There was a grisly righteousness served when the Polish submarine Orzl, under British command, torpedoed and sank the German troop ship Rio de Janeiro off the Norwegian coast on April 8, 1940, at the dawn of Germany’s invasion of Norway.
When I first heard this story I thought to myself, “Come on,” Poland didn’t have a Navy in World War II. But I was wrong. The story of the Orzl, and a few other Polish naval vessels that escaped when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, is remarkable. It deserves to be more widely known.
The Orzl, which means “the Eagle” in Polish, was berthed at the Polish city of Oksywie, an ancient city on a bay of the Baltic Sea, when the Germans attacked on Sept. 1, 1939.
The Orzl was a Polish Submarine. Public domain photo
Anticipating the attack, and certain destruction, two other Polish submarines and three naval destroyers had escaped Polish ports and arrived in Great Britain by then. Why Orzl hadn’t left Gdansk Bay, and Polish waters, isn’t clear.
A Polish website honoring The Orzl and its crew has published the captain’s log. My translations are crude, but here’s what the logs say.
Through spring and into the summer of 1939 the sub and its crew went through a variety of drills to prepare for battle. On July 17, the Orzl became the flag ship of the Polish fleet in Gdansk Bay.
Here is my translation of the ship’s log for Aug. 24 and Sept. 1, 1939:
“August 24th alarm mobilization of the squadron. We reviewed the mechanisms, refueled fuel, took food. The ‘Eagle’ had 12 torpedoes in launchers and eight backups, as well as 125 rounds to 105 mm guns and 1,200 rounds to a 40 mm gun. The ‘Eagle’ commander also received $9,000 in gold and Polish banknotes.”
“On September 1, due to a lack of full crew, which the commander of the ship allowed to land, Orzl left the port in Gdynia only after 7 p.m. and went to the waterside area of the sector, which was located on the Gulf of Gdansk. Taking two radiographs, the first ordered submerged vessels, and the other ordered the opening of the X envelope and joining the ‘Bag’ action. It arrived there only at 14.00. Floating at periscope depth, the ship was detected and attacked by deep-sea bombers of the enemy.”
From the 1st through the 4th of September the Orzl harassed, and was harassed by, the Germans. On the 4th, without orders to do so, the Orzl left Gdansk Bay and headed to Gotland, a large Swedish island in the Baltic. After another attack by the German air force the Orzl arrived at Gotland on Sept. 6. On Sept. 8 the Orzl reached another Polish ship, the Vulture, by radio. “We’re heading into the northern Baltic,” the captain radioed. But by the 10th the captain was so sick he was unable to command his ship. By the 14th the captain was so sick the decision was made to land at the Estonian port of Tallinn to seek medical help. Estonia was neutral and had not yet been occupied by the Germans.
The Estonians agreed to allow the Polish sub to dock on the condition that it completely disarm. Following disarmament the crew was required to destroy all nautical charts and documents. The Estonians then towed the sub out into the bay off Tallinn. Without a captain, armaments, and charts the Estonians believed that The Orzl was neutralized.
The Polish crew didn’t see it that way. Here’s the Sept. 18 entry in the ship’s log:
“At 3:00 am, the ship’s crew disarms two Estonian sailors, cuts telephone and electrical cables and moorings, and the ‘Eagle’ starts the maneuver to leave the darkened harbor. During these maneuvers the ship enters the beak into the spur of the breakwater and is temporarily immobilized. After lighting the ship Estonians open fire from machine guns and coastal artillery. At this time, the ‘Eagle’ is released from the spur and moves to the port. The pursuit of the Estonian ships is unsuccessful, as the ‘Eagle’ is immersed on the way out to the Åland Islands.”
After their escape into the Baltic a navigator for the Orzl was able to use an old map of lighthouse locations to create a makeshift chart of the Baltic and the treacherous Danish Straits leading into the North Sea. Using this, the crew was able to find their way to Gotland, where they dropped off the two Estonian guards. They then made their way across the Baltic and into the North Sea where, on Oct. 14, they encountered the British destroyer Valorous and the Orzl was escorted to the British port of Rosyth.
The Orzl then became part of the British Navy, and on Dec. 9, with its Polish crew intact, it was on duty escorting a British convoy in the North Sea.
My last translation of the Orzl’s lot is dated the day it sank the Rio de Janeiro. On June 9, 1940, while on patrol, the Orzl and its crew disappeared and were never heard from again. It is suspected that they were sunk by either a British or German mine field.