Over 80 years ago, on 26 November 1939, the Polish ocean liner Pilsudski was off the coast of Yorkshire at the start of a long journey from the River Tyne to Australia. At the outbreak of war, the ship had escaped from the Nazi occupied clutches of Poland and was being used by the allies for transporting troops, but thankfully on this day she was empty save from her 180 crew. The pride of her nation, she was named after the country’s hero Josef Pilsudski and launched in 1934. At 531 feet long she was over 14,000 tons with a capacity for around 770 passengers and 350 crew. Now she was painted warship grey, and her two funnels blended into the rest of the paintwork, any evidence of her former owners Gdynia-America Line covered up for the war.
As the ship passed close to Withernsea in the middle of the night, two huge explosions ripped through the ship as mines detonated, the ship taking on an immediate list. A huge rescue operation was launched with a nearby warship taking on the survivors. Incredibly there was only one death – Captain Mamert Stankiewicz, a 46-year-old veteran of the Polish military and merchant navy. Before long the ship slowly went down and was left with nothing more than a sea of wreckage and bedraggled survivors.
This was less than three months into the Second World War and already the allies were losing too many ships, the sinking of the Pilsudski was a huge blow which was not going to get any better soon. Today the wreck of the Pilsudski remains the largest wreck off the Yorkshire coast and is a popular diving site for those who want to visit this incredible piece of history.
By Richard Jones