Friday, 17 July 2015

Wave after wave (by Eugeniusz Pławski)

(Originally posted on Wednesday, 8 February 2017)

The full title says: “Wave after wave … Memories of a commander of the ORP Piorun”. ORP stands for “Okręt Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej” (a Ship of Republic of Poland). Piorun means a thunderbolt in Polish. This ship (with Eugeniusz Pławski as its commander) took part in the famous hunt for Bismarck during the World War II.

My rating: 10/10

Eugeniusz Pławski had a life full of adventure and this is why his autobiography is extremely interesting. He had also a talent for writing (and for telling his tales), which makes the reading even more enjoyable. The book is sometimes out-right funny (I laughed out loud in many places), but most importantly Pławski's humour is often self-depreciating. I liked that.

The biggest value of the book is its historical content – you can learn about many long-forgotten historical facts that will make you gape. And the hunt for Bismarck is almost at the end of the book! Eugeniusz Pławski was born in a Polish family in 1895 – in the times when Poland officially didn’t exist (it was divided between three empires: Russia, Germany and Austria). The sheer mention of the word Poland was forbidden in Russia and Polish families were subjected to intense Russification. I write about it to explain why he (and also his father) served in the Russian army. His father had a quite a career in the Imperial Russian Army – he was a brigadier general.

The only gripe about the book is very minor – some things are described not exactly chronologically. It is the result of the fact that most of the book was based on Pławski's articles that were published in various newspapers after the World War II. Please notice that the articles are ordered overall chronologically, but some articles concentrated on some topics and spanned over similar periods of time. A minor gripe, really.

On a plus note: there are 40 (FORTY!!!) additional (not numbered) pages (on top of the 449 numbered text pages) with pictures of Pławski and his ships. The pictures themselves are numbered – there are 78 of them.

Here are some high-points of the book:

1. Train going on a frozen lake.
Around 1901 (when Eugeniusz Pławski was around 6 years old) his father was transferred to a place near Vladivostok which, interestingly, is placed not far from North Korea! To get there the train had to cross China (this very fact made me check where Vladivostok is in the first place), but earlier the train had to pass Baikal – a huge lake that is utterly frozen for a part of the year. Pławski claimed that he remembered the train going on this frozen lake and when he was travelling in the opposite direction (when the Russian-Japanese war broke out in 1904) the lake was not frozen and the train was transferred on a big ferry-boat.

2. World War I on the Black Sea.
His father was a cavarlyman, but Eugeniusz Pławski chose the Russian navy. During World War I Eugeniusz Pławski served in the Black Sea Fleet. Reading about those times from such a point of view was is like reading a tale from another world. Pławski was very lucky to survive the Bolshevik Revolution and with a twist of fate (after the revolutionary forces slaughtered most of the navy officers they realised that they have trouble replacing them) he was elected as the commander of a destroyer. Incredible (in a good sense) part of the book. Simply, Wow!

3. Polish navy starting from scratch.
After Poland regained independence in 1918 Eugeniusz Pławski together with his father went to Poland on a kind of a mission (with some important documents) and then he joined the new Polish navy. He literally made history in 1920 when he gave an order to hoist the Flag of Poland during “Poland's Wedding to the Sea”. In the inter-war period he hold many important positions both on normal ships as well as on the Polish submarines that were built in France.

4. The times right before and right after the outbreak of the World War II.
There are tons of interesting things about that times that were new to me. Pławski was caught by the outbreak of the World War II in France. He was trying to put together a sea convoy for Poland that was supposed to sail to Romania (which boarded to Poland then), but after the Russia attacked Poland on 17 September 1939 the convoy had no way to get to the Polish forces back at home. By the way: the French workers almost blew up the whole Dunkirk by their reckless handling of Melinite explosives that they were transferring to one of the ships of the convoy. The French soldiers who were later assigned to guard the explosives almost did the same too – one of them claimed that he was not even aware that Melinite (a French patent) was an explosive.

5. Detailed description of the hunt for Bismarck.
In the book there are not only the well known facts about the hunt, but also a terrifying description of a very bad weather prior and during the battle. The weather combined with a wind coming from the back of the hunters prior to the battle made some of them, especially some of the destroyers, including the ORP Piorun, totally inoperable, sometimes lying helplessly on their sides for extended periods of time, turning slowly in the opposite direction then intended.

6. Detailed description of the participation of the ORP Piorun in the convoy for Malta in September 1941 (Operation Halberd).
During the convoy ORP Piorun was a close escort of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and later of the damaged battleships HMS Nelson.

7. Very good descriptions of a life at sea.
I've never been on a sea-ship, but this book gave me a very good insights what it is like, both during a storm and during a good weather. A person with any sailing experience should enjoy this book immensely.

PS. This book is well worth translating to English.

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