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During the night of 4-5 May, 1942, the Isle of Wight towns of Cowes1 and East Cowes suffered the worst air raid the Island faced during the Second World War. Despite the death and the carnage, the destruction would have been far greater if it had not been for a heroic vessel in port, the ORP2 Błyskawica.
In 1935, the newly-formed Polish Navy wished to order two of a new class of advanced destroyer. After fierce international competition for such a lucrative contract, Isle of Wight shipbuilders J Samuel White & Co were chosen to build the vessels. J Samuel White & Co was one of the Island's largest maritime companies with a reputation for building high-quality, exceptionally fast warships. First established in 1764, they built ships, especially warships, since 1802, and were based in Cowes since 1814, before closing in the 1960s. They also had a successful aircraft division during the Great War. One of White's most famous employees was Sir Barnes Wallis3, who was an apprentice there between 1908-13. They specialised in making fast vessels and, when completed, the two Grom-class vessels, ORP Grom (trans: Thunder) and ORP Błyskawica (trans: Lightning. Błyskawica is pronounced 'Bwi-ska-veet-za') were the fastest destroyers afloat. They were 114 metres long, weighed 2,782 tons and capable of speeds in excess of 41 knots.
White's Wight Lightning at War
On 1 September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Consequently, following the Polish-British Common Defence Pact, two days later Britain declared war on Germany. Before the war started it was realised that the infant Polish navy was vastly outnumbered and no match for the Kriegsmarine4. So on 30 August, 1939, Operation Peking took place: the destroyers Grom, Błyskawica and Burza (trans: 'Storm') were escorted out of the vulnerable Baltic to Britain to save them from destruction. Soon after, on 7 September, the Błyskawica attacked a U-Boat, the first recorded combat between an Allied and German ship in the war.
During the war the two Grom-class vessels fought with distinction, with the Błyskawica under the command of Captain Wojciech Francki. The ship took part in Dunkirk, operations off Norway and would even later escort the Queen Mary to Britain carrying American troops through the dangerous Atlantic, the hunting-ground of U-Boats. The Błyskawica was one of the few ships capable of keeping up with the record-breaking Blue Riband-winning liner.
Błyskawica was armed with four twin 120mm guns as her main offensive armament, triple torpedo tubes, four side depth charge throwers, two stern depth charge tracks and two mines. In addition, her impressive anti-aircraft battery consisted of one twin 40mm Bofors gun, three twin 37mm guns and two single 37mm anti-aircraft guns.
Sadly her sister ship, ORP Grom, was sunk off Norway in 1940, however Błyskawica remained in service, frequently engaging both enemy U-Boats and aircraft until spring 1942, when she returned to Cowes for a refit.
Cowes and East Cowes at War
The Isle of Wight towns of Cowes and East Cowes are at the centre of the Island's north coast, separated by the wide river Medina and connected only by the floating bridge. During the Second World War these towns were the Island's industrial centre. They manufactured aircraft, including flying boats5, radar equipment as well as warships6, plywood7 and other shipyards built other vessels including landing craft and motor torpedo boats (MTBs).
The Royal Yacht Squadron donated Cowes Castle to the Admiralty for war work, for a token rent of a shilling (5p) a year. Cowes Castle was renamed HMS Vectis8 and was one of Lord Louis Mountbatten's Combined Operations Command headquarters. Much of the planning of the Allied assault on Dieppe9 took place in Cowes Castle, with the local area used as a training ground.
Despite the area's importance, the two towns were very lightly defended. The nearest purpose-built anti-aircraft batteries constructed to defend against the Luftwaffe in early 1940 were located at Whippingham, manned by 120 men of the 57th Heavy AA Regiment's 213th Anti-Aircraft Battery, and four 3.7 inch guns at Rew Street, Gurnard. In addition Cowes had a searchlight position, manned by 38 men in 392 Battery of 48 Searchlight Regiment Royal Artillery, armed with Lewis machine guns and rifles. Although these defended Cowes and East Cowes from attacks from the south and west, the approach to the two towns from the north over the Solent was vulnerable.
Just before 7am on 28 April, 1942, seven German aircraft attacked Cowes. These were Mf109 Messerschmitt fighter-bombers, armed not only with cannons and machine guns, but each also carried one high-explosive bomb. They flew over the Island from the south, over Newport and low up the river Medina, out to sea, turning abruptly before heading for Cowes and East Cowes, firing their machine-guns and cannons. They then released their bombs before heading south, firing as they went, over Parkhurst, Newport, Carisbrooke and Atherfield.
Their targets for destruction were the J Samuel White's shipyards, where ORP Błyskawica was docked. The bombs narrowly missed sinking the ship, destroying the jetty leading to the destroyer's gangway. One of White's boat-building structures was completely destroyed and a fire raged which spread to demolish four houses in neighbouring Pelham Road. Here, six civilians died including four-year-old Dennis Bartlett and his parents, with his mother dying saving her one-month-old baby (who lived), neighbouring five-year-old John Halliday and his father and Mrs Gladys Clark. The Saunders-Roe aircraft factory suffered extensive superficial damage and two employees were killed.
Among the aircraft was a photo reconnaissance aeroplane, which Captain Francki of the Błyskawica believed was gathering information prior to a major attack. His ship, though, was undergoing a refit. Admiralty policy was for ships not currently on active service to have their weapons temporarily decommissioned and all ammunition, which was in short supply, diverted to ships likely to enter combat situations. In addition, many of his crew was on leave. Nevertheless, Francki applied to the Admiralty for permission to re-arm. Despite his request being formally rejected, Francki ordered more munitions from Portsmouth.
The Błyskawica and the Blitzkrieg
Six days later, on the night of 4 May, 1942, 160 Luftwaffe Dornier Do 217 bombers prepared for an overnight raid.
The First Raid
The first German aircraft were seen approaching the Island at 10:50pm, heading north. Islanders assumed that the planes were heading for Southampton again10, however at 11pm exactly the skies above Cowes and East Cowes were illuminated by beautiful chandeliers of slowly descending parachute flares, highlighting the towns beneath. At that moment the horror of what was about to happen sank into the people of the two towns.
Local resident Vera Brown, of Beckford Road11, later described the events with the words:
Looking outside as the sirens sounded, we saw with horror and disbelief the huge flares hanging over the town and knew that this time it was us.
I cannot tell you of the screaming horror of that night – and we were among the lucky ones. Every road into both towns was bombed, making it difficult for the extra help to come in.
The bombers came in from the Solent at sea-level, below the aim of the few land-based anti-aircraft guns. One of the first incendiary bombs fell in the J Samuel White's shipyards where the Błyskawica was docked. Soon the ship was surrounded by fires illuminating the whole dockyard and two destroyers, HMS Quiberon and HMS Quickmatch, under construction there. Over 100,000 square feet (9,290 square metres) of shipyard buildings were quickly destroyed, with fire spreading throughout the waterside premises, lighting the area and making it easier for the bombers to find their targets. Captain Francki sent three men with smoke-candles to the lee-side of the river where they lit them, creating a smoke-screen hiding the targeted area.
The bombers also dropped incendiaries on Somerton Aerodrome, the only airfield open during the war on the Island, destroying three hangars and numerous aircraft. The first high-explosive bombs dropped, cutting off the area's electricity and breaking all telephone lines and communication with ARP12 Headquarters.
In addition to the anti-aircraft guns, defending the towns were Six Free French Chasseurs13 armed with small-calibre weapons, and the ORP Błyskawica. A high-explosive bomb was also dropped near the shipyards next to the ship, damaging several buildings and superficially damaging the Błyskawica. The destroyer left her moorings, heading directly at the attacking wave of aircraft, dropped anchor and fired all its anti-aircraft weapons, forcing the bombers higher thereby reducing the accuracy of the bombing. The anti-aircraft gun barrels fired continuously and grew so hot that the Polish crew was forced to continually throw seawater raised in buckets from the sea over the barrels to cool them down enough to keep firing, while a smaller boat was dispatched to Portsmouth to bring over more ammunition. The ship fired 2,030 40mm Bofors shells and 10,500 rounds of machine gun ammunition.
Captain Francki's official report of the raid stated:
The raids were made very quickly and from a fairly low ceiling. The planes often dive-bombed. The ship fired her 40mm guns and heavy machine guns by sound, which was usually possible when the planes dived before dropping their bombs, or by locating the position of the plane with the help of the searchlights on the Island. Fire was always spread both in direction and elevation. The results appeared good to me, as very often the planes turned violently, which we could plainly hear.
Captain Francki additionally sent men to the ARP Headquarters, offering to help them and establish a first aid post for the slightly injured on board. Other men were sent to help fight the fires both in the shipyard and in the Saunders-Roe factory.
Dispatch riders were sent to Newport, the first arriving at 12:25am on the morning of 5 May, after the hour-long raid had ended. Rescue parties, ambulances and first aid teams were sent to Cowes and East Cowes. The first official report, received in Newport at 3:40am stated:
Extensive damage to works at Saunders-Roe, West Cowes. Direct hit on Saunders-Roe, Cornubia Yard, East Cowes. Gasworks and JS White's, East Cowes, still burning. Damage to GPO, Cowes High Street and Railway Station. Houses down in Baring Road, Arctic Road, Bernard Road, Mill Hill Road, Tennyson Road, Milton Road, Pallance Road and Gurnard. Unable to state number of casualties. Rescue parties still digging at three incidents. Assistance is being given by Cowes and Newport military and Air Force units. Roads blocked at Cowes High Street, Medina Road, Pallance Lane, Broadfields Avenue, Three Gates Road; some by UXBs14. Situation in general seems to be reasonably well in hand. Damage to water, gas and electricity service.
Cowes and East Cowes were not the only towns affected. Nearby Newport, four miles south of the twin towns, was attacked by bombers heading back to base, with three high-explosive bombs dropped at 11:30pm, destroying three houses and killing music teacher George Kirkup. A UXB then fell at Shide Station, preventing train services until June. At Ventnor on the Island's southernmost tip, a Dornier bomber, anxious to escape a pursuing fighter, dropped its high-explosive bomb, killing one woman, before being shot down into the sea.
The Second Wave
As the Island's rescue effort began arriving in Cowes and East Cowes, a second attack began at 3:45am. This time, because Cowes no longer had any electricity, no air-raid warning was able to sound in the town. Fortunately the sound travelled from nearby Newport and so most civilians were able to make it to the shelters to weather the destructive storm until 4:40am. Once again the Błyskawica defended the towns until dawn, with the creation of a smoke-screen the crew's first act.
In Newport, several houses were hit by bombers on their way back to base, with two cottages on Point Cottages reduced to rubble. 13 people were buried in the wreckage, four survived. Wallace and Charlotte Chiverton survived, as did two of their eight children, with Mary, 7, Vera, 4, John, 3, twins Pat and Paul, 2, and 5-week-old Jean killed at 1 Point Cottages, 65-year-old Frank Hendy, daughter Evelyn Abrook and Joan Abrook, 5, dead next door at 2 Point Cottages.
Some of those who had come to rescue the victims of the first attack, including two firemen from Ryde, Colin Weeks and Bert Dewey, died in the second. When the WVS (Women's Voluntary Service) heard of the first attack they had sent all available Tea Vans and mobile canteens to the area to provide food and drink for those without homes. Tragically, one woman volunteer died during the second raid when her Tea Van was destroyed.
Maisie Frampton, ten at the time of the raid, later remembered:
After several hours of continuous attack it was a tremendous relief when the bombers appeared to have departed... however the respite was short-lived as the bombers returned and the nightmare started all over again. Suddenly we were aware of yet another screaming bomb but this sounded different – the noise was absolutely deafening as it appeared to get closer and then for a split-second dead silence. Everyone sensed the impending danger and this was a time I shall always remember.
Somehow we knew that this one was for us. My father leaned across and took my hand and my mother leant across me covering me with her arms. I know nothing from that moment until much later the following day when I drifted in and out of consciousness in the Frank James hospital. Our shelters had received a direct hit by a massive bomb, which I believe was an armour-piercing bomb meant for the ORP Błyskawica. Obviously the timing was a split-second adrift and she was saved. The severity of this explosion was so great that I believe it was the blast that was the cause of death of many of the occupants of the shelters – I know this was so with my father. I have always understood that there were 23 people in the two shelters and there were only three survivors – my mother Eva Hodge, my cousin Joan Russell and myself. My mother was conscious some of the time and apparently saw me upside down with my face covered in the mud and clay from the bottom of the crater and she was able to clear this sufficiently to prevent me suffocating.
As the raid died down, again the crew of the Błyskawica were despatched to fight the fires in the shipyard, with the doctor on board helping the injured nearby.
In total the bombers dropped over 200 tons of high-explosive bombs and thousands of incendiary bombs, killing 8315. 28 had died in Cowes, 42 in East Cowes, 10 in Newport and three elsewhere.
Canteens to cope with the homeless were set up in Trinity Hall in Cowes and Osborne Road in East Cowes. Several cats and dogs too had lost their owners, and so many strays were seen over the next few days before finding new people to look after them. Minnie Spencer, a 33-year-old housewife, later remembered:
After the blitz we had no roof on our Tennyson Road house at all, we just looked straight up into the sky. On our front room table we found a pepperpot standing perfectly upright. The strangest thing was, it didn't belong to us – it must have been carried from another house right through where our roof used to be and onto our table.
Christine Pitman, who worked in Groves and Guttridge's East Cowes shipyard16 described the scene the following morning with the words:
We were told that both roads into East Cowes were closed, and that part of the town had been wiped out by incendiary and high-explosive bombs. A Polish battleship at JS White's shipyard had used its guns on the Germans very effectively, otherwise things would have been very [much] worse, but there was still the hazard of unexploded bombs in the area...
Later, as we approached the Saunders-Roe works slipway from the shore, we could see smoke and obvious destruction ahead. We had to wet handkerchiefs in the river to hold over our mouths and noses while we ran through the smoking remains... to our own shipyard. We passed more rubble, which had once been a cottage and small shop, then... we were horrified to see that the shipyard, store and office block had been completely gutted... the lifeboats under construction had disappeared.
Following the raid, Cowes Urban District Council proposed on 8 May, 1942, that communal graves would be prepared for the air raid victims, however relatives could arrange private burials if they wished. The funerals took place on Tuesday 12 and Wednesday 13 May. 27 were buried in the communal grave at Northwood Cemetery, one in another part of the cemetery and three elsewhere. 43 were buried in East Cowes' Kingston Road cemetery's communal grave, eight in other graves, and five were buried elsewhere, in addition to the graves in Newport.
If it had not been for the Błyskawica, the destruction would have been far, far worse. Local resident and member of the Home Guard Raymond Tarrant remembers:
Cowes had had so much of... the planes passing overhead, going up country somewhere, I suppose we didn't expect that this time it was actually ourselves who were going to get it.
The only thing that really saved the town was that Polish destroyer in the harbour. I dread to think what might have happened had she not been there.
This did not stop Italian newspapers soon after publishing propaganda photographs claiming the 'industrial centre of Britain has been destroyed'(!)
Two months later, Captain Francki received a despatch from the Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth, Sir William James, congratulating him and his crew for 'the good work done [and]... an expression of their Lordship's appreciation of their good service'. He described the lack of significant damage to Cowes as 'a minor miracle'.
Commander Francki also received the following Recommendation for Decoration or Mention in Despatches:
For outstanding qualities of initiative and leadership during the enemy air attack on Cowes on the night of 4th/5th May, 1942. This officer's action in landing men to burn smoke floats ashore and the intensive barrage which he directed personally were largely instrumental in saving the destroyers building at Samuel White's Shipyard in East Cowes. After the raid parties were landed from the Błyskawica, and did good service fire fighting at the Chasseur base and in East Cowes.
The Raid Remembered
Several members of the Błyskawica crew later settled in the town after the war, marrying local girls.
The defence of Cowes and East Cowes has regularly been commemorated. In 1982 the 40th anniversary was celebrated with many of the original crew returning for a commemorative event. In 1992, shortly after the final liberation of Poland and the fall of Communism in 1989/90, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary two Polish vessels, the ORP Kaszub and ORP Wodnik, visited Cowes to mark the occasion. Five years later The Friends of ORP Błyskawica Society was formed and in 2004 Cowes erected a plaque and named a square 'Francki Place' in honour of the captain, which was unveiled by Captain Francki's daughter, Nina Doroszkowska.
In May 2012 the 70th anniversary was marked with the laying of wreaths on Cowes War Memorial, and at Northwood Cemetery and Kingston Cemetery. There were also exhibitions in Cowes Maritime Museum, Regatta House and East Cowes Town Hall. The Karpaty Polish Dancers, Polish Ave Verum Choir, and Polish Naval Band all performed, and a piano recital by Eva Maria Doroszkowska, Captain Francki's granddaughter, was also given. Polish food was available as well and a Polish warship, ORP Torun, moored in Cowes Roads17.
The Błyskawica itself was invited to return to Cowes, with the Isle of Wight Council Leader announcing in 2007:
2012, as well as being the year of the London Olympics, is also the 70th anniversary of the defence of Cowes by the Błyskawica and the 75th anniversary of the commissioning of the ship. I raised the suggestion during our visit to Gdynia of how wonderful it would be if she could be brought over to Cowes during that year and, while this gained a deal of approval, the cost and the logistics of such a move should not be underestimated. The Cowes harbourmaster has welcomed it and suggested a mooring on the new Parade Landing right in the heart of Cowes.
Sadly that was not to be, however to mark the occasion, Bronislaw Komorowski, the President of the Republic of Poland said:
I want to address the residents of [the] Isle of Wight and give credit for their contribution in keeping alive the memory of the Polish destroyer ORP Błyskawica in its defence of Cowes against the Third Reich air force. It forms a very symbolic event in Polish-British relationships.
While Polish territory was occupied by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, our destroyer found a new home in the British Isles and during those days in May she was in the very same shipyard where she was built. It was just seven years earlier that she left Cowes to serve under the white and red Polish ensign and then to come back to defend the people of the Isle of Wight.
I offer my sincere greetings to all of you who are gathered to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the defence of Cowes on the Isle of Wight... [The] Isle of Wight will remain forever a symbol of Polish-British friendship and a symbol of freedom and democracy over totalitarianism and aggression.
ORP Błyskawica Today
The Cowes-built ORP Błyskawica is still afloat today, the world's oldest surviving destroyer. She is a museum ship in Gdynia dockyard near Gdansk. Błyskawica is the only vessel to receive Poland's highest military honour, the Gold Cross of the Virtuti Militari Order, awarded on the 50th Anniversary of its entering the Polish Navy's service.