'Rocket Cats' and Other Military Madness

16th century illustration by Franz Helm in 'Buch von den probierten Künsten' details the use of cats and doves to burn down enemy strongholds. This is the original source of similar images found around the world. University Library Heidelberg

No, you’re eyes aren’t deceiving you. The bizarre picture above does, in fact, show a cat and a dove with fiery rocket bombs strapped to their backs. Even more astonishing, the image is the work of a 16th century German artillery expert who envisioned setting fire to castles and cities across enemy lines by deploying explosive-rigged animals instead of human soldiers. As it turns out, the horrifying idea of dispatching unsuspecting animals as "suicide bombers" dates back even further than that.

Untangling the mystery

Mitch Fraas, a curator at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, first got wind of all this when a friend told him about a book blog showing what looked like a rocket-propelled cat and bird. Turns out the illustration (shown below) came from a 1584 manuscript in Penn’s collection called "Feuer Buech."

illustration of firebombing cat and dove
Franz Helm’s illustration of a cat and dove outfitted with fire bombs from the 'Feuer Buech' at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. UPenn Ms. Codex 109

Intrigued, Fraas soon discovered several similar images in other old manuscripts and wondered about their origin.

Fraas finally traced the various "rocket cat" illustrations to a manuscript at the Heidelberg University Library called "Buch von den probierten Künsten," which was written by Franz Helm of Cologne, Germany, about 1530. Helm was an artillery master who served several German princes in the mid-1500s and likely participated in war campaigns against Turkish forces. His manuscript (complete with jet-pack animals) was widely circulated during his lifetime, but wasn’t officially published until 1625. (You can learn more about Fraas' journey of discovery here.)

Not lost in translation

Fraas began translating Helm’s accompanying text to learn more about his grisly plans to use combustible animals in warfare. In a section entitled, "To set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise," Helm’s instructions read:

Create a small sack like a fire-arrow ... if you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well 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.

In other words, Helm proposed relying on the homing instincts of cats and doves. Rigged with burning packs, the poor creatures would presumably dash home, incinerating themselves and everything around them.

There’s no evidence that Helm actually used flammable animals, but it’s still not an easy image to extinguish from your mind.

Long history of 'kamikaze' critters

illustration of Samson and torch-bearing foxes
A 13th century illustration of Samson tying torches to the tails of foxes to burn down Philistine grain fields. Vatopedi Manuscript 602/Wikimedia Commons

You might chalk this up to one man’s cruel ingenuity, but Fraas discovered Helm wasn’t the first (or last) to imagine enlisting animals to do the dirty work of soldiers.

He notes that in the Old Testament’s Book of Judges, for instance, Samson captures 300 foxes, attaches torches to their tails, and sends them panicking through the Philistines’ grain fields to set them ablaze. And, according to Finnish scholar Pentti Aalto, fire-bearing cats and birds also show up in a 3rd century BCE Sanskrit text, in early Scandinavian writings, and in the "Russian Primary Chronicle." Fraas quotes from the "Chronicle’s" story of Olga of Kiev, who was said to use birds for warfare in the 10th century:

Olga requested three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. Upon their receipt, her men attached rags dipped in sulphur to the feet of each bird. When the birds returned to their nests, they lit the city on fire and the Derevlians perished in their homes. Olga’s vengeance was now complete.

More recently during World War II, the Russian army used bomb-strapped dogs to blow up Nazi tanks, and the U.S. military spent $2 million developing a program to unleash explosive-toting bats on Japanese cities before dropping the idea as unfeasible.

It's an idea that has come up in human history far too often, as this video below explains: