Poland: HMS Bulwark’s Sailors Pay Respects to Defenders of Westerplatte
HMS Bulwark’s Baltic mini-deployment has taken her to the Polish port of Gdynia. Her sailors paid their respects to the defenders of the Westerplatte, a peninsula in the nearby city of Gdańsk where the first shots of World War 2 were fired.
Standing on one of the most hallowed sites on Polish soil, sailors from Britain’s flagship pay their respects at the spot where World War 2 began with terrible fury.
This is the Westerplatte in the Polish port of Gdańsk, once the site of an ammunition depot, today dominated by a huge monument in the form of an inverted sword with only the hilt and handle visible.
It was here, at 4.45am on Friday September 1 1939 that the first shots of the second global conflagration of the 20th Century were fired when the guns of the obsolete German battleship Schleswig-Holstein roared, heralding a week-long assault on the Westerplatte peninsula and its garrison of around 225 Polish troops.
They held out in the face of infantry assaults, naval bombardment and Luftwaffe attacks until the exhausted defenders surrendered. For 15 dead, they had inflicted 30 times as many casualties on their German attackers.
More than 70 years after that bravery – likened by many Poles to the stand by the Spartans at Thermopylae – Bulwark provided a ceremonial guard and bugler on an icy Baltic day as Cdr Nigel Wright, the assault ship’s senior marine engineer, laid a wreath on behalf of his ship’s company.
Bulwark herself was ten miles away across the Bay of Gdańsk in the harbour of Gdynia, her latest Baltic port of call as she acclimatises to the winter weather ahead of Arctic exercises in northern Norway next month.
As she neared Gdynia, Bulwark was greeted by two Polish frigates – ORP General Kazimierz Pułaski and General Tadeusz Kościuszko – to practise replenishment at sea manoeuvres; the two host ships also took part in an exercise to shield Bulwark from attack by sea and air, and conducted a short exchange of personnel to experience life aboard a different warship.
Once in Gdynia, the ship was visited by First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope who was in Poland to discuss ongoing co-operation with the Polish Navy – as well as Bulwark he toured the host’s specialist diver training centre.
Around 4,000 Gdynians braved freezing conditions to queue for hours to tour Bulwark – there’s no amphibious assault ship in the Polish Navy’s inventory.
And 15 brave Bulwarks took on the challenge thrown down by Ogniwo Sopot – the second best rugby team in Poland. Bulwark conceded just shy of 100 points while scoring a consolation try and conversion towards the end of the match.
Whilst the players got stuck in on the pitch (it was a game fraught with tension apparently) in the stands the ship’s company, led by CO Capt Alex Burton, got stuck into zurek (soup) to keep the Baltic cold at bay.
Also among the spectators were the Mayor of Gdynia, Wojciech Szczurek, and the UK’s Defence Attaché in Warsaw, Gp Capt Nigel Philips.
No story about Bulwark now would be complete without the latest adventures of Prince Bishop, the ship’s new teddy bear mascot.
‘PB’, as he’s known onboard, is being used to teach youngsters in the ship’s affiliated county of Bulwark about life at sea and about the countries the flagship visits – from the currency used (złoty in this case) to culinary treats (such as pierogis – Polish dumplings) and sights, posing for photographs wherever he goes.
He’ll soon be able to tell the world about the Little Mermaid, pastries and krone, for the next stop for Bulwark is Copenhagen. Once her mini-Baltic tour is over, the flagship will head to the fjords around Harstad for Exercise Cold Response, the ultimate test of NATO forces to fight in sub-zero temperatures.
Naval Today Staff , February 28, 2012; Image: royalnavy