A daring escape from internment and a treacherous route through sea mines secured the Orzeł submarine’s place in history
The wartime history of the Polish submarine the Orzeł is one of the most spectacular, daring and improbable stories from the high seas during the Second World War.
Trapped in the port in Tallinn, the pride of the Polish underwater fleet made an audacious escape under fire, followed by a miraculous journey without navigational aids to Britain in waters infested with German vessels intent on sinking it.
Repaired and put back to sea, the Orzeł sank a German ship on its way to invade Norway only to disappear later without trace on its next mission, ending the vessel’s short service but leaving a legacy that still inspires awe today.
The war did not start well for the Orzeł and her crew. They were eager to use the potential of the state-of-the-art sub to engage the Kriegsmarine and defend the Polish coast against a possible German seaborne invasion.
However, they were saddled with a commander, Henryk Kłoczkowski, who has been dubbed Poland’s greatest traitor of the September campaign. He saw no point in fighting, saw the war as lost before it had begun and failed to carry out orders.
Matters on board only got worse when in early September he was struck by a mysterious illness. His fellow officers thought he was making it up. He would later be charged with desertion, demoted to the rank of sailor and sentenced to military jail.
After being attacked by the Luftwaffe and suffering damage, the captain was happy that he could head to Tallinn for repairs. The submarine reached its destination on Thursday 14 September in the evening.
The Estonians were not delighted with the unexpected appearance of the Poles. However, under international maritime rules, naval vessels were allowed to enter neutral ports for a period of 24 hours.
They agreed to the ship's arrival in the port, and even took up repair of the damaged compressor. However, matters started to become complicated when the German ship the Thalatta called at the same port.
The law of the sea clearly regulated this awkward situation by making sure the vessels left the port with a 24 hour gap between them.
The Poles were thus allowed to stay longer, but under German pressure, the Estonians informed the Poles that they were being interned.
The next day, on Saturday 16 September, the Estonians began to disarm the vessel. The maps and the navigation log were taken, without which the chances of getting out into the Baltic Sea and escaping the Kriegsmarine ships were negligible.
Also, the cannons were disabled and the ammunition was confiscated. Finally, 14 of the 20 torpedoes were taken with the remaining 6 to be taken the next day.
However, the crew of the Orzeł, now under the command of captain Jan Grudziński, had no intention of giving up their vessel.
Using the cover of a moonless night, the crew lured the Estonian guards onboard and overpowered them. They managed to turn off all the lights in the port. They then cut the moorings, fired up the engines and started to move out of the port.
When the engines started, Estonian soldiers started to run from the nearby barracks and immediately opened fire on the submarine.
A greater danger, though, were the underwater rocks, which the submarine struck almost scuppering the whole plan.
Fortunately, Grudziński’s cool head saved the situation and he managed to free the Orzeł from the seabed. The captain, believing that enemy vessels would chase them, stayed near the coastline, initially confusing the pursuit.
The two Estonian guards were later sent home in a lifeboat, after being giving a large sum of money and plenty of food. ‘Sailors only travel first class,’ the Poles explained to them.
The escape of the Orzeł left the Estonians with headaches of their own. The Soviet authorities claimed that the Polish submarine sank the Soviet tanker Metallist in Narva Bay on 26 September 1939 and blamed the Estonians for abetting the Poles. The Soviets used the incident as a pretext for the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states.
Now out in deep waters, they had to decide what to do next. Seeing how low they were on fuel, Grudziński decided the only option was to try and break through to the UK. However, it was a journey of one and a half thousand nautical miles to Britain with no maps, no weapons and no means of contacting their commanders.
One of the officers, Lieutenant Andrzej Piasecki, came up with an ingenious plan. Using a German survey of Baltic Sea lighthouses, which the Estonians had not taken, he drew a rough map of the Baltic Sea, and using it guided the Orzeł through the Danish straits.
After many near misses with German vessels hunting for them in the Baltic, the crew managed to reach British waters near the port of Rosyth.
After making contact, the astonished Royal Navy sent a destroyer to escort the submarine into port.
Grudziński recalled later: “When, after three weeks, we finally reached the coast of England, we did not have even one drop of fresh water on board. We were almost there, but we could have died underwater of thirst.”
The whole world learned about the brave escape of the Polish vessel and congratulations flooded in.
After undergoing repairs, the Orzeł was put back into service, this time assigned to the Royal Navy Second Submarine Fleet in Rosyth. The ship repeatedly went out to sea on patrols and convoy duty.
Its most famous achievement was the sinking of the German transporter, the Rio de Janeiro, which was taking German troops to invade Norway.
The sinking of the transporter was one of the last of the war to be made using ancient rules of chivalry on the high seas when, before releasing their torpedoes, the Poles gave the German ship the chance to change course and leave the area. They declined the offer, instead using the opportunity to call in the Luftwaffe.
The Orzeł left port for the last time on 23 May 1940. Two days later it went missing, and to this day it is still unknown what exactly happened to the crew of the Polish vessel.
There are several theories. The most likely is that the ship was mistakenly sunk by a British aircraft patrolling the British coast. This appears to be confirmed by a report by a British pilot who claimed that he sank a submarine similar to a German submarine in the area where the Orzeł was patrolling.
Another version is that the submarine’s anchor triggered a sea mine. Such an event could have taken place anywhere in the North Sea during the war.
The Orzeł’s brilliant but short career still evokes awe. To this day, all Polish ships sailing in the area where it was lost raise their flag to honour the heroic crew of the Polish submarine.