Battleship cats (and rats)

In August 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill embarked on a top-secret mission aboard the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales to rendezvous with American President Frankin D. Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The accord reached by the two men at that meeting became known as the Atlantic Charter. A few trusted (and sworn to secrecy) media representatives were included in the official party, of whom H. V. Morton was one. Three days into the five day journey Morton decided to explore the ship. His visit to the engine room, “in the temperature of Trinidad”, was brief…….

Ascending with relief to more temperate regions, I was in time to be present at one of those domestic interludes which enliven the existence of a battleship, even in war-time.

Three Marines were holding three cats. They held them not as animal lovers, but as soldiers, as if cats were part of their equipment, as if, indeed, they might be ordered to “for inspection, port cats!”; which is precisely what they were doing. An officer came along and, having scrutinised the cats, solemnly dismissed them.

I was told the explanation. When the Prince of Wales returned from the shipyard after a brief refitment following the Bismarck action, a peculiar smell was noticed on one of the decks. This smell, increasing in volume and pungency, inspired two schools of thought: one, that the shipwrights had used some unusually penetrating glue or other material, the other, that one of the ship’s three cats had chosen an inaccessible hiding-place in which to expire. It was therefore decided to muster the cats and solve at least one of the theories which, as I saw, was happily unfounded.

Churchill and Blackie_2

Winston Churchill discourages ‘Blackie’ from following him on to the American destroyer alongside H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

Until her visit to the shipyard, I was told, the Prince of Wales prided herself on her ratlessness. But when she returned to duty a few rats had come aboard and action was immediately taken. It was proclaimed that any sailor who caught a rat would earn half a day ashore, and this made the life of a rat in the Prince of Wales a brief and hazardous affair. The business was arranged with the usual naval precision. Rats having been caught, the trappers were required to parade with them. An inspecting officer cynically remained until he had seen the rats faithfully destroyed. Then the trappers were able to qualify for their reward. I asked if anyone had thought it worth while to import such desirable quarry but I was answered with a stony and disapproving stare.
‘Atlantic Meeting’, H. V. Morton, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1943.

Four months later, on 7th December 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbour and America entered WWII. On 10th December H.M.S. Prince of Wales, along with H.M.S. Repulse, was sunk off Malaya by repeated Japanese aerial attacks. 327 men from Prince of Wales died, including Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach. The fate of the cats is not recorded.

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