On the 25th of November, 1939, at 23:00, the Piłsudski left the port embarking on her first war mission. Following the order, she was to meet up with the Sobieski first and then head for Australia to pick up the first contingent of soldiers. The ship followed the route mapped out by the British generals, without any back-up, because the course was supposed to be safe. It was, indeed, until 5:36.
|1||Capitain||Stankiewicz Mamert +|
|2||Chief officer/Chief mate||Borchardt Karol Olgierd|
|3||II (the second) officer||Michalski Jan|
|4||III (the third) officer||Żelazowski Romuald|
|5||III (the third) officer||Sznage Jan|
|6||IV (the fourth) officer||Czarowicz Marian|
|7||IV (the fourth) officer||Obtułowicz Andrzej|
|13||Senior sailor||Dakowski Wiesław|
|14||Senior sailor||Frey Paweł|
|15||Senior sailor||Leszczak Marian|
|16||Senior sailor||Jóźwicki Henryk|
|17||Senior sailor||Olszewski Czesław|
|18||Senior sailor||Prugar Władysław|
|19||Senior sailor||Przesmycki Kazimierz|
|20||Senior sailor||Roznowski Zbigniew|
|21||Senior sailor||Tyliszczak Piotr|
|22||Senior sailor||Żukowski Jerzy|
|23||Senior sailor||Zyber Władysław|
|24||Junior sailor||Barczewski Zbigniew|
|25||Junior sailor||Buchert Stanisław|
|26||Junior sailor||Głowacki Zygmunt|
|27||Junior sailor||Łątkiewicz Tadeusz|
|28||Junior sailor||Łosiński Stanisław|
|29||Junior sailor||Marejko Michał|
|30||Junior sailor||Milenuszkin Walenty|
|31||Junior sailor||Pinno Jerzy|
|32||Junior sailor||Przybylski Mieczysław|
|33||Junior sailor||Radzikowski Wincenty|
|34||Junior sailor||Śliwiński Feliks|
|35||Junior sailor||Skupny Józef|
|36||Deck boy||Łopatyński Cezary|
|37||Deck boy||Siewert Konrad|
|39||Chief radio officer||Strzeliński Maksymilian|
|40||II (the second) radio officer||Zieliński Jerzy|
|41||III (the third) radio officer||Kaspruk Stanisław|
|42||Senior mechanic||Bełczowski Józef|
|43||Chief engineer||Kaczorowski Adolf|
|44||II (the second) engineer||Tychoniewicz Kazimierz|
|45||III (the third) engineer||Szozda Bolesław|
|46||IV (the fourth) engineer||Piotrowski Tadeusz +|
|48||Electrician assistant||Jabłoński Antoni|
|49||Electrician assistant||Klimaszewski Kazimierz|
|50||First assistant engineer||Freyer Ludwik|
|51||First assistant engineer||Klisowski Ludwok|
|52||First assistant engineer||Kuhrke Brunon|
|53||First assistant engineer||Lesisz Tadeusz|
|54||First assistant engineer||Leszczak Stanisław|
|55||First assistant engineer||Marczewski Józef|
|56||First assistant engineer||Bielecki Jan|
|57||First assistant engineer||Mikulin Bronisław|
|58||First assistant engineer||Opecki Roman|
|59||First assistant engineer||Pokrop Franciszek|
|60||First assistant engineer||Szymański Józef|
|61||Engine operator||Chmiela Franciszek|
|62||Engine operator||Kmiecik Feliks|
|63||Engine operator||Michalak Stefan|
|64||Engine operator||Radwański Leon|
|65||Engine operator||Sochal Michał|
|66||Engine operator||Turkiewicz Aleksander|
|67||Engine operator||Tutlewski Józef|
|68||Engine operator||Wójcik Mieczysław|
|69||Junior engine operator||Nowak Józef|
|70||Junior engine operator||Pyszka Marian|
|72||Hospital hand||Antoniewicz Stanisław|
|73||Nutritionist caterer||Jaworski Marian|
|74||Nutritionist caterer assistant||Szczerbiński Jerzy|
|75||Nutritionist caterer assistant||Marchwicki Marcin|
|76||Senior butler||Grabowski Wacław|
|77||II (the second) butler||izydorczyk Stefan|
|78||Food and beverages officer||Hrycakiewicz Tadeusz|
|79||Victuals assistant||Nalaskowski Waldemar|
|80||Chief cook||Kawko Stanisław|
|85||Junior cook||Sułkowski Stanisław|
|86||Cutlery and crockery man||Wierzbowski Wiktor|
|87||Cutlery and crockery assistant||Urbaniak józef|
|91||Bread cutter||Czupowski Henryk|
|93||Butcher assistant||Średziński Kazimierz|
|95||Kitchen boy||Bogaciński Józef|
|96||Kitchen boy||Bruzi Edward|
|97||Kitchen boy||Drespa Kazimierz|
|98||Kitchen boy||Kreft Augustyn|
|99||Kitchen boy||Łapka Marian|
|100||Kitchen boy||Podkocki Zdzisław|
|101||Kitchen boy||Pogletko Antoni|
|102||Kitchen boy||Radwan Franciszek|
|103||Kitchen boy||Rientz Paweł|
|104||Kitchen boy||Zastawny Leon|
|105||Kitchen boy||Ziębowicz Aleksander|
|106||Senior steward||Szymkiewicz Stanisław|
|140||Junior steward||Perz Marian|
|141||Junior steward||Wojas Sylwester|
|145||Kitchen boy||Stanka Antoni|
|146||Kitchen boy||Wesołowski Tadeusz|
|147||Kitchen boy||Szymerowski Alojzy|
|148||Kitchen boy||Bieniaszczyk Jan|
|149||Kitchen boy||Stołowczyk Antoni|
|150||Kitchen boy||Grajewski Kazimierz|
|151||Kitchen boy||Niemczyk Mieczysław|
|152||Kitchen boy||Kosny Stanisław|
|153||Kitchen boy||Grabowski Jan|
The departure was planned for 20:00. The ocean liner left the Newcastle pier accompanied by two tugboats and a pilot onboard with a 3-hour delay caused by the absence of a large group of the crew who didn’t make it to the ship in time for departure. The last few of the crew had to be delivered to the Piłsudski by the port tugboat while she was moving down the Tyne. After the pilot was turned over and the towing lines cast in the roadstead, the ship set sail for Australia.
During Piłsudski’s first military mission there were 160 crew members and 21 Polish officers and navy troops onboard the ship, to be later transferred to the Polish troop carrier MS Sobieski. Both ships were to continue in the same convoy to Fremantle, Australia. The plans called for Piłsudski to then pick up a military contingent in New Zealand and bring it to Europe.
Great Britain, near Flamborough Head,
the area where MS Piłsudski had sunk.
At 5:36 the first explosion shook the ship and 15 seconds later the liner received the second blow. Both were on the Portside: at the bow and centre hull. The drama unfolded 29 nautical miles southeast of Flamborough Head, 53°49ʹ03ʺN 0°34ʹ01ʺE. Most of the crew members left the ship in lifeboats. MS Piłsudski, the pride of the Second Republic of Poland sank into the waters of the North Sea at 10:30 AM, November 26, 1939.
On November 26, 1939, I took up the watch duty on the bridge at 4:00. At 4:20 we went past the Flamborough light house 5 miles east following the 139° at the speed of 19.5 knots.
The weather: moonlit night with scattered clouds and precipitations, air and water temperature 12°C, sea conditions: 4,5.
At the captain’s order, who at 4:20, after passing the Flamborough lighthouse, went down to his cabin to rest, we were sailing with the lights out, turning them on only when passing other ships. There was an ‘eye’ on the bow and another one on the mast. On the bridge, on the port side stood Assistant Przesmycki. I was standing on the starboard side.
At 5:36, when I entered the control room for a moment to turn on the lights for the ship sailing in the opposite direction on the starboard side, I felt a powerful shock and an explosion at the bow, on the port side. It was followed by another explosion, 10 to 15 seconds later, at what seemed as mid-ship, in the engine area. The ship began to quickly lean to port side as if tending to capsize. The engines stopped, all lights went off. At that moment the captain rushed on the bridge and ordered disembarkation.
I tried to engage the alarm sounds, but they did not function, damaged by the explosions. I started calling up the crew, who, shocked by the explosions, started coming up on the deck to board the life boats. The captain walked over to the stern. I grabbed a life belt from my cabin and boarded the motor boat A. The First Mechanic Kaczorowski, the Third Officer Żelazowski, and other scheduled crew members followed me there.
Most of the people had already been on the water. Having ascertained that no one else was showing up in response to my calls, I, myself, lowered the motor boat on the water with difficulty caused by the heavy leaning of the ship on the port side. I had to get in the water up to my waist. After many strenuous attempts, I was finally able to start the motor, when the anti-torpedo boat arrived to rescue and we were still drifting on the waves. After the redundant members of the crew boarded the anti-torpedo boat, we towed the motorboat B to it and boarded it.
I have to stress, that all that time everyone on the launch had shown calm and self-control.
Dnia 26 listopada 1939 r. objąłem wachtę na mostku o godz. 4.00. O godz. 4.20 minęliśmy latarnię Flamborough w odległości 5 mil na wschód, idąc kursem 139° z szybkością 19 ½ węzła.
Pogoda: noc księżycowa o przelotnym zachmurzeniu i opadach, wiatr SW 5, temperatura powietrza i wody 12°C, stan morza 4,5.
Na zlecenie kapitana, który o godz. 4.20, po minięciu latarni Flamborough, zszedł do swojej kabiny, aby odpocząć, szliśmy bez świateł, zapalając je jedynie przy mijaniu statków. „Oko” było wystawione na dziobie i na maszcie: z lewej strony na mostku stał asystent Przesmycki, ja stałem z prawej burty.
Gdy wszedłem o godz. 5.36 na chwilę do sterówki, aby zapalić światła dla pokazania ich statkowi idącemu kontrkursem z prawej burty, poczułem silny wstrząs i wybuch na dziobie z lewej burty. Po upływie 10-15 sekund, nastąpił drugi wybuch, jak miałem wrażenie, na śródokręciu, w okolicy maszyn. Statek zaczął się szybko przechylać na lewą burtę i robił wrażenie, jakby miał tendencję do wywrócenia się. Motory stanęły wszystkie światła zgasły. W tym momencie wpadł kapitan na mostek i zarządził opuszczenie statku.
Starałem się uruchomić dzwonki alarmowe, które jednak uszkodzone przez wstrząsy nie działały. Zacząłem wobec tego wołać do załogi, która zaalarmowana przez eksplozję, samorzutnie wyszła na pokład, aby wsiadać do łodzi. Kapitan udał się na rufę. Ja, wziąwszy z kabiny pas ratunkowy, poszedłem do motorówki „A”, do której nadeszli I mechanik Kaczorowski, III oficer Żelazowski i inni przewidziani rozkładem członkowie załogi.
Większość ludzi była już na wodzie. Przekonawszy się, że nikt więcej, pomimo wołania nie nadchodzi, opuściłem osobiście motorówkę na wodę, co było bardzo utrudnione, gdyż statek leżał na lewej burcie mocno przechylony. Sam zszedłem do talii. Motor dało się uruchomić dopiero po intensywnych usiłowaniach, gdy nadszedł kontrtorpedowiec na ratunek. W międzyczasie dryfowaliśmy na fali. Po wysadzeniu niepotrzebnych członków załogi na kontrtorpedowiec, przyholowaliśmy do niego motorówkę „B” i sami weszliśmy na pokład.
Pragnę podkreślić, że przez cały czas wszyscy w szalupie wykazywali spokój i opanowanie.
I got awoken by a powerful rumble and shock. In a daze, I lowered my bare feet from my high bunk. Portholes were blacked out with paint, so inside the cabin it was completely dark. I reached out for the switch and turned it — no light. At that very moment, very close, right underneath — another explosion! The ship shook and swirled, things were falling off from above. I feared the ceiling was falling on my head. In the first reaction, I cowered. The engines had stopped working, there was dead silence, interrupted only by the delayed clang of things falling from above, less and less frequently, and, suddenly I hear the waterfall rumble — water rushing into something — and that sound was the most terrifying. With a jolt, I rushed forward and down to the hallway door. There, I came to my senses realizing I had only my shirt on. I rushed back, pulled my trousers and jacket off the hook and put them on. I bent down for my shoes but instead, all I could feel with my hands was rubble - pieces of the sink, an overturned chair, drawers, scattered books…. no shoes, so I bolted down the hallway barefoot. It felt as if the ship was leaning more and more. I kept hearing the swoosh of waterfall not knowing where it was coming from: above or below. Are we still on the water surface or below? Now and then I get hit in the head by open doors, I pull pieces of glass from my feet. I don’t feel any pain, anything. Only blood pastes my toes together. I race headlong into the void of the main hallway. I have to cut diagonally toward the deck stairs. (…) I lose sense of direction in this pitch-blackness. I don’t know which way to go through this terrible heap of rubble. Finally, I somehow, I hit a door knob, I turn it, but the door to the deck doesn’t open. I’m pulling on it, yanking—to no avail. I give in. In apathy, I move along the wall and, in a while, I find myself in an empty space: a large parlor, a row of large rectangular windows, the night sky showing through. Curtains are flapping in the gale. A puff of fresh air. FREEDOM! I rush to the closest window. Shards of broken glass are sticking from the frame. Without thinking, I put the cork belt on the frame and dive head-on. I fall on the deck without a slightest scratch. (…) In a rush of calm, I move on to look for my launch number three.
The rescue to the shipwrecked people came about two hours later, when the British destroyer took 103 of them onboard. Another 68 were picked up by a nearby fishing ship. Tragically, Mamert Stankiewicz, the captain, collected from a waterflooded raft, died from exhaustion and hyperthermia. Another casualty, Tadeusz Piotrowski, the fourth mechanic, fell overboard during the evacuation. All the other members of the crew were rescued. Luckily, senior officer Karol Olgierd Borchardt, who was later to become a famous writer, also survived despite a heavy head injury he sustained during the evacuation.
The saved sailors of the sunken ship MS Piłsudski;
radio photographs from the private collection of Grzegorz Rogowski
“The ship will capsize any moment now”, I told the captain. “We’ll run to the stern, jump in the water and swim to the nearest lifeboat.”
“I prefer the raft,” said the captain. “I don’t want to jump.”
I understood the captain. He preferred to get hold of something concrete rather than jump and count on the storm wave to help us reach a launch. I had no idea what time it was and how long we would need to hold on to the raft in the icy water. If I manage to reach the launch, I’ll try to find the raft with the captain who might float off with it when the ship capsizes. So I did not insist that the captain jump with me.
We shook hands.
The launch was nearby and so I gathered I’d easily swim over to it despite thethe rough sea. So far everything seemed simple and easy. I only needed to hurry to reach the boat before the ship keels over. Within a moment I was overboard clutching the pole with my legs. Then I felt it was crushing me to the deck. Fainting, I felt I was falling down. Something hit me in the head. It turned quiet and dark.
I was beaten, on the hands, legs and head. I was splashed with water. The water seemed pouring on my face incessantly. At times I couldn’t catch a breath. When I started choking, I opened my eyes. I couldn’t make out anything. I only felt I was rising in the dark only to fall down again. I was soaking wet. My head, my legs, my whole body was beating against something hard, something rough. I came to. I was lying on the bow of a launch. Slowly, I began to realize what had happened: a huge wave shoved the boat onto the lower part of the pole I was sliding down on toward the water. I was levered to the board with huge force. Pain made me lose consciousness and fall on the bow of the launch hitting her deck with my head. Somehow, luckily for me, the sweeping waves had not washed me off the boat.
“When we lowered the launches, only four of us remained on the ship: the captain, the two of us, deck hands, and Kawka, the kitchen chef. The captain ordered the raft to be lowered. He was the first one to jump on it. Kawka was hesitant—we couldn’t talk him into jumping. The waves kept splashing over us. The captain was losing strength and now and then sinking into the water. We tried do hold him up. The captain talked and kept thanking us.
The torpedo boat crew saw us and approached right away. They dropped the line. My colleague grabbed it first. Then I did. The captain was too exhausted and couldn’t. He stayed, but he sank down and started drowning. Then one of the Englishmen jumped in the water and caught him. I don’t knowwhat followed. Perhaps you, gentlemen, saw the captain?” At that point I heard a voice behind me. It was the senior officer. “Doctor, do you know this man?” He showed me a sheet of paper with the name Mamert Stankiewicz written on it. “Of course I know him—he’s our captain, I said.” “Then this is the man you tried to save on the lower deck.” “Possible!” I sprang to my feet. How could they all not recognize him? The Englishman and I ran out onto the deck. The boat was heavily leaning and cutting storm waves. The huge waves were threatening to wash us overboard. Holding on to the lines we moved slowly along the wall toward the stern. There, hidden from the squall, lay a corpse covered with a white sheet. The officer pulled the corner of the shroud and I saw the changed, inscrutable face of Mamert Stankiewicz. Death brought back his features.
A strange twist of fate linked the ship and the one who built her: captain Mamert Stankiewicz. The captain had left for the eternal watch along with the ship. Once, he was the only man to make the first step toward the creation of the Polish Maritime League. As the first head of the Navigation Department of the Marine School in Tczew, he saved for the school the “Lwów”, a black barque, by making sure that the vessel would work for her keep. Thus, on June 3, 1922, the “Lwów” embarked on a voyage from Gdansk to Birkenhead with timber for railroad ties.
Mamert Stankiewicz was, in turn, the captain of every purchased or newly built vessel: the steam ships: “Wilno”, “Premier”, “Niemen”, “Pułaski”, “Polonia”, and the motor ship “Piłsudski“. From the cemetery in Hartlepool where Mamert Stankiewicz is burried, one can see on the horizon the waters above his sunken ship. The plaque above the captain’s grave says that he was, posthumously, awarded the highest military distinction: Virtuti Millitari.
To this day there is no unequivocally stated cause of the Piłsudski sinking. It is not known if it was the result of the actions of an unknown submarine or of magnetic mines. The official version announced at the session of the War Cabinet on November 27, 1939, stated that the ship was torpedoed. This version of the events was also publicized by the German press. Today however the most plausible explanation seems to be that the liner went over two magnetic mines planted a week earlier by German destroyers. Considering that the sea where the Piłsudski had sunk is shallow, the probability of this version of events is high.
A magnetic mine pulled up near the coastline of Great Britain;
the photo from the collection of the Imperial War Museum.
A map of the German destroyers’ mine planting operations along England’s coastline in October-November, 1939,
based on the drawing by Przemysław Fedorowicz; “Okręty Wojenne” (The Navy Ships) nr 4/2010
The mines were most likely planted on the night of November 18 by the German destroyers Erich Steinbrinck, Hans Lody, and Friedrich Eckoldt.
In total, they caused 7 ships to sink, MS Piłsudski* being the largest and the most valuable of them.
The version about the mines is confirmed by German, English, and French sources (based on the analyses of the archives left behind by Kriegsmarine in Paris) and by the latest Polish publications focused on the history of the Polish navigation and the WWII at sea.**
* Pierre Hervieux, Mine Planting Operations of the German Destroyers Along the English Coastline 1939—1940, [in] “Okręty Wojenne” (The Navy Ships) 4/2000.
**Bohdan Huras, Marek Twardowski, Księga statków polskich (The Book of Polish Ships) 1918—1945, volume 3; Witold Koszela, Polskie statki pasażerskie (Polish Passenger Ships).
According to the secondhypethesis, MS Piłsudski was torpedoed by a German U-Boot. That view was wide-spread during and soon after WWII.
Cpt. Karol Olgierd Borchardt and cpt. Stanisław A. Sobiś, both have addressed the subject. “It would be less likely, Sobiś said, for the two mines to explode on the port side of the hull, with a regularity characteristic of a torpedo attack.” However, the preserved documents do not confirm the presence of any enemy submarines in the vicinity of the liner’s sinking on that day. No confirmation of that supposition can be found in the ever meticulous German sources which were always eager to announce a military success like the sinking of the enemy’s ship.
The animations of the underwater world used in this platform are artistic visions and do not represent the real wreckage or its surroundings.
In reality, after the war, the Piłsudski wreckage was broken into several pieces to remove navigational hazards. They now rest on the sea bottom. Besides, the underwater visibility in that location is very poor which makes the use of the original film material in this story impracticable.
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