Polish Naval ORP Kujawaik bell conserved after 1942 shipwreck

The bell was found by a team made up of Polish explorers and Dr Timmy Gambin in 2014, who discovered the resting place of ORP Kujawaik, just off the Maltese shores

The bell before and after the cleaning process
The bell before and after the cleaning process

The bell of the Polish Naval destroyer ORP Kujawaik has been recovered from its wreck located in Maltese territorial waters to be conserved by Heritage Malta and displayed for the appreciation of the general public.

ORP Kujawaik was a British Type II Hunt-class destroyer, launched on 30 October 1940 and named HMS Oakley, and subsequently leased by the British Royal Navy to the Polish Navy in exile on 17 June 1941. ORP stands for Okręt Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej (Vessel of the Republic of Poland).

While participating in Operation Harpoon near Malta on 16 June 1942, ORP Kujawaik struck a mine and sunk instantly, with the loss of thirteen Polish sailors. In 2014, a joint Maltese-Polish team authorised by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage commenced searches for the site, since its exact position was not indicated by the British Ministry of Defence.

On 22 September 2014, the team made up of Polish explorers and Dr Timmy Gambin of the University of Malta, discovered the resting place of ORP Kujawaik, just off the Maltese shores.

The team originally deployed a remotely operated underwater vehicle which provided footage that was compared to blueprints of the Hunt Type II escort destroyer. The discovery was reported to both the Maltese and Polish authorities, and was designated a historic shipwreck and is protected by local laws and international conventions. A commemorative plaque was placed on the wreck and a memorial was unveiled in Valletta. The team mapped the wreck in 3D in 2017, returning to the site to recover the ship’s bell for conservation.

The bell, covered with thick concretions, was retained within sea water until it arrived at Heritage Malta’s Conservation Laboratories in Bighi, where it was placed in a desalination tank. Heritage Malta's qualified conservators investigated the bell’s condition and researched further the possible interventions to be undertaken. Throughout the past year the water used within the desalination tank was gradually changed from saline to deionised water, with weekly readings of the conductivity kept on record.

Following various cleaning tests to remove the concretions, the conservators opted for an innovative process of using a surface heating method, specifically used for such metal items. The process was successful and most of the external and internal coverings were removed.

This process revealed the inscribed name and date: HMS OAKLEY 1941, which was not visible before. It was custom in such cases that a ship's original bell, inscribed with the original name and launch date to be retained. This was so since practically during such belligerent times, there was no time to spare and wait for a new replacement bell to arrive. The iron clapper was found to be still in situ, while the iron suspension bracket bolts fasting said bracket to the bronze bell were loosened without any damage in order to be treated separately.

Now that the bell and its iron attachments have been generically cleaned, the process will continue. Analyses of the metal composition of the bell will be undertaken at Heritage Malta’s Diagnostic Scientific Laboratories. This will provide further information to conservators regarding the treatments to be undertaken. The bell will be gradually dried after desalination, further mechanical cleaning undertaken, with the eventual stabilisation of the different metal components and finally protective coatings applied. It will still be monitored to ensure that no further deterioration develops.

Currently, Heritage Malta is taking the necessary provisions for the bell to travel on loan to Polish museums later this year after said treatment process is concluded. Upon its return to Malta it will subsequently be displayed at Heritage Malta's Maritime Museum, to be appreciated by the general public and for future generations to remember the history of this forsaken ship.