Families meet to commemorate wartime British seamen lost on HMS Narwhal
By Piotr Michalik
A group of intrepid Polish divers were in London for an emotional meeting on January 12, 2018, with relatives of the brave seamen who served on HMS Narwhal, a British submarine sunk by the Luftwaffe in the North Sea on July 23, 1940, with the loss of 58 lives.
The mission of the Polish diving team, led by Tomasz Stachura, is to find the lost Polish submarine ORP Orzel (the name means Eagle) which mysteriously disappeared between May 23 and June 8, 1940, while sailing for the Royal Navy.
The latter submarine holds a mythical place in Polish history, having daringly escaped from the Nazis, crossing the Baltic and North Sea without charts and reporting for duty under Royal Navy Command at the Scottish port of Rosyth in October 1939 after the fall of Poland. The ‘Santi find the Eagle’ project has run four expeditions, the first in 2014, searching the bed of the North Sea using the most sophisticated equipment, looking for the lost Eagle.
During its 2017 mission the team was breathtakingly excited to uncover the distinctive sonar signal and outline of a submarine similar in size and shape to the Polish vessel. A 3D radar scan showed the wreck perfectly intact 94 m below the surface. It was confidently identified by expert hydrographers and historians in the team to be HMS Narwhal, a British ship sunk by the German forces with the loss of all on board while on patrol in the North Sea only a few weeks after the disappearance of the Polish Eagle.
HMS Narwhal was a mine-laying submarine with a short but eventful career in wartime service. In May 1940 she torpedoed and sank the German troop transport Buenos Aries and torpedoed and damaged the Bahia Castillo. Many other enemy ships sank after encountering mines laid by the British submarine.
Realising the importance of the find for the families of those who perished, the Polish team posted details of their find on internet forums and were overwhelmed by the response they received from surviving family members. The daughter of Lieutenant Commander Ronald Burch, Tamara Lo who is 80 years old, and many grandchildren, great-nieces and nephews of those who died contacted the Polish team to express their thanks and interest in their discovery. Photographs and stories of life on board HMS Narwhal were shared, bringing the life and bravery of those who perished over 77 years ago into focus again.
The Polish team decided to hold a meeting in London with the relatives of the officers and crew of HMS Narwhal to give everyone with a family connection to their find the opportunity to hear about the mission and ask questions and exchange stories and memories. The historic meeting took place at Ognisko Polskie, the Polish Hearth Club in South Kensington, organised by the London-based member of the Find the Eagle team, Piotr Michalik who is also on the voluntary board managing the club, which was founded in the dark days of the second world war as a home from home for the Polish armed forces and other free Poles in exile.
At the meeting on January 12, more than 40 members of the families of those who died on HMS Narwhal were present, bringing photographs, diaries and other memorabilia to share with each other. Five members of the Polish ‘Santi find the Eagle’ team took part including Piotr Michalik who warmly welcomed those present and in his introduction covered the impressive history of both lost submarines. Head of the expedition Tomasz Stachura showed a short film and recounted the challenge of searching in the treacherous conditions of the North Sea. The crew of HMS Narwhal was honoured and remembered by all present and the event proved to be an emotional day for all who took part. The discovery answered questions about the true end of the vessel and its crew and brought closure to those who have lived for so long without confirmation of where their loved ones died and rested on the bottom of the sea for over seven decades.
Ms Lo said later: “Many thanks for having helped to organise the meeting for Narwhal relatives. I was very moved that so many people had given their time and effort in such a demonstration of generosity and solidarity.”
Daniel Burch, a relative of Commander Ronald Burch, said: “I found the meeting very interesting with so much detail about the project to find the Orzel and the accidental discovery of the Narwhal. As well as all the effort that has been put into the project over four or more years, a lot of time and energy must have been spent on contacting relatives of the Narwhal‘s crew, and I am impressed that so many attended and some had made long journeys to be present. And we all have copies of the Find the Eagle book, with its interesting commentary and lovely photos. I do hope the team is finally successful in their quest and look forward to watching the blockbuster film to follow.”
Piotr Michalik has been proud and honoured to organise this event “to bring together our team with the families of those who died serving on the lost British submarine HMS Narwhal. Although our main aim is still to find the Polish submarine ORP Orzel I am thrilled that we discovered HMS Narwhal on our search. Meeting the relatives of the commander and crew has been an unforgettable and moving experience. It has brought home to us the reality of the awful loss of life, and the bravery and dedication of those who risked their lives serving on the submarine.”
Tomasz Stachura, a member of the Santi Find the Eagle team said: “This meeting was extremely important to all the members of the Santi Find the Eagle team. My impression was that after 77 years all the relatives who participated were able to close a chapter of their history. My dream is to hold such a meeting with families of the ORP Orzel crew, it would mean so much. I hope that, together with British divers in a joint expedition, we will be able to lay flowers and fix a plaque to the wreck of HMS Narwhal to honour the British heroes.”
The Find the Eagle Team welcomes any information relevant to the search for the missing Polish submarine ORP Orzel.
Commander’s daughter Tamara Lo thanks organisers.