Polish destroyer to be honoured on UK isle after saving its coastal town from Hitler’s bombs
A Polish destroyer that saved a British town from destruction in WWII is being celebrated on the Isle of Wight by locals who are still grateful to the sailors who came to their rescue.
On the night of May 4-5, 1942, the crew of ORP Błyskawica repelled a Luftwaffe attack on Cowes, a town on the British island that lies off the south coast of England.
The crew then helped extinguish fires and rescue the town's inhabitants. About 70 people died in the air raids.
To mark the 80th anniversary, the Polish warship ORP Wodnik will arrive in the port of Cowes on Thursday morning.
In 1942, the Błyskawica was being overhauled in Cowes, where it had been launched in 1936. The destroyer was serving alongside the Royal Navy under the Polish flag after having left its home port Gdynia at the start of the war.
Cowes and the Isle of Wight were a target for the Luftwaffe because ships and aircraft were built in the shipyard there.
During the war, 26 destroyers and maritime reconnaissance aircraft were built on the island.
German planes used a variety of weapons, including parachute flares, high explosive and incendiary bombs, augmented by machine guns.
According to regulations, the Błyskawica had to disarm during its overhaul, but the ship’s captain Commander Wojciech Francki had earlier spotted German air reconnaissance planes and decided to re-arm the ship and issue a combat alert.
When the raid began, Francki immediately gave the order to return fire. The Błyskawica quickly became a floating anti-aircraft base.
During the attack, the crew took a small boat out into the harbour and lit smoke canisters in an attempt to obscure the town from its attackers.
The firing of the ship’s large calibre guns forced the Luftwaffe to fly higher, affecting the accuracy of its bombing.
Due to the actions of the captain and his crew, a large proportion of the bombs failed to reach their targets with many of the incendiaries falling harmlessly onto nearby marshland.
The ship’s guns became extremely hot, and the crew resorted to passing up buckets of river water in an attempt to cool them down. It is said that the hands of some sailors were permanently deformed from the heat.
After the raid ended, the Polish sailors were sent into the town to help residents with firefighting and rescue operations.
"The sky above the town was red with fire," witnesses recounted years later.
The events of that night forged a bond of friendship between the people of Cowes and the crew of the Błyskawica that has endured until today.
The Friends of ORP Błyskawica Society has been active in the city, and one of the local squares is named after Lieutenant Commander Wojciech Francki.
In 2017, a petition was launched to name a new ferry between Cowes and East Cowes after the Błyskawica. In the end the suggestion was beaten by the name Floaty McFloatface.
A large exhibition devoted to the ship is in the city museum and mementoes of the ship can be found in the local Royal Yacht Club.
For years, the town has celebrated successive anniversaries of the ship’s defence against the German air raid, with crew of the Błyskawica regularly attending.
This year, the Polish training ship ORP Wodnik will arrive in Cowes to mark the celebration. The centre of the town is decked in Polish flags.
The vessel is designed for long navigation and training voyages. It has also taken part in international missions. The Wodnik took part in Desert Storm, acting as a hospital ship in the Persian Gulf in 1991.
After the 1942 raid, the overhaul of the Błyskawica was completed it went on to take part in convoy and patrol duties, engaging both U-boats and the Luftwaffe in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Today, the Błyskawica is a museum ship and lies in dry dock in Gdynia.