History and museums
ORP Błyskawica is a Grom-class destroyer which served in the Polish Navy during World War II and is the only ship of the Polish Navy awarded the Virtuti Militari medal. It is preserved as a museum ship in Gdynia, and is the oldest preserved destroyer in the world.
She was the second of two Grom-class destroyers, built for the Polish Navy by J. Samuel White, Cowes in 1935–37. The Polish word błyskawica translates to lightning, while her sister ship, Grom, translates to thunderclap. The Grom class were two of the most heavily armed and fastest destroyers during World War II.
In 1934, the British shipbuilder J. Samuel White won a competition to design and build large destroyers for the Polish Navy, beating a proposal from fellow British shipbuilder Swan Hunter. (A design by the French shipyard Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire had been rejected in 1933). An order for two destroyers of the Grom class was placed on 29 March 1935.
At the time of their construction, the Groms were amongst the fastest and most heavily armed destroyers to be built. Błyskawica was 114 metres (374 ft 0 in) long overall and 109 metres (357 ft 7 in) between perpendiculars, with a beam of 11.3 metres (37 ft 1 in) and a draught of 3.1 metres (10 ft 2 in). Displacement was 2,011 long tons (2,043 t) standard and 2,520 long tons (2,560 t) full load. Three 3-drum boilers fed steam to two sets of geared steam turbines which were rated at 54,500 shaft horsepower (40,600 kW), driving two propeller shafts to give a design speed of 39 knots (72 km/h; 45 mph). Main gun armament consisted of seven 120 mm (5 in) guns (50 calibre M34/36 guns supplied by Bofors of Sweden) in three twin and one single mounts, with an anti-aircraft armament of two twin Bofors 40 mm guns and eight 13.2 mm machine guns. Six 550 mm (22 in) torpedo tubes were carried, compatible with the French torpedoes used by the preceding Wicher-class destroyers. Anti-submarine armament consisted of two depth charge chutes with 40 depth charges, while rails were fitted to permit up to 44 mines to be carried. The ship's complement consisted of 180 officers and men.
Błyskawica, the second of the two destroyers, was laid down on 1 October 1935 at J. Samuel White's Cowes, Isle of Wight shipyard, and was launched on 1 October 1936. Sea trials were successful, with the ship exceeding the design speed of 39 knots. Błyskawica was commissioned on 1 October 1937.
When Błyskawica and Grom arrived in the United Kingdom in September 1939, it was found that the ships, designed for operations in the sheltered Baltic, were top heavy for operations in the rougher North Atlantic, so the ships were modified to reduce topweight. A searchlight tower on top of the ship's bridge was removed, as was a deck house aft carrying a second searchlight, and the distinctive funnel cap. In addition, the aft set of torpedo tubes was removed to allow fitting of a 76 mm (3 in) anti-aircraft gun. In December 1941, Błyskawica was rearmed, with the 120 mm guns replaced by four twin 102 mm (4 in) Mk XVI dual-purpose guns. The 13.2 mm machine guns were replaced by four Oerlikon 20 mm cannon and the second set of torpedo tubes were reinstated.
Two days before the war, on 30 August 1939, Błyskawica withdrew, along with the destroyers Grom and Burza, from the Baltic Sea to Britain in accordance with the Peking Plan to avoid open conflict with Germany and possible destruction. Although the three destroyers were sighted by German warships, including the cruiser Königsberg on 30 and 31 August, hostilities had not yet commenced, and the Polish destroyers passed by unhindered, reaching Leith in Scotland at 17:30 on 1 September 1939. From then on they acted in tandem with the Royal Navy's Home Fleet. On 7 September 1939, Błyskawica made contact with and attacked a U-boat from the German navy.
In early May 1940, Błyskawica took part in the Norwegian Campaign, shelling German positions and downing two Luftwaffe aircraft. Her sister ship Grom was bombed and sunk during the campaign. Later that month, she took part in covering Operation Dynamo, the successful Franco-British evacuation from Dunkirk.
During the rest of the war, Błyskawica took part in convoy and patrol duties, engaging both U-boats and the Luftwaffe in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In 1941 her 120 mm guns were replaced with British 102 mm (4 in) dual-purpose guns. The ship was also given escort duties for troop transports, notably RMS Queen Mary, being one of the few ships that could keep up with the liner.
On the night of 4–5 May 1942, Błyskawica was instrumental in defending the Isle of Wight town of Cowes from an air raid by 160 German bombers. The ship was undergoing an emergency refit at the J. Samuel White yard where she was built and, on the night of the raid, fired repeated rounds at the German bombers from outside the harbour, her guns becoming so hot they had to be doused with water. Extra ammunition had to be ferried over from Portsmouth. This forced the bombers to stay high, making it hard for them to target properly. The ship also laid down a smokescreen hiding Cowes from sight. While the town and the shipyard were badly damaged, it is generally thought that without this defensive action, it would have been far worse. In 2002 the crew's courage was honoured by a local commemoration lasting several days to mark the 60th anniversary of the event. In 2004 an area of Cowes was named Francki Place in honour of the ship's commander. The Isle of Wight Council has approved the idea of having Błyskawica return to Cowes in 2012 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the event and 75 years since the ship's commissioning.
In March 1943 Błyskawica replaced HMS Lightning, which was sunk by E-boats on 12 March 1943, in Cruiser Force Q based at Bône, North Africa. On 8 June 1944, Błyskawica took part in the Battle of Ushant against Kriegsmarine destroyers.
During the war, she logged 146,000 nautical miles (270,000 km) and escorted eighty-three convoys. In combat she damaged three U-boats, helped sinking other ships and shot down at least four aircraft.
In late 1945 and early 1946 Błyskawica, along with the destroyer HMS Onslow, took part in Operation Deadlight, the scuttling of over 100 German U-boats.
In July 2006 the preserved Canadian destroyer HMCS Haida was "twinned" with Błyskawica in a ceremony in Gdynia, Poland. Both ships served in the 10th Destroyer Flotilla during the Second World War. The ceremony was attended by former crew members of both ships and the general public. The ship was visited in 2009 by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and on 29 June 2010, at Government House in Nova Scotia, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, presented to representatives of HMCS Haida the World Ship Trust Certificate.