M.S. Batory

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Pablo Edronkin

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M.S. Batory and M.S. Pilsudsky were two Polish passenger ships that began operating a few years before WWII; they belonged to the Gdynia-Amerika Shipping Lines Ltd company, and now constitute an important part of XX-century Polish history.

The Pilsudsky was the first of the two ships to be launched and completed, in 1935, at the Cantieri Riuniti del Adriatico shipyard, in Italy, as part of a large deal between the Italians and the Polish. The Batory followed in 1936; my great grandmother was one of its passengers during its maiden voyage. Shortly after, both ships were mostly making trips across the Atlantic, joining Poland with the United States[144].

With slight differences, both ships had a tonnage of about 14.290 tn. They could sail at a maximum speed of 18 kt, had a crew of 350 and could carry (in 1939) 770 passengers.

When WWII started both ships were commandereed by British authorities for military purposes; the Polish crews remained. Soon, the amenities proper of passenger ships were taken out, modifications were made and the ships were painted in military colors.

The M.S. Pilsudski ran into a German minefield in Dec. 1939 near Yorkshire and sank; the M.S. Batory survived the war despite being used in some dangerous war scenarios. When the war started, the Batory was arriving to New York, and after disembarking passengers and cargo, a budding mutinous situation developed among part of the crew, since the rumors of British requisition for using the ship to transport military equipment between Canada and the British Isles meant that civilian crew members would be put in a high-risk situation and not all liked the idea.

Part of the crew was escorted off the ship by the Police; the remaining men and officers continued taking care of the Batory.

During WWII the Batory moved troops and military equipment France, Norway and Egypt. It also took part on a convoy that transported one of the largest and most valuable consignments of historical artifacts, valuables and gold bars from Poland and the UK to Halifax, in Canada. Indeed, in order to avoid capture of national treasures by the Nazis, the Polish government moved many treasures from its museums, particularly from Krakow, and gold bar from the reserves of the Bank Polski – the Polish Central Bank -, private Polish banks and the Bank of England.

Initially, the gold and valuables were taken to Lvov, which then belonged to Poland; then to Romania, France and the UK. Finally, it was decided to move everything to Canada because even the security of Great Britain was in jeopardy during the first years of the conflict (see Józef Skowronek).

H.A. Braun in a cruise, 1934
My grandfather, H.A. Braun, in a cruise, 1934[94.5].
H.A. Braun in the Atlantic, possibly on the MS Pilsudsky, 1935
H.A. Braun in the Atlantic, possibly on the MS Pilsudsky, 1935[94.6].

The gold taken to Canada served to support the Allied war effort, and the remaining bars as well as the valuables were returned to Poland in 1949 on the condition that the Communist regime would return those properties to their legal owners. That never happened, since the communist regime wouldn't recognize any sort of private property. The Polish state still owes that money – plus interest – to their legitimate pre-war owners, including our family.

In 1940 the Batory was used to move children from the UK to Cape Town and Australia and it spent a time in Singapore for repairs. In 1942 it made trips to the Soviet Union, Iceland and North Africa.

In 1943 it visited India, returning to the Mediterranean in 1944, and went back to India the same year. It also visited Aden during the first days of 1945. In February, it returned to Liverpool. Despite the end of the war, the ship continued under British command and was used for military duties until 1946. It was refitted of civilian use in Antwerp; that work lasted until 1947 and then the ship fell under communist control.

In the following years, several diplomatic and alleged espionage incidents took place in relation to the cold war era, and the port authorities in New York refused entrance to the Batory. Over 100 members of the crew deserted to the West and usually, as the ship returned to Poland, the secret police and communist authorities would search and inspect even the Polish crew members, particularly to find things that they found “subversive” or “decadent” such as goods to be sold in the black market.

Of course, trying to cut the freedom of people never works, and so the black market continued unabated until the not-surprising fall of the communist regime in 1989.

The cold war years saw many incidents surrounding the Batory since communist agents were funneled into Western countries as passengers of the ship. There were a number of high profile incidents, including the detention of crew members, officers and passengers for screening in the UK and the USA.

In 1954, near Tobruk, the ship was hit by a couple of high waves which caused damage to the ship and the death of four crew members.

The final regular trip across the Atlantic by the Batory took place in 1969; it remained in Gdynia for a couple of years, transformed as a hostel, while other uses were being conceived for the old ship, but it was eventually sold for scrap, making its last voyage to Hong Kong in 1971.

M.S. Batory
M.S. Batory; Pablo Edronkin.

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