat. It doesn’t look like the handler in the picture has any more compassion than the culprit who applied the tape-and-stuff girdle. I can imagine the cat thinking, “Air! I’ve got to breathe!!”

  3. But Simon’s tail has a sad ending:

    Actually, my other cat, 20-year old Sandy’s tail had a sad ending. Bitten by a d*g the tail abscessed and had to be amputated. He still raises his stump in greeting and twitches it in annoyance.

    1. When I was a child, the tail of our cat Banana* also had a sad ending. He lost it to a fan belt or fan under the hood of mom’s ’57 Ford.

      * Was a yellow cat and was appealing.

    2. Not long after my family cat died of old age at 18, I was walking home from my sisters house when I met a kitten – about 3-4 months – sitting on a fence post. So I stopped to talk to it, as you do. Seemed a reasonably friendly cat. Nose tickle, neck rub ; OK I’ll pick you up for a cuddle.
      Some bastard had docked it’s tail. Very recently – the stump was still bleeding.
      No if’s, no but’s, no maybe’s : straight into the coat (which being a cold night, the cat was perfectly happy with, otherwise I’d be doing the lung equivalent of “singing soprano”), straight round to the police office … report made. The police had reports of dead docked kittens being found nearby in the past, and suspected there was a (unlicensed) breeder working there who’d do his own docking … and the case was being worked on.
      Took the cat home. House trained it. wondered what to do about it when I moved to university. A car on the road outside the house solved that problem.
      There’s a special hell for people who dock cat’s (or dog’s) tails without a damned good medical reason. And I’m there. With, in the words of Quinton Tarantino, pliers and a blow torch.

  4. Watched this with my small, auxiliary cat (sensu Dave Barry) purring in my lap.

    How lucky we are to have them!

  5. What an extradordinary and lovely story. I love Simon’s stance near the end of “Simon Cat”. It speaks to and of his ableness.


  6. My grasp of historical detail is a bit hazy. Were the Brits still aggressively defending their opium monopoly in 1948?. Or else WTF were they doing up the Yangtze?

    1. What a fast moving time for the Brits! Giving up Hindustan, Palestine, and what else? All in about a year or two! Okay, now I need to go do some learning, read some history.

    2. Probably more to do with attempting to influence the outcome of the Chinese Civil War. I don’t know when the opium trade was stopped (well … technically it probably hasn’t stopped yet. Unless all diamorphine and morphine are synthesised from fine chemicals these days.), but the drug became much less available in the period around world war 1, and I’d guess that those regulations were applied all over the empire. Remember Sherlock Holmes and his cocaine habit? Agatha Christie and her endless hecatomb of chinless wonders in the conservatory with the arsenic? All severely tightened up on in the 1930s and 40s.

  7. You might not appreciate the story as it is about a dog but this post reminded me of it.

    In South Africa there is a town called Simon’s Town (not related to this cat) where there’s a statue to Just Nuisance, a Great Dane who served in the Royal Navy. I’m not sure whether ship’s cat is a proper position in the navy but Just Nuisance was officially enlisted, promoted to the real rank of Able Seaman and buried with full naval honours including a gun salute and playing of the Last Post.

    1. I remember seeing Able Seaman Just Nuisance’s monument in South Africa! They still tell his tale (resisting the impulse to PUN) to visitors…nice story!

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