Growing up in Maczkowce in Poland’s Eastern Borderlands Janek and his sister Danka were very close as children. Danka later recalled two incidents which are inexplicable:
In the winter of late 1938 Jan was 16 years old and boarding at an agricultural college in Bojanowo, in the far west of Poland. He received a letter from his mother Janina saying that his father was seriously ill and would have to spend Christmas in hospital. Christmas would be a downbeat and worried time for the family at home, so Janina told Janek to stay at Bojanowo through the holiday period and enjoy Christmas with his friends from that area. In the few days leading up to Christmas Danka fell ill too and was quite feverish on and off. Christmas Eve was a gloomy affair at the Stępek home. Their father is in hospital, Jan is far away in Bojanowo, Danka is in bed with a fever. Then Danka started to say something so Janina went to her. Danka said “Jan is at the train station. He’s waiting for one of the farmhands to give him a lift with his luggage.” Janina soothed Danka flushed fevered face and reminded her “Janek is at college Danka. He’s not coming home this winter.” Still Danka persisted. Then someone came in the door. It was one of the neighbouring farmers. He said “Your boy Jan is at the station looking for help to get home.” Jan had decided in his youthful wisdom that with his father seriously ill, and knowing war was brewing in Europe, his place was at home. Later that evening, with Jan settled back at home the front door opened again. There stood their father Władysław, pale and ill-looking. “I’ve discharged myself and got a lift home. If I’m going to die I want us all to be together at Christmas.”
As it turned out this was the last Christmas they spent together as a whole family.
Following the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland on 17th September 1939, Jan was deported to Siberia. He escaped with the Polish Army in the East, under General Anders, following the “Amnesty” and enlisted for the Polish Navy….
On the night of 5th June 1944 Danka woke up from her sleep in her Polish dormitory in Rehovets, Palestine (where she was a refugee also having escaped from exile in the USSR) with a panic and fear. She thought “Janek is in trouble. He’s facing grave danger.” She couldn’t explain her feeling nor had she had such a strong inexplicable feeling since the incident of Christmas 1938. This was the night that the Polish Navy set sail with their Allied colleagues from England to Normandy for the D Day landings.
Everyone knew an invasion of western Europe was imminent but no one knew the date as it, and the invasion place, were of such strategic importance to the outcome of the war that it was totally secret.
Naval support for D-Day invasion of France, 6th June
In March 1944 Jan was transferred from ORP Krakowiak to ORP Śłazak because of a shortage of radar operators, and the crew prepared for the invasion for a few weeks in Portsmouth. Radar was useful to spot airplanes but nearer the shore it became ineffective.
Operation Neptune was the name for allied naval support for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France. Both Jan’s previous ship, the Krakowiak, and the Śłazak took part. During Operation Neptune OPR Śłazak attacked the enemy shore batteries, fighting with MTB’s, aircraft, and supporting landing crafts by gun-fire.
The ship left over night to Normandy, first in line, leading the ships with the landing crafts.
About 6am on 6th June the Śłazak, Commanding Officer, R. Tymiński, in the sector S/Sword, which was with landing crafts, opened fire against the first lines of German shore defences together with British destroyers. Ahead of the landing crafts were motor barges with 127 mm rockets shelling the beaches from short distances.
Thanks to the artillery support of Śłazak in this sector the Germans were forced to withdraw and the C.O. of the Canadian Marines ashore sent a signal to the Polish ship:
‘I think you saved our bacon. Thank You. Stand by to do it again.’
That afternoon Śłazak received another message of appreciation for effective fire against the German defenders: ‘Śłazak – fine work!’
For the next two days Śłazak and Krakowiak supported with artillery fire the Allied troops ashore instructed by air and land observers who were correcting shell accuracy by radio signals.
Source: Martin Stępek
- Janek Stępek as a young boy in Eastern Poland 1937
- Janek Stępek with Polish Navy sailors
- Janek Stępek, far right, with Polish Navy friends
- Jan’s sister Danka Stępek on the shores of Pahlevi 1942
- Janek Stępek, radar operator on ORP Słazak during the D-Day landings
- View from ORP Krakowiak which Janek Stępek served on prior to D-Day landings
- Polish Navy destroyer ORP Śłazak circa 1943
- Operation Neptune – the D-Day landings France 1944