The Polish Navy destroyer ORP Orkan underway on the Clyde – Imperial War Museum
The Clydebank Blitz and the Polish Navy
Great Britain was one of four countries where the Polish army was recreated ‘in exile’, after the initial defeat in 1939 against Germany and USSR. Without any doubt, it was a great gift to the Poles – a chance to start their fight again, as it was said in those days, ‘ for your freedom and ours’. In 1940, the Scottish Lowlands were chosen to become a hub area for Polish military camps. Polish soldiers repaid British hospitality in many ways. The valuable contribution made by the Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain, or the Polish Intelligence in solving the Secret of Enigma is undisputable. There were also plenty of stories of great local significance that are not often covered by mainstream British TV channels. This is the story of probably the most dramatic event in Scotland’s WWII – the Clydebank Blitz.
London was a primary target for the Luftwaffe offensive in 1941, although throughout the period other large industrial centres and ports became the goals of bombing raids. One of them was Clydebank and, amongst others, its John Brown dockyard which was a point of launching battleships, cruisers and destroyers.
The merciless raids started on the 13th of March 1941 with 236 bombers attacking the Clydebank. The scale of horror and devastation caused can be described by the figures: the first raid lasted continuously for eight hours, and the following day for another seven hours. Only seven houses were left undamaged, about 1000 Clyders were killed, and another 1000 seriously injured (figures vary depending on source of information).
Those two days of horror have been called the Clydebank Blitz. It was the only event during the Second World War in Scotland which involved civilians in such scale and caused such a significant number of casualties.
The Clyders were certainly not passive during the attack. The Rescue Parties (some of them on continuous duty for three days) and civilians made an heroic fight to minimize losses. Night fighters (planes used to fight during the night), barrage balloons (amongst others, a Polish barrage balloon unit) and anti-aircraft (Ack-Ack) guns were all employed. ORP Piorun (Thunderbolt), a Polish Navy destroyer, also played a significant role in the Clydebank defence. Dr MacPhail who was a principal teacher at the Clydebank’s High School and who personally experienced the Blitz wrote in his book:
‘On neither raid did the Germans report the loss of a plane due to Ack-Ack fire, although the guns must have helped to keep the German planes at a fair altitude and to shorten their stay over the target area. No one who lived through the ‘Blitz’ in Clydebank seems likely to forget the terrific barrage on the first night from Ack-Ack guns on a Polish destroyer which happened to be in John Brown’s dock for repairs at that time. The Polish gun crews may well have emptied their magazines as some of the observers reported and it is possible that their fire did help to protect John’s Brown shipyard itself, which came off comparatively lightly.(…) The second night Ack-Ack defences were regarded by Germans and Clydebank people
Ironically, despite the hundreds of tonnes of explosives dropped on Clydebank, the Luftwaffe’s goal of destroying the industrial part of Clydebank with an emphasis on the John Brown dockyard was not achieved. The shipyards were working at almost pre-attack level in just few days after the raids.
Destroyer ORP Piorun was one of several ships that formed the Polish Navy. She was not built in Poland though. Before she joined the Polish Navy she was called HMS Nerissa. She was constructed in the very John Brown dockyard at Clydebank that she later defended.
Piorun was a famous ship. Her biggest success was the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. She was the first ship that sighted and got into fire contact (and considering the size of Bismarck, it was rather symbolic contact) with the battleship. The crew transmitted the exact position to the pursuing ships. It was a big deal for the British Navy, who engaged all ships from the area in the hunt for Bismarck – 20 destroyers, two battleships, three battle cruisers, an aircraft carrier… You can imagine it was not a lucky day for Bismarck. Well, it was rather her last day.
The above are only two episodes describing the involvement of the Polish Navy (and actually, just one ship) in the Defence of British Isles. The subject is well described by Skinder Suchcitz in papers from the Home Front Recall conference. To summarise, the small but modern Polish Navy entered the port of Leith in August 1939 and were placed under the operational command of the British dmiralty. During the next six years of duty, it expanded to a number of destroyers (some of them built in Scotland), submarines, cruisers, motor and torpedo boats and number of various auxiliary crafts. Apart from the hunt for the Bismarck, it participated in many operations during the war, of which a few of the most famous were Narvick, Dunkirk, Lofoten Islands, Tobruk, the Murmansk convoys, the Landings in Normandy and many others.
At the end of the war The First Lord of Admiralty expressed his appreciation of the Royal Navy towards their comrades by writing to the Head of Polish Navy Adm. Świrski: ”I know how much all ranks of the Royal Navy have admired the prowess of the Polish sailors and how glad they are to have had them as comrades in the hard fight against tyranny.”
“The Clydebank Blitz” I.M.M MacPhail ISBN 0953773620
“Polish forces in Defence of British Isles 1939-1945” – ISBN 0-95432-170-7
“Polish War Graves in Scotland – A testament to the past” Robert M Ostrycharz – ISBN 1 872286 48 8