Forgotten War Manuscripts Reveal Cats May Have Been Used as Bombs

A 16th century manuscript uncovered by scholar Mitch Fraas (at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections) reveals that cats and birds may have been used as bombs in warfare.

Within the manuscript were the above illustrations featuring cats and birds strapped down with rockets. Strangely enough, they are quite whimsical in design rather than depicting the horrific nature of sending an innocent creature into harm’s way.

Detail from Folger Shakespeare Library, V.b.311, f. 129r

Fraas shared the following with Atlas Obscura about the illustrations:

Just about a year ago, a friend sent me a link with a picture from one of our manuscripts here at Penn. I gaped… was that really a picture of a cat and a bird propelled by rocket packs!? This seemed pretty unlikely for a 16th century manuscript, but within a week I had turned up another half dozen examples of similar illustrations. So, what’s the deal with these rocket creatures?

All of the illustrations here come from early explosives and warfare manuals copied and re-copied with alterations between the 16th and 17th centuries. The immediate originator of the idea behind these cat and bird bombs was Franz Helm of Cologne, an artillery master in the service of various German princes who likely served in campaigns against Turkish forces during the mid-16th century. He wrote a treatise on siege warfare (Buch von den probierten Künsten) and artillery that circulated widely in manuscript, but was not published in print until 1625.

via UPenn Ms. Codex 109, f137r.

Within Helm’s writings he suggests that military leaders to use cats and birds “to set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise.” In other words, load cats and doves up with fire and/or explosives and let them run wild. As the photos in the above slideshow detail, this doesn’t bode well for the animals involved.

“Create a small sack like fire-arrow… bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it.. and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited.”

via LJS 442:Book of instruction for a cannon master, f.60r

It isn’t known if Helm actually used the technique himself or any other modern army for that fact. According to Fraas, there are several historic texts that mention using animals as explosive devices. This technique was even used in World War II for various missions.

Cats were also used as comfort to U.S. Navy officers on long missions:

Captain A. J. Hailey with his cat on the RMS Empress of Canada, 1920s
Source: University of British Columbia. Library. Rare Books and Special Collections

We think this a much better way to use sweet felines.