Polish destroyer Orkan
Polish Navy motor torpedo boat S7 seen here in the Solent in 1944. She is flying the Polish Flat and bears the Polish Emblem on the bridge.
On 1 September 1939, when Germans invaded Poland, The Polish Navy consisted of 4 destroyers, 5 submarines, 1 minelayer and 6 minesweepers, as well as 2 gunboats and several other old or auxiliary vessels. The naval bases and shore installations along the Baltic coast were defended by some 500 officers and 14,000 men of the Marines and Army detachments. Of these scant forces, the destroyers Blyskawica, Burza and Grom were on their way to the British Isles under Operation “Peking”. This hard decision of depriving the home waters of the major part of their defence had been made because of the hopeless position of these precious ships in the face of an overwhelming German superiority both on the sea and in the air. Of the remaining vessels destroyer Wicher was to be used in possible operations in the vicinity of Gdansk, and to act as screen for Gryf and the minelaying flotilla. When war began, the minelayer Gryf was in the naval base at Oksywie, the destroyer Wicher in Gdynia roads. At 1700 on 1.IX.1939 the captain of Gryf received orders to lay mines. But before the order could be executed, a strong formation of enemy bombers attacked the minelaying flotilla. Gryf and the minesweeper Mewa received direct hits. The ship was seriously damaged, the rudder jammed, the mines jumped the rails. Gryf was hit two days later, in an artillery engagement between herself, the destroyer Wicher, the shore batteries of the Hel peninsula naval base, and two German destroyers Leberecht Mass and Wolfgang Zenker on which both enemy vessels were damaged. The same day 3.IX.1939 at about 1300 a strong bomber force attacked and sank both ships at the Hel naval base.
Some of the ships of the minelaying flotilla, Czajka, Rybitwa and Jaskolka laid about 60 mines in the vicinity of Gdansk during the night of 6.IX.1939. When returning to base Jaskolka shot down one Ju 87. On 15.IX.1939, in another enemy air attack, the minesweepers Jaskolka, Czapla and the hydrographic vessel Pomorzanin were sunk, and the minesweepers Czajka, Rybitwa and Zuraw were damaged. The damaged ships were then used as anti-aircraft batteries. After fall of Hel peninsula the remaining vessels fall into German hands.
The Polish submarines employed for the defence of Hela had no targets for their torpedoes, as Germans planned no landing on the peninsula. All were shifted to patrol duty in the central Baltic on 8 September 1939, but again had no targets. On 7/8.IX.1939 Polish minelying submarines placed pole mines on which on 1.X.1939 sunk German minesweeper M 85. Because of German air supremacy the Polish submarines were not able to enter Gdynia or Hela, but had to use neutral harbours (Rys and Sep in Stavans on 17 September, Zbik in Stavans on 27 September and Orzel in Tallinn on 15 September), where all but Wilk were interned. Of these, only Orzel escaped and after a lone patrol in the Baltic she sailed for Britain.
Some minor boats of the Pinsk Flotilla had been transferred to the Vistula in spring 1939. They were: 1 heavy armoured motor gunboat Nieuchwytny, 2 armoured motor gunboats KU 4, KU 5, 1 artillery reconnaissance motor gunboat KU 6, 2 report motorboats KM 12, KM 13, 1 riverine motor gunboat KU 30, 1 fast motorboat Nr 6 and 2 tugs Hetman Zolkiewski, Lubecki. On 8.IX.1939 Nieuchwytny, KU 30, KM 12 and KM 13 received order to break through to Modlin. The rest of flotilla stayed at Dobrzyn where they were scuttled on 10.IX.1939. Only KU 30 fought her way through to Modlin, three other units were scuttled on 10.IX.1939 near Brwilno. In Modlin KU 30 was incarnated to anti-aircraft defence. During 18 days of action she shot down few enemy planes. The last ship of OWW was scuttled on 28.IX.1939 after surrender of Modlin stronghold. All scuttled units were raised by Germans and commissioned into Weichsel Flottille. The bulk of the Pinsk Flotilla (6 monitors and 3 armoured motor gunboats) remained on the Prypec, occupying important strategic positions (like bridges, towns, etc.). Most of the units were concentrated near Wolanski Bridges. During 17 days of action (1.IX – 17.IX), Polish ships shot down around 4 German planes. After Russian invasion in Poland all units were scuttled. All remaining vessels sailed to Pinsk harbour, from which they sail away on 20.IX.1939. The last ships of River Flotilla were scuttled on 21.IX.1939 near Krolewski Canal. Most of scuttled units were raised by Russians until 1.XI.1939.
At the outbreak of the war two groups of Polish warships were outside Baltic. One was a training group, consisting of the transport ships Wilia at Casablanca, and the sailing ships Iskra off the north-western coast of Africa. The second group consisted of the three destroyers Blyskawica, Burza and Grom. These ships, as it was said, left Gdynia on 30.VII.1939 and arrived at Rosyth on 1.IX.1939. The seven ships that reached the Allied side brought with them 70 officers, 69 cadets and 804 petty-officers and seamen.
During the first months of 1940 the destroyers, based on Harwich, patrolled the North Sea against the U-boats and blockade runners. At the beginning of April of the same year the destroyers were assigned to the Home Fleet, and took part in the ill-fated Norwegian expedition. On 4.V.1940, at the entrance to Rombarks Fjord, Grom was sunk by one lonely enemy bomber. The two destroyers Blyskawica and Burza took part in the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk. During this operation Burza was hit by two bombs.
At that time the Polish Navy had lost its most famous submarine Orzel. Having escaped from the Baltic, she carried out seven patrols from a British base, operating mainly in Norwegian waters and in the Skagerak and Kategat straits. During her fifth patrol, on 8.IV.1940 she had sunk the German troop ship Rio de Janeiro, engaged in ferrying German troops for the invasion of Norway. Her seventh patrol was her last. She was lost with all hands from unknown cause. The other submarine which escaped from the Baltic, Wilk, carried out seven patrols in 1940, during one of which she rammed a U-boat.
The year 1940, apart from losses, marks also the growth in number of ships under the Polish flag. On 3.V.1940 the British Admiralty lent the Polish Navy a “G” class destroyer. She served throughout the war under Polish flag, retaining her original name Garland. For a time she operated in the Mediterranean, and then joined the other Polish destroyers, at their new base, Plymouth. There they formed a part of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla, which operated mainly in the Channel.
In June 1940 the Polish Navy manned 12 fishing trawlers, each armed with a small Hotchkis gun, one machine gun and a radio-telephone. These ships carried out watch duties against invasion. This group was later reinforced by two French anti-submarine chasseuers (Ch 11 and Ch 15) of about 100 tons each, manned by Polish crews. In July two more auxiliary French ships were manned by the Polish Navy, the Medoc and the Pomerol, both of 1200 tons. Since the ships were French and the crews Polish, two flags were hoisted, the White Eagle and the Tricouleur. Later, when the same ships were manned by British crews, but still commanded by Polish officers, the ships wore three flags: Polish, French and British. A little later another French destroyer passed temporarily under the Polish flag, the Ouragan.
In November 1940 the Navy received a new destroyer Piorun. At the end of 1940, with the danger of invasion decreasing and the U-boat war increasing, the Polish destroyers were moved from their base at Plymouth to Greenock, on the Clyde. From there they took their full share of the grim Battle of Atlantic. In May 1940 Piorun took part in the Bismarck chase and was the first of the destroyer flotilla to spot the German battleship. In June Garland took part in a raid on Spitzbergen, to destroy the enemy meteorological station there. This station supplied weather reports to U-boats operating in the Atlantic. In September of the same year the destroyers Piorun and Garland formed part of the famous Malta convoy escort. In April 1941 two more new ships joined the fleet Krakowiak and Kujawiak, escort class destroyers. They formed part of the 15th Destroyer Flotilla, based at Plymouth. At the end of December the two ships took part in a raid on the Lofoten Islands.
The submarine Wilk returned from her last operational patrol in January 1941. She had been built in 1930 and she had been seriously damaged by enemy depth charges during her operations in the Baltic at the beginning of the war. She now joined a group of training ships. But on 19.I.1941 the White Eagle Ensign had been hoisted on a new submarine Sokol. At first she took part in the blockade of Brest, where the two pocket battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were sheltering. In September she went to join a submarine flotilla based on Malta. During her first tour of duty in the Mediterranean Sokol sunk 3,000 BRT of enemy shipping and damaged another 13,000 BRT. 82 depth charges were dropped on her. On 4.XII.1941 the US Navy transferred one submarine to serve under the Polish flag. She was named Jastrzab. But a few months later, in May 1942 she was sunk accidentally by Allied ships. On 11.X.1942 another new submarine, the Dzik joined the fleet.
During 1942 Polish destroyers, in their convoy duties, escorted ships to Canada, Russia, Iceland, in the Channel and in the Mediterranean, where on 16.VI.1942 the destroyer Kujawiak struck a mine while escorting a Malta bound convoy and sunk. To replace Kujawiak a ship of the same class, Slazak joined the fleet, together with a new fleet destroyer Orkan. At this time Garland distinguished herself in a convoy to Murmansk. In August Slazak took part in a raid on Dieppe, where she shot down four enemy aircraft. She also became famous for her rescue work, in two weeks she picked up 21 British airmen and she gained a nickname: “shepherd of the dinghies”. On 8.XI.1942 the destroyer Blyskawica took part in the Allied landing in North Africa.
On 1.I.1943 the first cruiser joined the fleet, the Dragon. During early month of 1943 Burza was escorting convoys in Atlantic fighting with U-boats. In March 1943 the submarine Dzik was sent to the Mediterranean, to be joined there in April by her sister ship Sokol. During their patrols Dzik had sunk about 25,000 BRT and Sokol about 23,000 BRT of enemy shipping. In June 1943 the destroyers Slazak and Krakowiak were sent to the Mediterranean and took part in the invasion of Sicily. In the Battle of the Atlantic, on 8.X.1943 the fleet destroyer Orkan had been lost. From a crew of 14 officers and 200 petty-officers and seamen only one officer and 40 men survived. The captain went down with his ship. In November Krakowiak took part in the invasion of the Dodecanese.
In April 1944 the destroyer Garland left her operational base at Freetown and went to the Mediterranean. Many of Polish vessels were involved in the “D – Day”: 1 cruiser and four other destroyers. During operation Dragon was lost. In the replacement of her Poles received another light cruiser Conrad (the same class as Dragon). Polish destroyers took action in the battle near Quessant, and fought in the La Manche Channel. Four MGB’s were returned to Royal Navy and on that place there were loaned five others. In the end of the war Blyskawica and Piorun took part in the “Operation Deadlight”.
By May 1945 the Polish Navy consisted of 1 cruiser, 6 destroyers (1 in reserve), 3 submarines (1 in reserve) and 5 MTBs. All these ships were handed over to Royal Navy between July and September 1946, and those belonging to Poland were retroceded to the new Polish Government.
In 1944 part of the Polish territories west of the Curzon Line were freed from German control and power was seized by the Communist administration there. To secure the areas around Gdansk and Gdynia, whose liberation was soon expected, it was decided to organise the Naval Reserve Battalion. This unit was the first in the People’s Navy, which was officially founded on 7.VII.1945 after the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity had been recognised de jure by the western powers. The new navy authority at once began efforts to recover vessels belonging to Poland, and by the end of 1945 three submarines has returned from Sweden followed in 1946 by the four minesweepers seized by the Germans in 1939. On 5.IV.1946 the Polish Navy received 9 minesweepers, 2 MTBs and 12 sub-chasers as its quota of German ships seized by the Allies. The Soviet Union, obliged at Potsdam to do so, began to build up the Polish Navy with production from Russia yards.