Lucky Ship: Rebellion, Desertion, and Love on the MS Batory
"It sailed for 36 years. Ships don't usually last that long, but the MS Batory was unique", writes Bożena Aksamit in her historic reportage about the most famous Polish trans-Atlantic liner, pride of the Second Republic, living art, and the only floating representative of free Poland during the war.
The reporter and oceanographer has just written the book Batory: Stars, Scandal and Love on the Transatlantic Liner. With remarkable sensitivity and precision Aksamit reconstructs the history of the 160-metre-long ship piece by piece. She starts with the ship's origins in the Polish port of Gdynia as transportation for many emigrants and celebrities in the 30s, and then tracks the history of the liner, complete with its various scandals. The fascinating history of the MS Batory includes everything from crates of British gold, wartime derring-do, and loud romances, until the communist regime sent the "Lucky Ship" to its end in a Chinese scrapyard. Welcome aboard!
The MS Batory set off on its first trip, from Monfalcone to Gdynia, on 21st April 1936, stopping along the way in Dubrovnik, Barcelona, Casablanca, Madeira, Lisbon and London. The 21 days and nights were full of champagne-drenched fun with the biggest names in Polish politics, culture, and entertainment: Wojciech Kossak, Arkady Fiedler, Monika Żeromska, Irena Eichlerówna, and Melchior Wańkowicz, who reported on the voyage for Polish Radio. Before he found the charm in his journey, he reported on it with distaste.
This shiny, impressive, new colossus was 160 metres long and several levels high, complete with seven decks, guest cabins, dining halls, dance halls, a reading room, three bars, a pool, and a gym. As we learn from the careful reporting in this book, the ship's interiors had a light, modern elegance, and was decorated with pieces by Jan Cybis—intriguing female figures carved into the silver mass alongside a 16th-century portrait of Stefan Batory.
Refined down to the smallest detail with works by Zofia Stryjeńska, aerial photographs show that it was decorated with Polish monuments. The ship was called a floating art showroom. It featured tableware from the best Polish factories, porcelain from Ćmielow, tablecloths from Żyrardow and glass from Huta Zawiercie. But the most important thing was the kitchen (there were over 500 dishes on the lunch menu alone) and the captain.
The Ghost Whisperer of the Waves, Eustazy Borkowski
Meet a real salty old sea dog. He spoke a dozen languages, drank cognac like water, and was probably the only (successful) captain in the history of the world who had a problem with navigation and determining his vessel's position. But Eustazy Borkowski had other talents: he was the life and soul of the ship, and his officers joked that if he ever were completely sober, disaster would befall it. Passengers and journalists loved him. The National Geographic named him the captain of the seven seas, and the New York Times reported that he was the most famous and picturesque character to traverse the Atlantic in the interwar period. However, he was dismissed from his position during the war after an uproar from the press.
Aksamit also mentions the extraordinary hospitality of the beloved captain. It was no wonder that everyone wanted to sail with him. During the Great Depression, when the US was still enforcing prohibition laws, he would organize so-called “moon-trips”—anti-prohibition trips by moonlight. Decorated with lanterns, the MS Batory would glide through the night towards Canadian shores. Once they'd left US territorial waters, the bars would open and alcohol would pour in torrents at parties that lasted until dawn.
In anecdotes from his friends, the captain was remembered as a lover of games and religious celebrations. He would celebrate mass on board even when there was no priest and even performed a baptism… of a bison. No one on board would have guessed that in a few months war would come.
In the spring of 1939 the crew was preparing for a fourth season in the Atlantic. The Batory set sail the day before the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The news of war came at dinnertime, when the liner was off the shores of Canada on a two-day cruise. Escorted by an American warship, when the Polish ship landed journalists were already waiting. A New York newspaper reported that a number of companies quoted Borkowski as having enough original ideas to fight the enemy. Here’s how the Polish captain became a national hero:
"I was attacked during the last war, I know how to behave. When I meet the enemy, I change course immediately and move to twenty knots with the bow straight at him…and when the enemy fires a torpedo I immediately enter the fray and disturb the waters as to throw the projectile off course. I will send the passengers below deck. I’m not afraid to die.”
The Batory became a warship during the war, and it spent 652 days at sea, earning it the name "Lucky Ship". The Lucky Ship, completely different without its luxury stores, ostentatious furniture, and works of art, was now furnished with double beds and officers’ machine guns. The Batory was able to brilliantly avoid the multitude of German U-boats which lurked at sea. It also participated in the battles for the Norwegian city of Narvik, survived being attacked by German bombers, and rescued French and British soldiers, while similar ships, the Chrobry and the Piłsudski, had already sunk.
Finally, as a part of its cargo, the Batory transported treasures to Canada from the British Imperial Bank. The author calculates that in addition to 2,950 crates of gold and paper banknotes, the crew managed to transport 34 boxes of tapestries and monuments transported from Poland in the first days of the war. The ship also transported injured soldiers, but the Batory's most important mission was yet to come.
The Ship Floats On
In the summer of 1940 the ocean was still not safe. After travelling from the UK to Australia for 73 days, on August 5th the Batory evacuated almost 500 children for the duration of the war. The small passengers quickly got their sea legs and won the hearts of the crew.
The ship landed on the shores of Australia in October, but this is not the end of the story. In 1968 when the old, worn-out Batory embarked on its last voyage, the passengers from 1940 responded to an advertisement in the Times and went to bid farewell to the ship. Bogdan Drozdowski, the head of the Polish Cultural Institute in London and organizer of the meeting, says:
"I could not leave for a second. The phone rang incessantly. There was a long list of addresses, names, religions, memories, and tears. It lasted about a week. The Institute began to go through the list of children who were aboard the Batory. There were photos, memorials, bibles, diplomas. All yellowed with age"
The meeting took place in February. Crew members were besieged like Hollywood stars, writes Aksamit. People were using cameras and tape recorders to capture words, crying, and singing. Recalling from memory, someone began to play the song “Rota”, and the passengers immediately joined in singing the well-known song. Photos of the poignant meeting were shown around the world. An article in the Daily Mirror stated:
"Much water has flowed under the keel of the Batory since then, but for 480 Britons this will forever remain a lucky ship, which was their home for 11 weeks.”
This was trip number 222.
The Batory took part in films in the 60s. The liner played a role in Passengers by Andrzej Munk, as well as in several war-time newsreels.
"During one of the voyages Antoni Słonimski was on board. He was of course invited to the captain’s table, but it was also embarrassing to organize an event with such an outstanding writer. The captain didn't have time to do it, so the senior officer completed the task. We had to borrow a writer from the ship’s crew (luckily there were a few), to read. The meeting lasted until late at night, and Słonimski, who was already over 70, was touched. In the morning he thanked the captain and admitted that he had underestimated the sailors.”
Farewell to the Sea
The Batory had sailed for 34 years when it was decided to retire the ship. Captain Jan Ćwikliński wrote in his memoir that was published in the US that the communist regime was already closing in.
"We did not feel the joy of life any longer. There was no longer laughter or a carefree atmosphere on board. Everywhere we were surrounded by suspicion. I stopped talking to people except for those I could trust. I felt unnerved on the decks. I was only at ease when I walked into my cabin and closed the door.”
In the early post-war years, more than 100 people sought asylum in foreign cities aboard the Batory. These people disembarked from the deck of Captain Ćwikliński. The atmosphere on the ship grew worse every day.
The legendary ocean liner was at first turned into a hotel and a restaurant, and then officials from the communist regime sent the ship to a Chinese scrapyard. March 30, 1971, was when the world said farewell to the Batory, as per usual, with orchestras and crowds. The ship went with a bang in its last voyage—from Gdynia to the demolition yard in Hong Kong.
"In the evening of May 26th, the Polish liner sailed at high tide to a waterfront scrapyard to settle at the bottom of the sea. In the evening it left this world. The ship was dead.”
The Polish flag was lowered on June 2nd, an hour after Krzysztof Meissner and his crew disembarked. And then they watched as the Batory disappeared piece by piece, "hammers crashed into its frame, mechanical scissors cut sheet metal, workers separated steel from precious metals..." And so, there was nothing left. The Batory sailed into history.