For whom the bell tolls


No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, XVII


Henryk Rutkowski Ship’s Bell, 1992

It was May 1992. I had come to Swanage for a short family holiday and to check out its railways.

Swanage actually has two railways. The best known is the Swanage Railway which was built by George Burt and opened in 1885. Since 1972, the line been the subject of a railway project to run heritage trains and to provide a community service linking with the main line at Wareham. Sadly, while the first objective was achieved some 30 years ago, the second, while seemingly tantalisingly close, remains just out of reach.

Swanage’s other line is the Swanage Pier tramway, a short narrow gauge line built by Burt’s uncle John Mowlem and opened in 1858. As originally planned, the line would have connected the stone quarries at Langton Matravers to the original pier in Swanage, a distance of some 3 km. A balanced inclined plane, similar to that employed on the Merchant’s Railway in the Isle of Portland, would have been built to overcome the 400 ft height difference. Sadly, the staid burghers of Swanage would have none of this, and donkey and horse-drawn carts remained the standard means of bringing stone down from the quarries to the Swanage quayside. All that was built was a short length of single track line connecting two sidings in a stone yard called ‘The Bankers’ to a double track section on the old pier. Halfway along the line a short branch ran into a fish processing building. Though this line has been out of use for nearly 80 years most of the rail is still in place, set in the promenade running from a terrace of houses called ‘The Parade’ up as far as the pier ticket office.

At this stage, regular readers might be forgiven, for concluding that this post was intended for Tunnel Vision and has strayed into Behind The Water Tower by mistake. Patience, dear reader, patience; today’s rambling post will – in the manner of a BWH&AR train – eventually reach its rightful destination. Both Mowlem and Burt left their physical marks on Swanage, bringing redundant material from London such as cast iron bollards and even the frontage of the Town Hall. In a few days time I was about to learn about the quick witted action of two brave Poles whose actions during WWII prevented the Luftwaffe from leaving a different sort of mark the Isle of Wight!

In 1992, Swanage Pier was dreadfully run down. It has since been beautifully restored thanks to a heroic restoration effort, led and funded by local residents – a project comparable in scale to the rebuilding of the Swanage Railway. At the time of my visit most of the pier was closed to visitors, part of the landward side was in use for car parking. Walking along the tramway as far as the pier, I spied a small blackboard that had once carried the notice Parking £1 inscribed in chalk. But that had been rubbed out it now said Henryk Rutkowski, Monday, 11.30am. What or who is the Henryk Rutkowski? I asked the car park attendant. That’s a Polish sailing ship, he replied, You can go for a trip on it if you like. Tickets are on sale in the Tourist Information Office.

Arriving early at the Tourist information office first thing the following day I discovered that the Henryk Rutkowski was a small Polish square-rigged sailing ship which had sailed to Swanage to take part in the town’s Water Festival – an event designed to promote the town as a water sports venue. The first few trips that the Rutkowski was to make with holidaymakers were sold out but I managed to get four tickets for the Wednesday trip. Going for an evening walk along the downs, I heard Polish from a ship’s PA echo over The Downs, the Henryk Rutkowski has arrived.


The old and new piers at Swanage. Photo Sylwia Talach.

Wednesday arrived all to slowly. In the morning, Swanage celebrated the arrival of a new lifeboat, we looked forward to our afternoon trip on the Rutkowski. I apologised to the Bosman, the ship’s mate, who was checking tickets as we clambered on board. I explained that I only had four tickets, but one of my children has brought a friend. Nie ma problemu. I could see that it was going to be a good day. Perhaps, the highlight of the trip was when he invited one of us to hold the ship’s wheel for a photo opportunity and then seeing that my 14 year-old was doing such a good job, he left us briefly in charge while he chatted up some young ladies in the bows.

Wednesday evening was a what Poles call an integracja event. Which is nothing to do with integral calculus, and everything to do with drinking lots of beer and making new friends. The venue was The Red Lion in Swanage High Street. Some members of Rutkowski’s crew sang sea shanties. I practised my skills as an interpreter. The children had their first lesson in playing pool, courtesy of some friendly locals.

All to soon the holiday was over and it was time to return home, but not before I had conceived of a plan to return and hitch a lift on Rutkowski on the first leg of its journey to Poland, when it sailed from Swanage to Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight. I arrived in Swanage really early so as not to miss the boat. I need not have worried. The previous evening there had been a farewell integracja organised by the Swanage locals and the crew were still recovering.

My new mate, the Bosman asked the Captain whether he was prepared to take on board an English  hitchhiker, Nie ma problemu, and I was on board. During the journey I interviewed him and several members of his crew. On board was a famous Polish sea shanty band the Cztery Refy.  In England, sea shanty bands play to a few bearded locals in the back of a pub; in Poland, the Refy had entertained thousands of youngsters at the big sea shanty festivals in Cracow and on the Mazury Lakes. Later on I wrote up my adventures in an article which subsequently appeared in the London-published Dziennik Polski.


A Polish Grom class destroyer arrives in Scotland as part of the Peking Plan. Photo former Polish Government in Exile.

(Click photo to see history of the image on Wikipedia.)

The biggest surprise was still ahead of us. Arriving at the pier in Yarmouth we were told that we were invited to be guests that evening at special reception being organised by the Royal Solent Yacht Club. By now, I has become the ship’s ex officio interpreter so, as everybody seemed to expect it, I came along too. It’s perhaps a measure of the success of that evening that I remember very little about it! The following morning, as we took a number of Club members and their friends for a sail, I was told a most extraordinary story which explained the warmth of our reception.

On 4 May 1942, Cowes on the Isle of Wight was bombed by the Luftwaffe who dropped 200 tons of bombs on the town. The Polish Grom class destroyer ‘Blyskawica‘ was being refitted at J Samuel White’s yard, where it had been built and launched 5 years earlier. Captain Wojciech Francki ordered the ‘Blyskawica’ to leave her moorings, and drop anchor outside the harbour. Here, 1st artllery officer, Lieutenant Commander Tadeusz Lesisz and his gunners retaliated all night with such vehemence that her red hot guns had to be doused with water, and more ammunition had to be ferried across from Portsmouth. But for the brave defence put up by the Poles, the human casualties and damage to the town would have been far worse.

Tadeusz Lesisz, born in Kozienice, Poland on 10 July 1918, naval officer in the Polish Navy and the Royal Navy, architect, chairman of the Federation of Poles in Manchester, died on 23 September 2009.


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One Response to “For whom the bell tolls”

  1. Robert Hall Says:

    Late response – “synchronicity and coincidence”: from date of the post’s appearing, until today, I was on holiday, staying (Internet-deprived) in, where but Cowes IOW, with cousin-and-family resident there.

    My cousin there (a keen ships-and-the-sea buff) is well-informed about the 4/5 May 1942 air raid, and the role of the “Blyskawica” in countering it. He took me along to see a couple of locations in Cowes, where those happenings are commemorated. One of such – named since the 60th anniversary commemorations in 2002, “Francki Place” (after the ship’s captain), with plaques installed on “60th” occasion – is at present, unfortunately obscured by immediately-adjacent construction works going on (with the actual plaques temporarily removed); but in another spot on the Cowes sea-front, there are two plaques honouring the Polish ship’s role on that night.

    My cousin tells of a late acquaintance of his, who at the time of the raid, was working in J. Samuel White’s yard. This chap was sketching out lines on a steel plate, when a bomb fell through the roof right above him, hit the steel plate, bounced off it without exploding, flew back through the roof, and in the end demolished a couple of houses a little way away. In WW2, your doing civilian stuff at home, didn’t exempt you from near-death escapes – or indeed, from “buying your plot”…

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