World’s oldest surviving destroyer dubbed ‘ship of heroes’ to get 7mln PLN makeover
Commonly regarded as the most famous ship in Polish maritime history, the ORP Błyskawica has been hauled off this week for an overdue, multimillion refit ahead of the summer season.
Expected to last approximately 90-days, the scope of the work will cover both underwater and above-water elements with the total cost forecast to top the seven million złoty mark.
Accompanied by helicopters and escort boats, the Błyskawica’s journey from port marked a rare outing for the ship.
Retired from active duty in 1976, for decades it’s served as a museum boat, and in the process has long been seen as one of Gdynia’s key attractions.
Rarely venturing from its permanent berth on the city’s seafront, it’s most recent outing came in 2018 when it sailed into the Gulf of Gdańsk to fire off twenty-one shots as part of the Polish navy’s centenary celebrations.
The oldest surviving destroyer in the world, the vessel was built by the British shipbuilding firm J. Samuel White in Cowes and launched in October 1936. After completing stringent sea trials, it entered into service on November 25th, 1937.
With Europe edging closer to war, the Błyskawica – together with Grom and the Burza – made their way to Britain as part of the so-called Peking Plan, an operation that was designed to prevent these ships falling into German hands.
Arriving in Leith on the day that war broke out, the three ships fell under the operational control of the British Admiralty and served with distinction.
Still commanded and manned by Polish officers and sailors, the Błyskawica took part in Operation Dynamo (the Allied evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk); however, it’s finest hour was yet to come.
On May 4th, 1942, over 160 German bombers attacked Cowes on the Isle of Wight; docked for emergency repairs, the Błyskawica fended off successive waves of Luftwaffe attacks by creating an effective smokescreen that confused the German pilots. Although 70 people died in the raids, the Błyskawica was hailed by locals as “the saviour of Cowes”.
Speaking on the 75th anniversary of the action, Geoff Banks, the chairman of The Friends of the ORP Błyskawica Society, paid tribute to the vessel and its sailors:“The tragic loss of life on that night of the Blitz had a devastating effect on our town; but for the bravery of our Polish allies, that loss of life would have been far greater.”
It’s contribution to the Allied war effort did not end there. Weighing 2,782 tons (editorial note: accounts vary from source to source) and measuring 114 metres in length, it played a role in 108 operational patrols and escorted 85 convoys – notably, it’s speed meant that it was one of the few ships that could keep up with the RMS Queen Mary, a luxurious ocean liner that had been converted into a troopship.
When D-Day finally rolled around, the Błyskawica again saw action, this time providing covering fire for the largest landing operation that the world has ever seen.
Logging a total distance of 138,356 nautical miles from 1939 to 1945, the Błyskawica was credited with sinking three U-boats, two German destroyers, downing at least four aircraft (though in all likeliness, three more) as well as sinking several other smaller German vessels.
Deemed a lucky ship, it lost only five men throughout the duration of the war, and finally returned to Polish waters in 1947.
A serious accident in 1967 saw its subsequent conversion into an anti-aircraft vessel, and although it was transformed into a museum nine-year later, to this day the ship remains manned by a full-time crew.
Holding Poland’s highest military decoration, the Gold Cross of the Order of Virtuti Militari, the Błyskawica has been described as being “a precious national relic”, not to mention a symbol of Polish heroism.