How a-BOAT this! Gorgeous set of stamps honour historic Piłsudski, Batory and Sobieski ships
Celebrating some of Poland’s finest transatlantic liners, a set of stamps have been issued honouring three historic ships.
Officially released today, the stamps depict the MS Piłsudski, the MS Batory and the MS Sobieski, all of which went on to play an illustrious role in Polish maritime history after being put into service in the 1930s.
Making its maiden voyage to Buenos Aires just before the outbreak of the war, the Sobieski was built in Newcastle at the Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Shipyard.
Weighing 11,000 tons, and capable of reaching speeds of 17 knots, it boasted 44 first class cabins, 250 second class, and 870 third class berths spread out over six decks.
Even featuring air-conditioning on some levels, the Sobieski represented the cutting edge of Polish shipping. Docked in Dakar when news of the war broke, it sailed on to Britain whereupon it fell under the management of the Ministry of War.
Hastily refitted, it was subsequently used as a troop ship and helped evacuate Allied troops from France in 1940. Regarded as a ‘lucky ship’, it was never hit despite taking part in numerous risky operations.
Of its finer moments, it acted as the flag ship during the 1942 Madagascar landings and also shipped gold from Britain to Canada. Later, in March, 1946, it carried Polish troops back from the UK to Poland. Furthermore, the ship also transported British POWs released from Japanese captivity.
Returning to civilian duties, from 1947 to 1950 it worked the Genoa-Halifax-New York shipping route, before being sold to Russia in 1950. Rechristened the Georgia, it was based in Odessa but still returned to Gdynia on occasions.
Finally, the vessel was scrapped in La Spezia in 1975.
The Piłsudski was built in tandem alongside the Batory in the Monfalcone shipyard in Trieste as part of a deal with the Italian government and was designed as something of a calling card for Poland’s shipping industry.
As such, no expense was spared in its bid to become “a floating embassy of Polish culture” – even the menus and ashtrays were designed by famous artists.
Despite the fanfare surrounding it, technical failings became apparent on its first voyage, and it became immediately apparent that its Italian builders had not taken into account the Atlantic’s choppy conditions.
Like the Sobieski, it was repurposed as a troop ship but sank on its first mission, in the process earning the dubious honour of being known as ‘the Polish Titanic’.
Sailing from Newcastle on November 25th, 1939, it was set to join a convoy destined for Australia. However, just hours into its journey, at 5.36 a.m., it was rocked by two blasts that ripped through the ship.
Sinking at 10.30 a.m., it came to rest 30 metres under the surface.
In line with the mariner’s code, her captain, Mamert Stankiewicz, was the last to abandon ship, but he later died from exposure.
“A Knight of the Order of Virtuti Militari, the captain of MS Piłsudski died a sailor's death at his post," reads the engraving on gravestone in Hartlepool.
Ever since, the cause of the sinking has remained a mystery. Some sources have claimed sabotage, others have credited a U-Boat attack. With no records existing of U-Boat activity, many historians though agree that it is more likely that the ship struck some stray mines.
Once fitted with a swimming pool, gym, elevators and state-of-the-art equipment, it was an ignominious end for a ship that had previously sailed to New York on no fewer than 38 occasions.
The Piłsudski’s twin, the Batory, fared significantly better. Like the Piłsudski, it was the pride of Poland’s passenger fleet, and boasted customised tableware designed by such luminaries as Julia Keilowa.
Carrying 720 passengers, it cut its teeth sailing the Gdynia-New York line and earned a reputation for its fun-loving atmosphere. American passengers, it was reported, fell in love with not just the Polish cuisine that was served on-board, but also parties overseen by the boat’s dapper crew.
It’s finest hour, though, was yet to come. Pressed into military service, it was credited with whisking many of Wawel’s priceless treasures to Canada, among them 36 chests containing ‘the Wawel tapestries’.
Undertaking around 60 voyages, over 120,000 people were transported during the war on the Batory, and not all of them were soldiers. In August, 1940, it sailed to Australia with 480 British children during which time it earned the moniker of ‘the singing ship’.
To maintain the spirits of frightened young passengers, the crew would organise sing-songs and dances with the children.
But like the Sobieski, it too was known as a lucky ship – when Italian planes targeted it outside an Algerian port they missed and instead struck another boat nearby.
Having survived the war intact, its reconversion to a passenger liner saw a fire break out that nearly destroyed the entire ship. Fortunately, it survived and eventually returned to Gdynia, but not before being implicated in the Eisler Scandal – it was on the Batory that an East German communist agent escaped from the United States.
Before being retired in 1969, it docked in London and a reunion party was held for the British children that had been evacuated on the ship in 1940. Serving for a short time as a floating hotel hulk in Gdynia, it failed to turn a profit and the decision was made to sell it for scrap.
Amid a storm of protest, it set sail one last time on March 30th, 1970, arriving in Hong Kong on May 11th. On June 2nd, the scrapping process began thereby marking the end of an era.