Polish veteran – one of the last men still alive to see Bismarck defeat – honoured by British sailors

Trying out the helmsman’s chair on board patrol boat HMS Example is former sailor Richard Polanski - one of the last men still alive to see Hitler’s flagship Bismarck in its death throes.
Trying out the helmsman’s chair on board patrol boat HMS Example is former sailor Richard Polanski – one of the last men still alive to see Hitler’s flagship Bismarck in its death throes.

As a headline of recent Royal Navy’s news release says: “Polish naval veteran sets a magnificent Example for patrol boat crew”. This was the case, when the 96-year-old was guest of honour while the Northumbria Universities boat visited the tiny Scottish port of Wick during her Easter deployment.   The nonagenarian was accompanied by four generations of his family plus a substantial number of veterans from the town’s RBL branch – all enthralled by the remarkable life and naval career of Mr Polanski.

Mr Richard Polanski was born in Poland but fled his homeland when the Germans and Soviets invaded, eventually reaching Britain.

Determined to fight for his country’s freedom, he joined the Free Polish Navy as a gunner, helping to evacuate troops from Dunkirk in the spring of 1940 aboard the destroyer ORP Burza.

By the following spring he had transferred to the new destroyer ORP Piorun which became the first vessel to encounter the Bismarck during its final battle on the morning of May 26 1941 (the battleship had been crippled the previous evening by a torpedo strike from Swordfish bombers).

Closed up in the forward turret with its 4.7in guns, Mr Polanski engaged the mighty German flagship – armed with 15in guns – as the Piorun charged at Bismarck.

The two ship traded shells for a good hour – without either side scoring a hit. When Bismarck’s shells landed just 20 yards away, the destroyer decided to break off the action.

Mr Polanski was subsequently assigned to destroyer ORP Kujawiak on Malta convoy duties running the gauntlet of Axis air and sea attacks. Her luck ran out in June 1942 when she hit a mine near Malta and sank with the loss of 13 crew.

He would have been drafted to the destroyer Orkan but bad weather prevented him joining her by transfer. A few days later she was torpedoed on convoy duties in the Atlantic; three quarters of her crew were killed.

At the war’s end, the Pole found he could not safely return home; his birthplace Lvov was now in the Ukraine, part of Soviet Union, while Communists had taken charge of Poland – relatives warned Richard that he would be shot if he set foot back in the country.

Instead, he met Joyce Burns Rosie in Glasgow, and settled down with her in Scotland.

On Apil 7, the CO of HMS Example had the privilege of presenting a Royal Navy beret to Richard Polanski, a 96 yr old WW2 veteran. He will be wearing the beret in a couple of weeks for ANZAC Day, in Australia.
On Apil 7, the CO of HMS Example had the privilege of presenting a Royal Navy beret to Richard Polanski, a 96 yr old WW2 veteran. He will be wearing the beret in a couple of weeks for ANZAC Day, in Australia.

Seventy years later, and the Polish-born Scot is a very active member of the RBL – so active that he’s due to fly to Australia later this month to take part in the country’s ANZAC Day commemorations.

Example’s crew decided the veteran needed some appropriate headgear, so before leaving Mr Polanski was presented with a beret and cap badge.

“The words ‘Thank you’ just don’t seem to do justice to how much we owe Richard and all other veterans who have fought for this country and their own,” said Example’s CO Lt Duncan Napier.

“His story is a unique one, demonstrating the bravery and sacrifice he and many others made during the dark days of the 1940s.

“I’m glad we could put a smile on his face by presenting him with a small token of appreciation from the Royal Navy.”

OC Emma added: “The importance of recognising Mr Polanksi’s service cannot be overstated and we were honoured to be a part of the events recognising his service during the war.”

After the presentation on the ship, a reception was held ashore in honour of Richard and his family, organised by the RBL and the local council, to which Example’s crew and students were invited.

rel (Royal Navy)

Photos: Royal Navy

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