The only cat ever to be awarded the “animals’ Victoria Cross” is to be remembered at a ceremony on Thursday.
Royal Navy officers are paying tribute to Simon the cat, a rat-catcher on the frigate Amethyst which continued its duties despite being hit by shrapnel and singed during shelling raids by Chinese communists on the Yangtze River in 1949.
The cat stuck to its task despite injury during the 101-day summer siege that followed.
During the initial bombardment and subsequent rescue attempts by three other Royal Navy vessels, 46 men were killed. More than 50 men remained on board after the Amethyst was struck and ran aground on a mud bank.
The communists withheld supplies for more than three months while they used the ship as a political bargaining chip. But the black and white cat kept up morale and the crew credited it with saving their lives by protecting dwindling food stores from a rat infestation.
After the boat made a daring night-time dash for freedom in late July, news of Simon’s exploits during what became known as the “Yangtze Incident” spread.
Lt-Cdr Stewart Hett was even appointed “cat officer” to deal with the hundreds of letters of fan mail. The Amethyst returned to Portsmouth on Nov 1 1949, by which time Simon was a celebrity. But it died in quarantine a few weeks after the ship docked. The cat officially died of injury complications, but crew insisted the lonely animal died of a “broken heart”.
It was posthumously awarded the Dickin medal —the highest military accolade an animal can receive — by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).
The honour has also been granted to 62 animals including 32 Second World War messenger pigeons, three horses and 26 dogs — but Simon is the first cat to receive it. The cat was buried with full military honours at the PDSA’s Animal Cemetery in Ilford, Essex. Former naval officers will lay wreaths at the cat’s grave today, at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the ship’s safe return.
Cdr Hett, now 81, who will lead the wreath-laying, said: “Simon’s company and expertise as a rat-catcher were invaluable during the months we were held captive.
“During a terrifying time, he helped boost the morale of many young sailors, some of whom had seen their friends killed. Simon is still remembered with great affection.”
Marilyn Rydström, the PDSA’s director general, said: “There is no doubt that Simon was special to the crew of HMS Amethyst.
“The fact his name and story live on helps ensure that the men who sadly lost their lives in the incident are also not forgotten.
“The power of animals to sustain morale in times of conflict can never be underestimated.”