Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Lieutenant-Commander Tadeusz Lesisz

My father-in-law died in hospital this morning, aged 91. He was one of the the world’s last surviving WWII veterans to have served as an officer from the very first day of the conflict until its last. 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, the ORP Błyskawica, berthed in Cowes on the night of 4/5 May 1942; the ship’s formidable barrage prevented more widespread destruction of the Isle of Wight port during a German air raid. Above: Lieutenant Lesisz on board the Błyskawica, spring 1942.

Remaining in Britain after the war, he studied architecture, eventually 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 spare time to serving the Polish community which had settled in North West England after WW2.

Tadeusz Lesisz was born in Kozienice, 100 km south of Warsaw, on 10 February 1918, ten 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 forced 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 Toruń, then Gdynia. He learned to sail on tall ships and had the chance to visit distant and exotic shores. His naval upbringing instilled in him 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 just weeks before the outbreak of the War. His choice of the navy proved fortuitous: none of his brothers were to survive the war; Edmund was murdered by the Gestapo in Murnau, Edward and Feliks by the Soviets in Katyń.

The outbreak of war found Tadeusz 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 shipping in the Channel 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. (More info on S3 and Polish MGBs here and here. Both articles feature photos of Tadeusz Lesisz.)

In January 1941, he joined the Polish destroyer Błyskawica, (Lightning). When launched, it was the world’s fastest warship. Built by J. Samuel White in Cowes in 1935, she was capable of nearly 40 knots. Lt. Lesisz saw action in the icy North Atlantic, protecting Allied convoys on the North-western approaches.

In spring 1942, Błyskawica 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 4/5 May. The Błyskawica was the only vessel in port, but with her anti-aircraft guns glowing red, she managed to put 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 to man the ships gun’s fought fires in Cowes and brought first aid to the wounded. In gratitude, the Błyskawica was given freedom of the town; the main square of Cowes was later named for the vessel’s captain, Wojciech Francki.

In October 1942, Błyskawica was escorting the liner Queen Mary as she carried American troops to Britain, and witnessed the tragedy that befell another escort, HMS Curacoa, cut in half when she inadvertently sailed in front of the Queen Mary; only 90 of the 420 on board survived. A month later, Błyskawica, 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 Błyskawica’s crew. The ship's hull and superstructure was penetrated in over 200 places.

In July 1943, Lt Lesisz was re-assigned to ORP Dragon, (a WW1-vintage cruiser given to the Poles by the Royal Navy), where he was second gunnery 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. More training followed, at Portland and at Scapa Flow.

On D-Day, ORP Dragon was responsible for shelling German positions behind Sword Beach. Dragon’s third salvo destroyed a German battery at Colleville-sur-Orne and at Trouville from a distance of four kilometres. A near miss by a German 105 mm shore battery gun wounded three sailors. In the evening of D-Day, Dragon moved to Juno Beach sector, to support the advancing Allied troops. The following day, the ship shelled German positions in and around Caen. On 8 June she opened fire against the German 21st Panzer Division near Varaville. On 9 June, she took part in an artillery duel with a shore battery at Houlougatte, 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 managed to break through the Allied cordon.

Lt Lesisz returned to the Blyskawica as gunnery officer. In September 1944, the ship was sent to patrol the coast of south-west France, liaising with Résistance units on shore. 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, Błyskawica, 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 Błyskawica 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 Lt. Lesisz was demobilised. The Błyskawica 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, Tadeusz Lesisz was torn between the desire to return home and 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 who found themselves in Britain after the war, he chose to stay.

In March 1947, Tadeusz Lesisz rejoined in 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 academic 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.

The five-year course in Oxford culminated in an RIBA silver medal. In 1954 he started work for a Bolton practice, Greenhalgh & Williams, becoming a partner in 1963. He remained with the firm until 1988, when he retired at the age of 70. A successful architect, he specialised in schools, churches and local authority housing, and designing primary and secondary schools across the North-West and Midlands, an epilepsy centre in Much Hadham, Herts, and churches in Failsworth and Levenshulme, and the Salesian Chapel in Bolton.

During all this time living and working in Manchester, 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.

Tadeusz Lesisz oversaw the re-working of the 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 the church are urns containing soil from the Polish and European battlefields in which parishioners fought during WW2.

For many years he was the leader of the Polish community in Manchester, at that time, Britain’s second-largest after Ealing, West London. 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. In 1989, Poland regained its freedom after 45 years of communist rule. He was vice-chairman, then chairman from 1991 to 1993, of the FPGB’s council, supervising the change of the Federation’s statute and role to reflect Poland’s new-found freedom.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Katyń massacres, he initiated and designed a monument that was unveiled in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on 29 April 1990. The ceremony – attended by six British MPs, senior British military officers and defence attachés from three other NATO member states – was one of the first occasions that HM Government publicly acknowledged that Katyń was a Soviet, rather than Nazi, war atrocity.

Tadeusz 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 also received the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great and Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

The 11th century Persian philosopher, Avicenna, on being told at the age of 57 that he was soon to die, said "it is better to lead a life that is short, but broad, that one that is long, but narrow". Tadeusz Lesisz managed to lead one that was both marvellously long and wonderfully broad.


More information about Tadeusz Lesisz in Polish (website of Polish Navy)
The Times has published an obit. Read it here.


Unknown said...

Honest condolences on this sad day.

Anonymous said...

Very sincere condolences to your family upon this day. Your memorial words here are a sincere and proud record of a remarkable life.


student SGH said...

may the remembrance of your father-in-law never pass away. You couldn't have paid tribute to him in a more beautiful way.


Ewa said...

What a moving tribute! My condolences to your family.

Neighbour said...


JR and JR from Manchester said...

Having just suffered a loss in our family, our thoughts are very much with you and your family at this time. We will also remember him in our prayers when we pray for our mother who endured severe hardship during the war and passed away last Sunday morning.

We have lost a great son and patriot of Poland. May he long be remembered for what he achieved during the war and afterwards in Manchester. The Polish Church that we regularly attend is a fitting tribute to his endeavours and support of the polish community.

May he rest in everlasting peace.

Aphelion said...

Sincere condolences from me, too - like the others have said, you paid your father-in-law a beautiful homage with your article!

All the very best to you and your family; may you all find some comfort in this sad situation!

ewa Masłowska said...

Bardzo wzruszająca historia pięknego i długiego życia. Z ciężkim sercem myślę o losach polskich oficerów, którym lata sowieckiej okupacji odcięły drogę powrotu do kraju i o których pamięć tutaj została zatarta.
Zachowanie tych życiorysów to jedyna szanasa na ciaglość historyczną, bez której naród traci tożsamość.
Z wyrazami współczucia dla Rodziny, na której ciąży obowiązek ocelania od zapomnienia Jego imienia i czynow.

Marcin 2 said...

from Martin Hazell 124 Molesworth Rd.,Plymouth, PL3 4AH, UK. +
(son of Por Antoni Piatek, cadet of 1939)

Condolences to family members, & I expect that this fine 'officer & gentleman' had a great many 'family members'in the wider community as well. He helped me with my recent research ('Poles Apart - Polish Naval Memories of WW2')speaking to me and sending material. It was an honour to speak to him, and it is good to know that his generation are still being honoured by the younger folk today.
[Should any family member be interested a fellow son of a Polish naval vet.:- is compiling a 'data base' of families who may wish to communicate concerning their relatives who fought with such heroism during their own personal darkest hours...]

Anonymous said...

Swietny hold zlozony przez Ciebie.

Z kondolencjami,

Anonymous said...

Sincere condolences to the family of Lieutenant-Commander Tadeusz Lesisz, from all those that are still alive and those who can trace their ancestry back to the night of the 4th and 5th May 1942 in Cowes and East Cowes, Isle of Wight, when the Officers, Crew and the ORP Blyskawica defended the towns throughout that night with the valiant assistance of shore side fire and rescue services, the Polish ship play a major instrumental part in preventing a greater tragedy and loss to this community, the sacrifices afforded at that time will remain with us.

Pass Chairman for The Friends of the ORP Blyskawica society, Mr. Tim Gladdis

Anonymous said...

Wonderful life history, Michael. Great to have so much detail and it all helps to make the man all the more memorable.

May he rest in peace, sounds like he could do with some!