16th Century Rocket Cats: Brilliant Warfare Tactic Or Terrible Idea?

Photo Credit: Franz Helm / Wikimedia Commons

The Medieval era is known for its unique takes on just about everything. From strange hygiene habits to medical practices, it was certainly a different time. Armies from the era were known to make use of rather barbaric and strange warfare tactics, the weirdest of which was without a doubt 16th century rocket cats.

Franz Helm

The person behind rocket cats was Franz Helm, an artillery master from Cologne. He fought in the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in his fight against the Ottoman Empire, and would later go on to serve dukes Albert V, Louis X and William IV in the Duchy of Bavaria.

Helm wrote a treatise on siege warfare, Buch von den probierten Künsten, based on his experiences in battle. While not published until 1625, the manuscript was widely spread and became well-known in the Germanic territories.

Illustration of a man loading a cannon
Cover of the Buch von den probierten Künsten manuscript. (Photo Credit: Franz Helm / Wikimedia Commons)

The tactics described played on pre-existing artillery and siege weapon designs, including missile-like explosives studded with spikes and a spiked ramming device with the ability to burst into flames. The most intriguing was the concept of rocket cats and birds, wherein an incendiary device is attached to them.

Setting structures ablaze

Modern day historians were not sure of the purpose of rocket cats until Helm’s manuscript was examined by Mitch Fraas, Director of Special Collections & Research Services at the University of Pennsylvania. He translated the text and provided an insight into the rather unique warfare tactic.

Illustration of a cat with a lit incendiary tied to its back
Photo Credit: Franz Helm / Wikimedia Commons

Under a section titled “To set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise,” Helm detailed how to use a rocket cat to set fire to enemy positions by attaching an incendiary to its back and setting it loose. It reads:

“Create a small sack like a fire-arrow… If you would like to get 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 a barn hay or straw it will be ignited.”

Illustration of a dove and cat with incendiaries tied to their backs
Photo Credit: Franz Helm / Wikimedia Commons

While the idea of using cats may seem strange, it’s theorized their use is associated with the religious attitudes of the time. They were often associated with the Devil and witchcraft, eliciting mistrust and anxiety. This was especially true during the Protestant Reformation.

Did rocket cats actually see use?

There’s no way to know for sure if rocket cats were actually used in battle. According to Fraas, it’s unlikely they saw any action, calling the idea “a harebrained scheme” that would have backfired.

Illustration of a rocket cat running along the outskirts of a town
Photo Credit: Franz Helm / Wikimedia Commons

While Helm is considered to be the creator of rocket cats, he wasn’t the first to mix animals with fire. The idea can be traced back to Biblical times with Samson, who is said to have attached flaming torches to the tails of 300 foxes, which he let loose to burn the fields of the Philistines.

The Chinese were also known to use this tactic. In 1188, the Song Dynasty set oxen on fire to burn down bridges, and a military manual from 1000 A.D. discusses the concept of firebirds, wherein they attached a hollowed-out peach pit filled with mugwort tinder to the necks of wild pheasants.

Painting of Olga of Kiev holding a cross
Olga of Kiev. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The most famous use comes from Olga of Kiev during the 10th century A.D. Olga sought to exact revenge against the village of Iskorosten. She accomplished this by demanding residents provide her with three sparrows and three doves. She attached smouldering embers to them and set them loose. The village quickly went up in flames when they flew home.

Animals used in warfare

The concept of using animals in warfare is nothing new. Throughout history, armies have used all types of species to bulk up their numbers, with varying degrees of success.

Illustration of three elephants outfitted in armor
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The origins of war elephants is disputed. They were an integral part of Indian kings’ armies around the 4th century, and their use spread to the Persian Empire. As their use increased, so too did anti-elephant tactics. A unique form of defense was to let loose squealing pigs, as the elephants were scared of them.

Before tanks were developed, armies used rhinos. There is evidence Portuguese soldiers used them to counter war elephants, while the Ahoms – the people of Assam in Northeast India – would use intoxicated rhinos to run through enemy lines.

Three dogs wearing gas masks
Dogs wearing gas masks, 1939. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images)

Dogs have long been used in warfare. They saw action with the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, as well as the Romans and countries fighting during World War II. The Romans trained the Molossian dog and outfitted it with armor, as did Attila the Hun, while Spanish conquistadors used armored dogs to kill their enemies during their invasion of South America.

During WWII, both the Japanese and Russians used dogs. The tactic didn’t succeed. The Japanese and their canine companions were quickly defeated by U.S. troops. The Russians used dogs to carry bombs beneath German tanks, but found the noise caused them to run away.