Mutiny on the North Sea

Mutiny on the high seas

In September 1954 several members of the crew of a Polish fishing boat working the North-sea herring, mutinied, locking up the captain and attacking a political commissar who was on board. Local skipper Jim Leadley responded to what he thought was a distress signal, went on board and ended up taken the vessel into Whitby. Many years later Tom recalled the incident as one of the few nine day wonders he could recall.

“The dictionary defines a nine days wonder as something that astonishes everybody for the moment.  The journalist however regards it differently, as a story which remains the front page lead for at least nine days.   Not many fell into this category even in what used to be called Fleet Street.  In nearly fifty years as a reporter on provincial newspapers, I can only think of one which was truly a nine days wonder, hitting the headlines not only locally but nationally even internationally as well.

It began early one September morning 45 years ago (when this was written in 1999 – Ed).  In the misty grey North Sea the annual herring season was at its height and the fishing fleets of half a dozen nations corkscrewed dangerously close to each other.

Among them darted a handful of boats from ancient North Yorkshire port of Whitby competing in their home waters against the hundreds of foreign craft.  Skipper John Storr, the redoubtable chairman of Whitby Fishermen’s Society, was at the wheel of his keel boat, Provider heading for home just before dawn.  Suddenly, peering through the mist, he saw what h later describe as “weird and wonderful signals” coming from one of the foreign boats.  Unable to understand them he decided to investigate.  As he stepped on her deck seven men with anxious faces crowded round him.  It was sometime before he realised that they were trying to say: “take us to a British port.”  The men were mutineers.  They had taken over their boat Puzcczyk (pronounced Pushchick) after a brief but bloody scuffle.

The seven seized their chance when skipper Wiktor Kobryn went to the toilet.  They locked him in, over-powered eight other crew members and locked them up too.  Then they turned their attention to the man who had caused their action, the ship’s commissar or political officer, and the real master of the ship.  After a fierce attack he was left bleeding from head wounds and a stab in the left arm.  Skipper Storr took the wheel and piloted the boat into Whitby Harbour.  The seven told the port authorities that the commissar joined the ship as an ordinary crew member.  When they discovered his true purpose, they resented it.  They were dissatisfied with their working conditions and the fact that the commissar was always listening to their conversations.  The men asked for political asylum.  This iron curtain drama of mutiny on the high seas gave seven humble Polish fishermen a unique place in the annals of international law.

They waited apprehensively in Durham jail while a grim tussle for their liberty began.  The Polish ambassador called at the Foreign Office and demanded the extradition of the mutineers.  Not to be outdone the Polish Ex-Combatants Association briefed a Polish-born lawyer to press their application for political asylum.  Meanwhile the grubby little trawler left Whitby harbour accompanied by jeers and boos from a large crowd, which included several Polish expatriates.  Some shook their fists at the commissar, a swarthy man with a walrus moustache, who still had a thick bandage wound around his head.  He smiled definitely back at them.   Some of those on shore made signs to the captain and the remainder of his crew urging them to jump overboard and swim for freedom. 

The Court battle went on until eventually the seven won their freedom.  Two months after they had first stepped ashore on British soil they were granted writs of habeas corpus, freeing them from prison.  More importantly they were granted permission under the Aliens Order to remain in Britain.

Announcing this decision, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard, said the question that arose was whether the offence for which extradition was sought was of a political character.  The men had to prove that the move was made with a view to trying and punishing them for a political offence.  The court found that the men had mutinied to prevent this. 

Five years later there was a sequel to the drama.  Captain Kobryn returned to Whitby under very different circumstances.  His new ship, Rarog, carried divers and equipment to help a Polish trawler whose propeller had been fouled by a wire rope.  The captain and his crew went to Mass at a local church.  He told friends that conditions in Poland had changed quite a lot in the intervening years.  None of the Polish trawlers now had to carry a commissar in their crew and fishermen were able to go ashore as they pleased without restrictions.

As mutinies go it was hardly in the Bounty class.   Skipper Kobryn left behind a memento in the form of a tunny tail in a glass case which was on show in a harbourside inn.  And the story of the Pushchick is still remembered locally as a nine days wonder.”