On the night of the 4th May 1942, 160 German bombers arrived off Cowes. Over 70 people of Cowes and East Cowes died that night and many more were injured — but the Polish destroyer defended East and West Cowes from certain obliteration. This month marks 80 years since that fateful night.
ORP Błyskawica, along with her sister ship ORP Grom, were built in the local shipyards of J S White and were the world’s fastest destroyers when launched; Błyskawica achieving 41.5 knots at her peak. Nowadays she lies in the port of Gdynia, Poland, where she’s an immaculately preserved floating museum having received over 7 million visitors. She’s the pride of Poland’s maritime history. The defence of Cowes by Błyskawica was brought about by her being in port for re-armament, enabling her to defend our towns throughout the night of the raid.
On April 28th six German bombers made a hit and run sortie on Cowes, and nearly sank ORP Blyskawica. After this attack Cpt Francki, the ship's commanding officer organised ammunition to arrive from Portsmouth. This was against Admiralty regulations as the ship was supposed to be disarmed when undergoing a refit.
On the night of the 4th May 160 bombers arrived off Cowes. The ORP Blyskawica`s anti-aircraft guns fired without a pause. Hands were scalded and gun barrels grew so hot that seawater was gathered in buckets to cool them down.
The ship`s crew lit smoke canisters in an attempt to obscure the towns from its attackers. Large calibre guns were used to force the Luftwaffe to fly higher, affecting the accuracy of its bombing.
The Free French Naval units also opened up fire with smaller calibre weapons. Over 70 people of Cowes and East Cowes had died that night and many more were injured. At dawn emergency services from all over the Island raced in to help, and Polish sailors from ORP Blyskawica joined them, acting as firemen and diggers.
ORP Blyskawica was the only Polish vessel to have been awarded with the Gold Cross of the Virtuti Militari Order, the highest Polish military decoration.
Early May brings about the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the defence of Cowes and East Cowes by the Polish destroyer. Annually, the Friends of the ORP Błyskawica Society hold a ceremony on Cowes Parade to mark the date. The Cowes-based organisation aims to make the 80th anniversary an important event over a period of five days starting on the evening of the 4th May until the end of Sunday 8th May. The Polish government has taken great interest in this anniversary event and members of the society met with Poland’s Ambassador to Great Britain
at the embassy, where they were offered liaison and support for the forthcoming commemoration.
However, due to the situation in the Ukraine and the refugee exodus into Poland, the Polish Ministry of Defence much regrets that the hoped for Polish Naval Band will not be able to attend the 80th commemoration this year.
Photo from the Friends of Blyskawica collection
Summary of key events
East Cowes Town Hall. 10am to 4pm: Exhibition on ORP Blyskawica from Saturday 30 April to Monday 2 May inclusive and Saturday 7 May (to 6pm): Organised by East Cowes Heritage Centre
Wednesday 4 May
East Cowes Town Hall
6.30pm: Blitz Talk and Film `Voices of the East Cowes Blitz`.
Thursday 5 May
8am-10am: Arrival of Polish Naval Vessel ORP Wodnik at Cowes Roads.
The Royal Yacht Squadron will greet the Polish warship with a five gun salute.
2pm: Plaque unveiling in Kings Square, East Cowes
2.30pm: Guided blitz walk. From Kings Square to Kingston Cemetery
4pm: Memorial service at Kingston Cemetery
6pm -7pm: Welcome reception by Brigadier Maurice Sheen CBE QVRM TD DL, Her Majesty's Vice Lord-Lieutenant
of the Isle of Wight. By invitation.
7.30pm: Gala Piano Recital at the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS) by Eva Maria Doroszkowska, granddaughter of Captain Francki, Commander of the ORP Blyskawica on the night of the Blitz 4th May 1942. Online booking for the recital and optional supper after open at www.ticketsource.co.uk/islandconcerts
Friday 6 May
East Cowes Town Hall
7.30pm: Concert: Never Forgotten Polish and English Music Katy Carr and Medina Marching Band in support of the Ukraine Refugees in Poland. Online booking for the concert open at: www.ticketsource.co.uk/islandconcerts
Saturday 7 May
Northwood Cemetery, Cowes - Exhibition on the Blitz
1pm-4pm: Kings Square, East Cowes
Performances by: Little Karpaty & Karolinka Dancers. Polish food market.
2.30pm: Cowes Blitz Walk. From the war memorial in Northwood Park to Northwood Cemetery.
4pm: Northwood Cemetery, Cowes Rededication ceremony of the refurbished communal war grave.
7pm-11pm: 1940s Dance at East Cowes Town Hall. Period dress encouraged.
Tickets £5 available from The Heritage Centre, Flix Hairdressers East Cowes or on the door.
Sunday 8 May
12noon: Short remembrance ceremony at Francki Place, Cowes. Cowes Parade Commemoration 1.30pm: 80th Anniversary Ceremony of the defence of Cowes and East Cowes. Inauguration of the new Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Cowes in the presence of Poland’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The Royal British Legion Band will play in support at the Cowes Parade.