Combat cats

Louise Liddiard-Smith 15 July 2021
  • Mateship
  • History & commemoration

When you think about animals at war, it’s often our canine companions that get all the glory. But what about our furry feline friends?

Cats have been a firm fixture in conflicts throughout history, especially on naval vessels. Some think this tradition stems from ancient Egypt where cats were not only prized for their rodent-catching contribution to ship life but were revered as sacred creatures. 


A seasick cat is tended by Sapper Mick Marton of Nowra

Their natural sensitivity to barometric pressure also meant they were reliable early warning systems for incoming storms. 

GOOD LUCK kitties

Over time, having a ships cat was also seen as good luck by superstitious sailors, while a cat trying to leave the ship was seen as a bad omen. 

Cats in a hammock on HMAS Nizam

In 1942, HMAS Perth was engaged to prevent the advance of the Japanese fleet across south-east Asia. After a skirmish near Java, the shipcat tried to leave the vessel three times while the ship was docked at shore. The ship’s log for that day reads "Red Lead, ship's kitten, endeavoured to desert, but was brought back on board, despite vigorous protests." 

Sadly, the next day HMAS Perth was sunk after a battle with the Japanese fleet. More than 350 men – and one kitten – were lost at sea.


But it’s not just at sea where cats have made themselves useful during times of conflict. There are anecdotal reports of cats, with their excellent hearing, being used by London families as early warning systems during the Blitz. 

And cats were often adopted by troops during WWI and WWII to raise morale and even took to the skies as official mascots for many Air Force squadrons.

RAAF mascot - a cat called Aircrew


This tradition of cats in combat continues to modern theatres of war. 

Private First Class Hammer, a striped kitten adopted by a US Army troop in Iraq, served as a companion to the troop and a rodent catcher for the mess hall. When it was time to leave Iraq they lobbied for Hammer to go with them. Happily, Hammer was adopted by the troop’s Staff Sergeant and his family and lived out his days in Colorado, USA.

So on the next National Day for War Animals, don’t forget the contributions of the humble household cat.

Photos courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.