Cowes and East Cowes gathered together over the weekend to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the defence of the towns by the Polish destroyer, ORP Blyskawica, during World War II.
On May 4/5, 1942, the destroyer, built in the local shipyard of J S White, was docked there for a refit, and the crew defended the towns from two waves of Luftwaffe bombers. Although the towns suffered the loss of 70 civilians and extensive destruction of homes and industry along the River Medina, without the bravery of the Polish warship’s crew the losses would have been much greater.
The event is commemorated annually by The Friends of the ORP Blyskawica Society, which, this year, hosted a series of celebrations, including concerts and exhibitions. Guests included the Polish Ambassador, Prof. Piotr Wilczek, consul-general, Mateusz Stasiek, and other Polish and local dignitaries.
Special guests were five descendants of the crew of ORP Blyskawica, as well as centenarian Major Otton Hulacki from Wootton, a co-founder of the society in 1997 with president, Geoff Banks.
The festivities began on Thursday with the arrival of the Polish Navy’s ORP Wodnik in Cowes, where she anchored until departing on Sunday. Throughout the weekend she provided a welcome backcloth to events and entertained guests.
In East Cowes’ King’s Square, a plaque was unveiled by descendants of Capt Francki. The East Cowes Heritage Centre opened an exhibition centred on the carnage from the blitz and those who lost their lives.
The East Cowes Blitz Walk saw scores of people make their way through the town with points of destruction identified, to Kingston Cemetery for a memorial service held for those interred in the communal war grave.
A welcome reception was hosted at the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes, by Vice Lord-Lieutenant, Brigadier Maurice Sheen, when guests from the Polish Navy, Poland’s Embassy, local civic dignitaries and officers of the society attended. This was followed by a piano recital from Eva Maria Doroszkowska, granddaughter of Capt Francki, playing pieces from a repertoire of Polish composers including Chopin.
On Friday, East Cowes Town Hall hosted a ‘Never forgotten Polish and English Music’ evening with the Medina Marching Band and Katy Carr.
The following day an exhibition was held at Northwood Cemetery by The Friends of Northwood Cemetery and a ‘Cowes Blitz Walk’ took place from Northwood Park to the cemetery, with around 100 people hearing descriptions of the aerial attacks and the devastation and tragic human loss. The communal war grave there was then rededicated, with wreaths laid by the officers of ORP Blyskawica where, in Gdynia, in Poland, she is now berthed as a floating museum.
There was also a performance in King’s Square, East Cowes, by the Little Karpaty Dancers and the Karolinka Dancers who gave a colourful and spectacular display of traditional Polish dances and music, supported by a Polish food market. Later, a 1940’s dance was held in East Cowes Town Hall as well a special dinner organised by the society at the Royal London Yacht Club.
Sunday began with the laying of wreaths at Francki Place, Cowes, led by the society’s chairman, Dr Chris Magier. The closing ceremony was held on the bandstand at Cowes Parade where Cowes Royal British Legion Band provided support. The ceremony was led by Dr Magier, with a service conducted by Fr Redvers Harris. The closing speech was given by the society’s president, Geoff Banks.