The Chinese Civil War simmered for the better part of two decades, from 1927 to 1949. Fought between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party, the intermittent hostilities were punctuated by World War II and resumed soon after. The Yangtze Incident took place during the later stages of the war, when the People’s Liberation Army fired on a Royal Navy ship that was on its way to stand guard for the British Embassy. One particularly valuable crew member was none other than Simon, a ship’s cat who would go on to win an award for his service.
Simon was smuggled aboard the ship by George Hickinbottom, a 17-year-old member of the Royal Navy sloop-of-war HMS Amethyst. Hickinbottom found the malnourished young cat wandering the dockyards of Hong Kong, where the Amethyst was stationed in 1948. Friendly and more than willing to rid the ship of pesky rats, Simon soon won the hearts of the British sailors, including the commander and the captain—who often found the cat sleeping in his cap.
The Amethyst was sailing down the Yangtze River on April 20, 1949 when disaster struck. The People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, fired warning shots into the air to alert the Amethyst that she was approaching the war zone. On a mission to relieve the HMS Consort from guarding the British Embassy in China, the Amethyst mistook the warning for stray bullets and continued on.
The PLA fired directly on the Amethyst shortly thereafter, perhaps because she had illegally entered the war zone, or because they feared they would be attacked first. With the crew onboard unprepared to return fire, bullets ripped through the bridge, wheelhouse, low power room, and gun turrets. Worse still, 19 crew members were fatally wounded, including Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner. The coxswain had also been seriously injured, causing the Amethyst to run aground on the banks of the river.
The crew regrouped—including Simon the cat, who had been gravely injured when bullets were fired into the captain’s room. Emergency personnel cleaned his burns and extracted shrapnel. Simon wasn’t expected to make it through the night, but he ended up recovering and returning to his former duties, namely boosting morale and squashing out another rat infestation that threatened the health of the crew.
In the coming months, the Amethyst attempted to escape the Yangtze River numerous times, but each time brought down another rain of bullets from the PLA. Finally, on July 30, 1949, she slipped down the river under cover of nightfall, closely following a passenger ship that was carrying Chinese refugees. Tragically, the PLA opened fire and missed the Amethyst, instead sinking the passenger ship and causing heavy civilian casualties. The Amethyst escaped amidst the chaos.
When the Amethyst and her crew finally returned to England, Simon the cat was received with much fanfare for his bravery during and after the Yangtze Incident. He received the Dickin Medal, which is presented by the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British veterinary charity. Commonly referred to as “the animals’ Victoria Cross”, the award was established during World War II to celebrate exemplary service animals. To date, Simon is the only cat to have received a Dickin Medal.
He was also awarded a Blue Cross medal and the imaginary rank of “Able Seacat”, a humorous spin on the rank of Able Seaman. He earned that particular title after defeating a notoriously vicious rat. Sadly, Simon contracted a virus not long after his paws made contact with the shores of England for the first time, and he died in 1949. Hundreds of people attended the funeral services for the friendly cat who had kept up sailors’ spirits in times of strife.