The residents of the Isle of Wight paid tribute to the Poles who saved the island from a German attack in 1942

The residents of the Isle of Wight remember very well that the Polish destroyer ORP Błyskawica saved the cities of Cowes and East Cowes from the German attack of the Luftwaffe in May 1942. Since then, the island has been holding annual ceremonies to pay tribute to the heroic Poles who saved the island and preserve their extraordinary courage in the memory of future generations.

ORP Błyskawica (together with its twin ORP Grom) was the most modern ship of the pre-war Navy. It was also the fastest ship in the world. As far as we know, it is also the oldest preserved destroyer in the world. Today, it serves as a museum ship in Gdynia on Kościuszko Square. Błyskawica is a huge attraction for tourists because there are few such well-preserved ships in the world that took an active part in World War II.

Warship ORP Błyskawica in the port of Gdynia. Photo: Caroline Byczynski

Its fate could be told endlessly. During the war, Błyskawica fought bravely in the North and Mediterranean seas, in the Atlantic, the English Channel, and in the Bay of Biscay. During the war, it travelled over 150,000 nautical miles. We would like to focus on one military episode of British history when Błyskawica saved not only numerous human lives. The destroyer crew also saved two cities on the Isle of Wight – Cowes and East Cowes on the north coast of the island from flattening (under the force of an air attack by the Germans).

In Great Britain, the Polish Air Force’s defence of the British skies during World War II is well-remembered. The heroism of Poles in the Battle of Britain and Polish air squadrons especially have not been forgotten. However, the history of the efforts of the army or navy is little known. And yet, Polish soldiers fought the Germans from the first day of the war in 1939 until its very end in 1945. They made a significant contribution to the victory of the Allies, fighting fierce battles on land, water, and the air on many fronts, not only in Europe but also in Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

We received the invitation to the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the defence of the Isle of Wight by the Polish destroyer ORP Błyskawica with great joy. It came from the 100-year-old Colonel Otto Hulacki, one of the last living soldiers of General Władysław Anders.

Colonel Otton Hulacki with Polish Song and Dance Company „Karolinka” from London. Photo: British Poles

Mr Otton has been active in the Society of Friends of ORP Błyskawica for years and is now its honorary president. Despite being 100 years old, he is still full of energy and good humour. In just a few days, he will be travelling to Italy to take part in the 78th anniversary of the victorious Battle of Monte Cassino. You can read more about this in our article  Otton Hulacki, and Polish Heroes of Battle of Monte Cassino, recognised after 75 years.

How did Błyskawica happen to be in the area during the German attack? In August 1939, in the face of the impending German invasion of Poland, Błyskawica was ordered to leave the home port of Gdynia to fight alongside the Royal Navy. We know that the ship took part in a number of decisive naval operations of World War II, but it was in May 1942 that it arrived in Cowes for… overhaul. After a heavy storm, the destroyer suffered damage to the hull and boilers, which needed to be fixed. It was built for the Polish Navy by the shipyards of J.S. White in Cowes and East Cowes, and launched in 1936 (the ship’s godmother was Cecylia Raczyńska, wife of Edward Raczyński, the then Polish Ambassador to London). By reaching close to 40 knots, the ship became the fastest destroyer in the world and exceeded all expectations during the sea trials at the Solent.

Blyskawica and Grom are under construction at the Cowes Shipyard. Grom sank after Narvik on the 4th of May 1940. Photo: Twitter @BlyskawicaCowes

A few days before the attack, the Błyskawica Commander Wojciech Francki saw German reconnaissance planes in the sky and predicted the attack. When on the night of May 4-5, 1942, the seemingly defenceless city was attacked by 160 German bombers, the crew was prepared to fight. The action undertaken went against the safety regulations issued by the Admiralty regarding the timely disarming of the ship during repairs. The extremely brave Commander Wojciech Francki did not obey this order and, expecting an attack, ordered to replenish the Portsmouth ammunition.

Commander Wojciech Francki. Photo: public domain

Francki was then an experienced commander with an impressive record of service. He participated as a volunteer in the Polish-Bolshevik war (including the battles for Vilnius and the Battle of Warsaw in Płock). In 1923, he entered the Infantry Cadet School in Warsaw, and after graduating in 1924, he began to study at the Naval Officers’ School in Toruń. In 1927, he was promoted to the first officer rank of a naval second lieutenant. He studied in France at Ecole des Officiers Canoniers in Toulon. The outbreak of the war took place while he was on the training ship ORP Wilja. A year later he became the commander of the Burza destroyer, and then of the Błyskawica one. Unfortunately, after years of sacrifice and struggle, he shared the fate of many of our heroes and did not return to occupied Poland. He emigrated to New Zealand and… worked as a stonemason in a quarry.

A commemorative plaque dedicated to the Commander of ORP Błyskawica Wojciech Francki. Photo: British Poles

The history of the defence of the island is little known in the world, but fortunately, its inhabitants appreciate the efforts, bravery, and merits of the Poles up until this day. ORP Błyskawica quickly became a floating anti-aircraft base in the defence of cities attacked by the Germans. Apparently, our brave sailors fired so many missiles at the attacking 160 German bombers that the barrels of the Bofors anti-aircraft guns and the heaviest Hotchkiss machine guns overheated and had to be cooled down with water (the crew handed buckets of water from the river). Thanks to the use of large-calibre guns, the crew forced the Luftwaffe to fly higher, which affected the accuracy of its bombing. The ship also had a smokescreen that made it impossible for the attackers to orientate themselves in the field. Thanks to such actions, many incendiary bombs fell into the nearby swamps and uninhabited areas. The crew of Błyskawica fired almost 2,500 missiles and forced the Germans to retreat.

A map of the places which the Germans have bombed. Thanks to the shots fired by Błyskawica and the smokeskreen, the disoriented Germans dropped their bombs mainly on uninhabited areas. Photo: Twitter @BlyskawicaCowes

70 people were killed that night, but it was widely recognised that had it not been for the actions of the Captain and the crew of the Polish destroyer on that fateful night, the losses and destruction would have been much greater.

During the hostilities, Błyskawica sailed a total of 148,356 nautical miles, taking part in the Western Front’s most important campaigns and operations. It participated in the escort of 83 convoys and 108 other combat operations and patrols.

The youngest Polish dancers from „Młode Karpaty” take part in the celebrations. Photo: Twitter @BlyskawicaCowes

The celebration of the 80th anniversary of Cowes’ defence lasted a full week. The full program is available in our article 80th Anniversary of ORP Błyskawica defence of Cowes & East Cowes. It consisted of lectures, concerts, services, talks, film screenings, exhibitions in the City Hall, laying wreaths in memorial places, a Polish fair, performances by traditional Polish dance groups as well as attractions for children. A performance of Katy Carr and a dance evening with the theme of the 1940s were also organised. The whole city was literally drowning in Polish flags and shops were selling souvenirs related to Błyskawica.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest attractions was the arrival of the Wodnik ship at the port.

From the left: George Byczynski, editor-in-chief of the British Poles and the commander of ORP Błyskawica, Lieutenant Commander Paweł Ogórek. Photo: British Poles

It is a Polish ship, which was built in the Northern Shipyard in Gdańsk, whose flag was raised in 1976. It is now a veteran, but its service record looks impressive (it took in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf). Today, it serves as a training ship, where young cadets undergo various kinds of apprenticeships during which they learn the use of weapons among other things. 

ORP Wodnik at sea. Photo: British Poles

The Commander of Wodnik is Rafał Prętnik. We had the pleasure to meet him during the visit on the ship in the presence of Paweł Ogórek, the Commander of ORP Błyskawica. Visiting such a huge ship is an unusual attraction. Many crew members and young cadets who train on a daily basis were present on board. Due to the importance of the event, all were dressed in gala uniforms.

ORP Wodnik. On the middle deck, the commander of ORP Błyskawica, Lieutenant Commander Paweł Ogórek. Photo: British Poles

Lieutenant Commander Paweł Ogórek told us about the extraordinary expressions of sympathy the crew receives when going ashore. The sailors are constantly interpellated by residents who thank them for their service, for the Polish contribution to saving the city from the German attack. Some people just want to shake hands to express their respect and gratitude.

Polish flags in the streets of Cowes. Photo: British Poles

The city of Cowes was indeed drowning in a sea of ​​Polish flags, to use maritime terminology. On every street, in shop windows, white and red flags and banners informing about the celebrations proudly fluttered on masts. It is no secret that we were bursting with pride…

A window of one of the stores in Cowes. Photo: British Poles

The Polish language was heard more often that day, and the ceremony was attended by the Polish Ambassador in London, Professor Piotr Wilczek, military attaché Colonel Mieczysław Malec, Consuls Mateusz Stąsiek and Radosław Gromski. On the British side, naturally, the largest group were members of the Association of Friends Of ORP Błyskawica with the honorary President Geoff Banks, mayors of Cowes, East Cowes, Southampton, and Portsmouth, High Sherrifs from Isle of Wight and Southampton, MP Bob Seely representing the Isle of Wight in the British Parliament, Rector of the Polish University Abroad PUNO prof. Tomasz Kaźmierski and many other distinguished guests.

At Northwood Cemetery, wreaths were laid for the victims of the German air raids. Thanks to the bravery of the ORP Błyskawica crew under the command of Commander Wojciech Francki, the number of victims was significantly limited. 

A Polish delegation is laying flowers at the Northwood Cemetery. From the left: Military attaché Col. Mieczysław Malec, Consul General Mateusz Stąsiek, Honorary Consul Dr. Krzysztof Magier. Photo: Radosław Gromski

A significant event was the opening ceremony of the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Cowes, in the presence of Ambassador Piotr Wilczek.

Doctor Krzysztof Magier, a well-known doctor on the island, President of the Society of Friends of ORP Błyskawica, and a well-known Polish community activist was appointed Honorary Consul.

The opening ceremony of the Honorary Consulate in Cowes. The ambassador of the Republic of Poland, prof. Piotr Wilczek and the honorary consul, Dr. Krzysztof Magier, surrounded by cadets. On the right: the commander of ORP Błyskawica, lieutenant commander Paweł Ogórek. Photo: British Poles

Wreaths were laid in Commander of Błyskawica Wojciech Francki square under the commemorative plaque. On the main promenade of Cowes, a celebration for local residents was organised, gathering numerous people. 

The laying of wreaths under the commemorative plaque dedicated to Commander of Błyskawica Wojciech Francki. In the foreground, the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland, prof. Piotr Wilczek and Consul General Mateusz Stąsiek. Photo: British Poles

Celebrations on the island are held every year. It is worth recalling this little-known and exceptionally heroic episode in the history of the participation of the Polish Armed Forces in the West during World War II. The bravery of Polish sailors and the tireless effort of the crew of the Polish warship went down in the history of the island. It earned these brave people the eternal gratitude of the inhabitants of Cowes and East Cowes.

Maria Byczynski

Translation: Sébastien Meuwissen

Photos: British Poles, Radosław Gromski, Caroline Byczynski

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