The annals of military airborne operations are littered with epic tales, some of huge success, others of complete disaster. But they generally share a couple of features. First, they normally involve quite unconventional and often high-risk stratagems to achieve a difficult objective. Second, it’s normally about humans.
Which, considering the long history we have of kicking our furry friends out of perfectly good aircraft under a mere scrap of silk, doesn’t seem fair. So, this article shall seek to help redress this imbalance by telling the story of one of the oddest and least well-known military air drop operations in history.
Operation Cat Drop.
The history of this operation is confused and that can only mean two things. Either this operation is covered in the darkest secrecy, full of misinformation and lies that have sought to hide the truth of what is one of the most critical operations ever undertaken by the Royal Air Force.
Or there has been a lot of rubbish talked about it ever since.
Our story begins in the deepest jungles in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. In the late 1950’s the people of the region faced a terrible scourge – Malaria. The disease was ripping through the remote rural communities at an awful rate and it was agreed that something had to be done to help them. The World Health Organization began a spraying program from aircraft that sought to control the outbreak by wiping out the mosquitoes that carried it. Their choice of insecticide was DDT.
Now DDT is today recognized as not something you want to be messing around with, having a range of toxic effects and being a likely carcinogen. But in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, that wasn’t known and everyone thought the stuff was great. It killed mosquitoes and bugs like nothing else and people were encouraged to just spray it all over the place.
I mean literally everywhere!
I understand that there is even today active debate on whether DDT can be used safely, but in fact Operation Cat Drop was in response to the first warning signs that everything might not be hunky-dory with this compound.
The WHO’s spraying mission proved extremely successful, and malaria rates dropped. But here we come to the unintended consequences and the divergence of our tale into two branches – the apocryphal and what likely actually happened.
Let’s cover the first one first. In this though the villagers didn’t have to suffer from Malaria anymore, shortly after the spraying took place they found that the roofs of their houses started to collapse. It turned out that amongst the victims of the DDT wasn’t just mosquitoes, but also parasitic wasps that preyed upon a particular caterpillar that ate the thatched roofs of the villagers’ huts.
But worse was to follow!
Geckos that ate the poisoned insects accumulated DDT in their system, and they were in turn eaten by the village cats. And the DDT killed them en masse.
This led to a massive increase in the rat population in the area as their traditional predators died out and they began to overrun it. Worse, they bought their own pathogens in the shape of typhus, once again inflicting the unfortunate populace with a potentially lethal disease.
Recognizing that something had to be done about this, the British authorities who at the time still ran the place turned to the military. And they began Operation Cat Drop – a mission to resupply the rural village cat population and destroy the perfidious rodents.
According to this version, the Royal Air Force would go on to drop some 14,000 cats to the villages to this end, with the glorious army of airborne kitty’s soon triumphing over the wretched rats, restoring peace and tranquility to the region.
If this all sounds somewhat unlikely, well, you’d be right. But it isn’t completely incorrect.
The details are somewhat confused, but here is what appears to have happened, as far as some folks from the WHO managed to figure it. Apparently, the whole episode is something of a semi-legend within the organization and some of the folks there set about trying to get to the bottom of the whole affair a few years ago.
The DDT spraying did indeed take place. However, the main problem seems to have occurred not so much from the spraying of the jungle, which to be fair probably wasn’t great but doesn’t seem to have been responsible for causing the major issues that followed. Instead, these seem to have originated from the intensive DDT spraying that was conducted within the village huts and longhouses.
This did indeed cause the wasps to die and created an outbreak of roof-eating caterpillar.
But in terms of the cats, they didn’t apparently die off from eating poisoned geckos. No, they died from licking DDT off their fur when they brushed up against sprayed surfaces.
In fact, there does seem to be quite a lot of anecdotal evidence from insect eradication programs around the world that cats are very susceptible to these sorts of toxins, not just DDT. And most of these reported incidents further entail major rodent problems subsequently following on from the death of the resident moggies.
In fact, the Royal Air Force definitely did drop cats as part of an effort to help stop an infestation of rats. But not on the scale of 14,000…more like 23.
An article in The Straits Times of Singapore newspaper dated 9th March 1960, features an appeal for “at least” thirty cats to be donated for dropping into the Kalabit Highlands in Sarawak. This is backed up by the Operations Record Book of the Beverley Flight of 48 Squadron, who reported that they successfully dropped 7,000lbs (3,175kgs) of stores into the area, amongst which was “4 cartons of stout for a recuperating chieftain…” and “Over 20 cats to wage war on the rats which were threatening crops.”
The report concludes that:
“All cats safe and very much appreciated.”
So, it does seem that cats were dropped by the RAF to combat rodents, and the problem may have been caused by spraying insecticide. But the link between this case and DDT being the cause of mass feline mortality is something that doesn’t seem to have definitely proven, hence there being something of a continuing debate on the effects of DDT in mammals, though it seems the likely culprit considering the numbers of other reported cases. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to have been a typhus epidemic caused by rats either.
But interestingly, it does seem that the British military had in fact called for paracat’s to be deployed before. On 21st June 1954 two cats were dropped from an RAF Valetta over Singapore in a test to see if it was feasible to deploy them to a remote jungle fort in Malaya where British troops were complaining of rats eating their food. And though I haven’t confirmed that this operation took place, the successful test and the public announcement following makes me reasonably confident that this mission was carried out as well.
So, there you have it. It might not be on the scale of Arnhem, Crete or Dien Bien Phu, but Operation Cat Drop certainly must go down as one of the oddest episodes in airborne history.