Commander Włodzimierz Andrzej Kodrębski and O.R.P. Błyskawica, Polish Navy

Commander Włodzimierz Andrzej Kodrębski

Włodzimierz Kodrębski was a Polish Naval Officer, a participant of the Polish-Soviet War 1920 and World War II. In the inter-war period  he was a Staff Officer, and Commander of  torpedo boats and destroyers. In September 1939, in accordance with pre-arranged plans, he sailed to Great Britain with the Polish Destroyer ORP Błyskawica. During the War he  performed several staff assignments, including Chief of the Polish Naval Command in the UK.

Grave Section D 8864

In August 1939, in the days before the outbreak of World War II, Commander Włodzimierz Kodrębski was Captain of the ORP Błyskawica (Okręt Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej – Ship of the Polish Republic)  She was the second of two Grom (Thunderbolt)-class destroyers built for the Polish Navy by J. Samuel White, of Cowes, Isle of Wight, in 1935–37. The Grom class were two of the most heavily armed and fastest destroyers in World War II, capable of speeds of 39 knots.

ORP Błyskawica and ORP Grom at Harwich Great Britain 1940. Photo IWM

Two days before the outbreak of War, as Captain of ORP Błyskawica, he took part in the “Peking Plan”, which was an operation in which three destroyers of the Polish Navy, the Burza  (Storm), Błyskawica  (Lightning), and Grom (Thunder), were evacuated to Great Britain. They were ordered to travel to British ports and assist the Royal Navy in the event of a war with Germany. The plan was successful and allowed the ships to avoid certain destruction in the German invasion of Poland.

The ships sailed without any problems through the Baltic, entering Oresund after midnight. In the passage they encountered the German light cruiser Konigsberg and a destroyer, but as the war had not yet started there was no combat. Shaking off German reconnaissance aeroplanes, the ships entered the  North Sea, and at 09.25 on 1 September learned about the German invasion of Poland.  At 12:58, they rendezvoused at sea with Royal Navy destroyers and docked at Leith, Scotland at 17.37hrs.

ORP Grom and ORP Burza 1939. Taken from the deck of ORP Błyskawica. PhotoIWM

The Peking Plan generated controversy in Poland, but it proved to be a wise decision. The ships served alongside the Royal Navy during the war. ORP Burza and ORP Błyskawica  survived the war. Polish ships that remained in the Baltic were all either sunk or captured by the Germans in September 1939.

ORP Błyskawica’s route to the UK in September 1939 and early patrols during the war.

Włodzimierz Kodrębski  was born in Tarnów, in partitioned Poland, on 10 November 1900, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He graduated from the Benedictine Gymnasium (Grammar School) in Melk, Lower Austria. In 1915 he joined the Austrian Marine Academy in Brauna. He graduated from the Naval Academy in Fiume and took part in World War I with the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Austria Hungary had over 1100 miles of coastline in the Adriatic Sea.

In November 1918, he returned to a newly independent Poland and volunteered to join the Polish Military. 

He was assigned to the Naval Section of the Ministry of Military Affairs. On 12 January 1919 he was promoted to Second Lieutenant. In June 1920, as an officer in the Marine Battalion, he fought in the Polish-Soviet War and took part in battles with the Bolsheviks on the Vistula River. In November, he became the flag officer of the Torpedo Squadron. He left for Great Britain with the Torpedo ships, for refitting at Rosyth. Promoted to the rank of Naval  Lieutenant in 1923, he was an officer on the ORP Mazur, a ship  of the Torpedo Squadron. In 1924–1925 he commanded the  river monitor “Torun”, a ship of the Pinsk River Flotilla. 

He was promoted to Naval Captain on 15 August 1924. Between 1925–27 he was sent to France to undertake a course for torpedo officers and completed an internship with the French Navy. After his return, he was the head of the Submarine Service in the naval port of Gdynia. He then became the Commander of the ORP Ślązak torpedo boat and Submarine Weapons Officer of the Torpedo Squadron. In 1930 he commanded the ORP Mazur, escorting the Polish President Mościcki, during his visit to Tallinn, Estonia. He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander on 1 January 1932.

He was the Commander of the School Squadron and a lecturer on Naval matters. After a period of senior staff service, from 1 April 1933, he commanded the destroyer ORP Wicher. This was followed by further staff assignments.

He was a yachtsman; in 1935 he captained the Polish sailing team at the Kiel Regatta, on the yacht “Junak”

In 1936-37 he commanded the destroyer ORP Burza, and from January 1938 he commanded the destroyer ORP Błyskawica. On 19 March of that year, he was promoted to the rank of Commander.

On 30 August 1939, as the commander of ORP Błyskawica, he sailed to Great Britain. After several  joint patrols with the Royal Navy he resigned from his sea going post, due to poor health. 

He temporarily commanded the HQ base ship ORP Gdynia, moored  in Devonport. He was the head of the Naval Historical Bureau, then he became the Commander of the Naval Cadet School.

Polish President-in-Exile Władisław Raczkiewicz going aboard the Polish ship ORP Gdynia (ex SS Kosciuszko) in Devonport 1940. Vice Admiral Jerzy Swirski, the C in C  of the Polish Navy and General Izydor Modelski are climbing the stairs behind him. Commanding Officer of the ship Captain Włodzimierz Kodrębski (2nd from right) is awaiting the President. PhotoIWM.

In 1942 he was the Commander of the “North Command” based in Greenock. Later, in  October he was appointed Commander of the Polish Naval Command Staff. In January 1944 he became head of the Naval Studies Office.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill receives a silver plaque  from Vice Admiral Jerzy Swirski CinC Polish Navy commemorating the fourth anniversary of Royal and Polish Navies co-operation. Commander Włodzimierz Kodrębski Chief of Staff Polish Naval Headquarters (1st left) and Captain Tadeusz Stokołas Polish Naval Attache (2nd from left). PhotoIWM.

He was demobilized in 1947, and remained in exile in Great Britain. He died at the Polish Military Hospital, Penley, Wales on 23 November 1948 aged 48 and was buried at Wrexham Cemetery.

He was decorated with the Polish Cross of Valour , the Silver Cross of Merit  and the Order of the British Empire.

In 2010 his name was included on a commemorative plaque, at the Polish Naval headquarters in Gdynia, Poland, acknowledging him as one of the founders of the Polish Navy in 1918.

ORP Błyskawica

ORP Błyskawice, given the pennant number H34 by the British and under a new Captain, took part in the Norwegian Campaign in 1940. During the campaign her sister ship Grom was bombed and sunk. She took part in the successful evacuation from Dunkirk, also towing the badly damaged destroyer HMS Greyhound, loaded with 1000 troops back to Dover.   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.

The ship was also given escort duties for troop transports, notably RMS Queen Mary, being one of the few ships that was fast enough to keep up with the transatlantic liner.

A notable event happened on the night of 4–5 May 1942, Błyskawica defended the Isle of Wight town of East Cowes from an air raid by 160 German bombers. The ship was undergoing an emergency refit at the J. Samuel White yard where she had been built and, on the night of the raid, fired repeated rounds at the German bombers from outside the harbour; her guns became so hot they had to be doused with water from the River Medina. Extra ammunition had to be ferried over from Portsmouth. This, together with the smoke screen she created  forced the bombers to stay high, making it difficult for them to target properly. Later, part of her crew helped put out fires in the town. The event is celebrated in Cowes to this day.

During the war, she logged 146,000 nautical miles (270,000 km) and escorted 83 convoys. In combat, she damaged three U-boats, helped sink other ships, and shot down at least four enemy aircraft.  

ORP Błyskawica, off Cowes 11 July 1945. Photo Beken of Cowes. Collection of Naval Museum Gdynia.

In July 1947 the ship was returned to Poland. In 1976 she became a museum ship in Gdynia, Poland.

The Polish Navy in World War II

The small but efficient Polish Navy, based in the UK participated in many famous actions during the war and some of her ships were to become well known to the British public. The Polish Navy helped escort 787 convoys, carried out  1,162 patrols and sunk some 100,000 tons of enemy shipping. It took part in most major naval operations, including – Narvik, Dunkirk, North Sea and Channel, Lofoten Islands, the hunt for the Bismarck, (the ORP Piorun was the first ship to locate the German battleship) Tobruk, Arctic convoys, Dieppe, Battle of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Torch landings in North Africa, Anzio and D-Day landings in Normandy. During the war the Polish Navy had 2 cruisers, 10 destroyers, 1 minelayer, 6 minesweepers, 8 submarines plus other small craft. Most of the ships were lent by Great Britain.

Of Poland’s naval service in the Second World War, the British First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound said in 1942,

“Last night I asked my Chief of Staff to give me a list of all Polish warships fighting alongside the Royal Navy. I was shocked to learn how few they are because in all despatches of naval operations and major engagements I almost always find a name of a Polish ship that distinguished itself.”

Włodzimierz Kodrębski, Polish Naval Commander, born 10 November 1900; died 23 November 1948

Sources:

WCBC Some Distinguished Poles in Wrexham Cemetery Dr. Karolina Grodzinska 2003. 

Włodzimierz Kodrębski (Komandor porucznik) wikipedia. Based on Polish Naval Records.

Poland’s contribution to the Allied Victory in the Second World War. SPK. 2005.

ORP Błyskawice. Wikipedia.

Uboat.net  Allied Warships.

Polish Navy in Colour. twitter.com.

Grave: Wrexham Cemetery Section D. gr 8864

Research and grave photo: Fred Czulowski. March 2021.

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