Tadeusz Lesisz: Pole who sailed with the Royal Navy and saw action on D-Day and in the Battle of the Atlantic

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:12

Tadeusz Lesisz was one of the the world's last surviving veterans to have served as an officer from the first day of the Second World War until its end. As gunnery officer he sailed on Polish vessels under the command of the Royal Navy, participating in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Arctic Convoys, Operation Torch and at D-Day. He was in command of the anti-aircraft guns on a Polish destroyer berthed in Cowes on the night of 4 May 1942; the ship's formidable barrage prevented more widespread destruction of the Isle of Wight port during a German air raid.

Remaining in Britain after the war, he studied architecture, establishing himself as a partner in a Bolton architectural practice, Greenhalgh & Williams, where he worked for nearly 35 years. As chairman of the Manchester branch of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain he dedicated much of his time to serving the Polish community which had settled in the north-west of England after the Second World War.

Born in Kozienice, 60 miles south of Warsaw, on 10 February 1918, 10 months before the re-establishment of a Polish Republic, Tadeusz Lesisz was the youngest of nine surviving children born to Franciszek, a local merchant, and Wiktoria. Following his three brothers, he was enrolled in cadet school, where he would receive an education with the armed forces of the nascent Polish state. He joined the cadet corps at 13, graduating five years later. Like his brothers, Edward, Feliks and Edmund, who were to join the army, he also chose to stay in the military, though choosing to continue his studies in the Naval Officers' School in Torun, then Gydnia. He learned to sail on tall ships and had the chance to visit distant and exotic shores.

His naval upbringing instilled a strong sense of self-discipline and life-long orderliness and, to his last days, he dressed formally with jacket and tie or cravat. He graduated weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War. His choice of the navy proved fortuitous: none of his brothers were to survive the War. Edmund was murdered by the Gestapo in Dachau, Edward and Feliks by the Soviets in Katyn.

The outbreak of war found Lesisz serving as a newly commissioned second lieutenant on the ORP Burza ("Storm"). The day before German forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Polish fleet sailed secretly to Britain from where, as part of the Royal Navy, it was to continue the fight against the Third Reich. After Royal Navy courses in anti-submarine warfare and naval gunnery he found himself, in July 1940, second-in-command of S3, one of several motor gun boats assigned to Polish crews. Based at Fowey in Cornwall, the Polish-crewed boats were charged with protecting Channel shipping and reconnoitring the approaches to the French ports. Duels with German E-boats were frequent, although S3's career came to an end when she hit a German mine on the approaches to Fowey harbour.

In January 1941 he joined the Polish destroyer ORP Blyskawica ("Lightning") – when launched, the world's fastest warship. Built in Cowes in 1935, she was capable of nearly 40 knots. Lesisz saw action in the icy North Atlantic, protecting Allied convoys.

In spring 1942, Blyskawica was being repaired and having her main guns upgraded, in dry dock in Cowes, when the port suffered a series of air raids, the most intense, involving 160 bombers, on the night of 4 May. Blyskawica was the only vessel in port, but with her anti-aircraft guns glowing red she managed to throw up such a dense barrage and smokescreen that the town and dock were spared heavier destruction, although over 70 died in the bombing. Sailors not needed on the ship's guns fought fires in Cowes and brought first aid to the wounded. In gratitude, Blyskawica was given freedom of the town; the main square of Cowes was later named for the vessel's captain, Wojciech Francki.

In October 1942, Blyskawica was escorting the liner Queen Mary as she carried American troops to Britain, and witnessed the tragedy that befell another escort, HMS Curacao, cut in half when she sailed in front of the Queen Mary; 90 of the 420 on board survived. A month later, Blyskawica, which had been assigned to Force "H", took part in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, escorting landing craft and troopships. The ship was bombed by German aircraft in the Algerian harbour of Bougie; a near-miss killed three and injured a fifth of Blyskawica's crew.

In July 1943, Lesisz was re-assigned to ORP Dragon (a First World War-vintage cruiser given to the Poles by the Royal Navy) as second artillery officer. After artillery training at Scapa Flow, the Dragon was attached to an Arctic convoy to Murmansk. In March 1944, the Dragon was assigned to the naval forces that would take part in the invasion of Europe.

On D-Day, ORP Dragon was responsible for shelling German positions behind Sword Beach. Her third salvo destroyed a German battery at Colleville-sur-Orne and at Trouville, a near-miss by a German 105mm shore battery gun wounding three sailors. In the evening of D-Day, Dragon moved to Juno Beach to support the advancing Allied troops and the following day shelled German positions in and around Caen. On 8 June she opened fire against the 21st Panzer Division near Varaville and the next day she took part in an artillery duel with a shore battery at Houlgate, after which she returned to Portsmouth for refuelling and supplies.

Between 12 June and 17 June she again shelled German positions around Caen. On 8 July, as the Dragon was preparing to support the Allied assault on Falaise, the cruiser was sunk by a torpedo from a German Neger miniature submarine that had broken through the Allied cordon.

Lesisz returned to the Blyskawica as first artillery officer. In September 1944, the ship was sent to patrol the coast of south-west France, liaising with Resistance units. She continued until the last weeks of the war to patrol the Bay of Biscay and the approaches to the Gironde estuary, which was still heavily mined and where German shore batteries were still active.

After Germany's capitulation, Blyskawica was assigned to Operation Deadlight. Along with the destroyer HMS Onslow she was charged with accepting the surrender of U-Boat forces to the north-west of Scotland. The 110 German submarines were towed out into the Atlantic and scuttled using explosive charges or with artillery fire. The Blyskawica later escorted a flotilla of smaller Kriegsmarine vessels from Norway and Denmark to Kiel in German waters. The ship returned to Rosyth on 18 February 1946, where Lesisz was demobilised. The Blyskawica sailed back to Poland in July 1947, where she remained in service with the Polish People's Navy until 1975. Today she is a floating museum in Gdynia.

Like his shipmates, Lesisz was torn between the desire to return home and the fear of going back to a country that had exchanged a German occupant for a Soviet one. Stalinist repression of ex-servicemen returning from the West was already underway; there were many arrests, especially of officers, usually on trumped-up espionage charges. Together with around 160,000 other Poles in Britain after the war, he chose to stay.

In March 1947, Lesisz rejoined the Royal Navy as fleet maintenance officer with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, supervising the mothballing of Landing Ships (Tank) and Landing Craft (Tank) at Rosneath in Scotland. Inspired by Penguin paperbacks on architecture that he read off duty, he decided to become an architect. He was offered a scholarship at the Oxford School of Architecture by the Committee for the Education of Poles in Great Britain. Before the first term began in October 1948, he served briefly with the Merchant Navy as second mate on an elderly steamer, SS Arion, carrying sugar cane from Cuba to refineries in the Thames Estuary.

In 1954 he started work for a Bolton practice, Greenhalgh & Williams, becoming a partner in 1963 and remaining with the firm until retiring in 1988. He specialised in schools, churches and local authority housing. He designed primary and secondary schools across the north-west and the Midlands, an epilepsy centre in Much Hadham, Herts, churches in Failsworth and Levenshulme and the Salesian Chapel in Bolton. He continued to be actively engaged in the Polish community in north-west England. He visited Poland regularly from the mid-1960s right up until his death.

Lesisz oversaw the re-working of a church which the Polish community bought from Welsh Baptists in 1958. The church, on Lloyd Street North, is his greatest legacy to Polish life in Manchester. He designed the interior as well as most of the stained glass windows. Inside are urns containing soil from the Polish and European battlefields of the Second World War.

For many years he was the leader of the Polish community in Manchester, at that time Britain's second-largest. He chaired the Manchester branch of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain (FPGB) from 1982, supervising many activities and commemorations that held the community together, passing on traditions to a new generation born on British soil.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Katyn massacres he initiated and designed a monument unveiled in Manchester's Southern Cemetery in 1990. The ceremony was one of the first occasions the Government publicly acknowledged that Katyn was a Soviet, rather than Nazi, war atrocity.

Lesisz was awarded the (Polish) Order of Polonia Restituta (IVth and Vth class), Valour Cross, Gold Cross of Merit and numerous British campaign medals. He leaves a widow, Wanda, who took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as a medical orderly and was subsequently interned in the Oberlangen POW camp, and two daughters, Krystyna and Barbara, the second of whom moved to Poland in the 1990s, along with her husband and two children, fulfilling a family dream of returning from political exile.

Michael Dembinski

Tadeusz Lesisz, naval officer, architect, leader of Manchester's Polish community: born Kozienice, Poland 10 February 1918; married 1956 Wanda Gutowska (two daughters); died Manchester 23 September 2009.

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