The Isle of Wight, and Cowes in particular, is planning a series of very special events to commemorate one of the most remarkable days in the Island’s recent history.
The four days of events, between May 4 and 7, will mark the 75th anniversary of a ferocious overnight aerial attack on Cowes and East Cowes by the German Luftwaffe.
The attack consisted of around 160 fighter-bombers, sent in in two sorties, between May 4 and 5, 1942.
Fortunately for Cowes, the Polish Destroyer ORP Blyskawica was in the harbour at that time and (also happened to be heavily armed. Despite some 70 deaths, Cowes was saved and, to this day, the Cowes and the Isle of Wight remains extremely grateful to the Polish Navy and the crew of the Blyskawica.
Coincidentally, the ORP Blyskawica was built by leading shipyard JS White in Cowes in 1935 and launched in 1936.
ORP Blyskawica meaning “Lightning”, and pronounced Bweeska-veetzah, along with sister ship ORP Grom meaning “Thunder” were originally commissioned by the Polish Navy, which, in the post-First World War era had recognised their comparative maritime weakness to adjacent Germany.
Originally intended for Baltic service, the pair were then the fastest destroyers in the world and exceeded expectations during sea trials in the Solent.
The destroyers’ service in the Polish navy however was short-lived and, in August 1939, both destroyers, along with the small destroyer ORP Burza, left their home port of Gdynia in Poland to join forces with and come under the command of the British Navy. Grom and Blyskawica returned “home” to Cowes, where their crews were billeted around the town. There remain to this day many descendants of those who wedded and raised families on the Island.
The ORP Blyskawica regularly returned to her home port of Cowes for refits and it was on one of those occasions, while under the command of her captain, Wojciech Francki PN DSC, that the Luftwaffe carried out their attack.
Despite a refusal by the Admiralty to allow ships to remain armed whilst docked, the Blyskawica acquired additional ordnance from Portsmouth and was well armed. That night, Francki and the Blyskawica crew put up an impressive defence of the town and their ship throughout the raids. The intensity of her gunfire, coupled with a smokescreen laid across the town, dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the raid.
Some 70 people lost their lives as the result of the attack, but Blyskawica and Francki were acknowledged as “the saviours of Cowes”.
The commander’s private war that night received little acknowledgement from the Admiralty – Francki received a despatch on July 20, 1942, from the Commander in Chief, Portsmouth, referring to “the good work done by Commander Francki” and offering “an expression of Their Lordship’s appreciation of their good service on that occasion”.
But there are memorial plaques on the Parade in Cowes and also in the Town Square. And between May 4 and 7, Cowes will be staging a high profile series of events aimed at fully marking both the bravery of the Polish navy, and the gratitude of the town.
Visitors to the Isle of Wight for the occasion will find everything from photographic and painting exhibitions, to shop window displays and bunting; and from a Polish food and craft market, to the dramatic appearance of both a Polish warship ORP Krakow and British type 45 destroyer. The Polish Ambassador will attend the events, and there are hopes that a sailing race around the Island will be organised by the Polish Yacht Club in London.
The weekend coincides with the Isle Walk 17 Isle of Wight Walking Festival, and visitors can even join-in with the “East Cowes Blitz Remembered” two miles, three hours walk on May 6: https://www.visitisleofwight.co.uk/whats-on/east-cowes-blitz-remembered-75-years-on-6th-may-2017-p1384221.
Other events have also been arranged, and full details can be found https://www.visitisleofwight.co.uk/blog/read/2017/03/story-of-the-hero-polish-warship-75-years-since-the-bombing-of-cowes-b165.
For further tourist information, and accommodation details, visit https://www.visitisleofwight.co.uk.