ORZEL: THE LEGEND OF WWII

Part 3: PATROLING IN THE BALTIC SEA

Orzel surfaced on the night of September 18, when the hunters were gone. Grudzinski informed the base at Hel with a "clear" radio message that they had escaped, but had no maps or navigational equipment. The base replied strangely "You can enter". Nothing more, probably because the base thought that Grudzinski would understand the message, and also it was feared that their radio messages would be jammed by the Germans.

But that radio message was never received by Orzel, so the Commander thought that the radio station at the base must have been destroyed. But an answer quickly came from the Polish submarine Rys, saying that she was heading for Sweden, and could give charts to Orzel. Grudzinski refused that offer, as he did not want to give away Orzel's position. That was lucky. The message had not come from Rys at all! She was already in Sweden. Orzel's sister submarine Sep had also already been interned in Sweden. Wilk was heading to Britain, and Zbik, which was at sea at the time, was later interned in Sweden on 24-25 September. None of the three interned Polish submarine commanders in Sweden had sent a message, or had any contact with Orzel. The only explanation was that the Germans (probably a German ship), had sent the message in an attempt to trap Orzel into disclosing her position.

Later that same day at 20:00 hours, through Orzel's periscope, Grudzinski saw three warships heading NW towards Aland. These may have been Swedish or Finnish ships. Grudzinski was now in very difficult position without charts or navigational equipment, but the Navigating Officer Mokrski and another officer, Stanislaw Pierzchlewski, who was good at drawing, made maps of the Baltic Sea. "Panienka" had not been long enough in submarines to acquire the depth of experience required to command a submarine, and the crew did not have a lot of faith in him as Commander, even though they knew Grudzinski wanted to fight, and was not like "Klocz". The crew had been disappointed by "Klocz's" cowardly behaviour, and slowly they began to trust Grudzinski. But things were harder now, since the Soviet Union had invaded Poland the previous day, and it was known that there was no hope for Poland.

In the meantime, the escape was to have other and more serious consequences for Estonia and her population. The Soviet leaders now felt they had an excuse for invading Estonia, claiming the country had failed to protect her neutrality. The Soviets later concluded a military pact with Estonia allowing them to build air and naval bases on Estonian territory. Already during the night of 19 September, Soviet warships arrived at Tallinn.

The same day the Polish section of the BBC stated that the Germans accused Orzel of murdering the two Estonian guards. On hearing this, Grudzinski wanted to do something about it. Orzel''s dramatic escape was reported all over the world, and now more than ever, she was a prestige target for the Kriegsmarine and the Soviet Navy. During 19 to 20 September, three Soviet destroyers and other smaller vessels joined the Estonian vessels searching for Orzel between the Gulf of Finland and Gotland. The crew of Orzel would never have imagined that Soviet ships would have joined the hunt.

Orzel's courageous escape must have caused considerable alarm to the Kriegsmarine, who realised they had a dangerous enemy to deal with. Friederich Ruge, commander of the minehunter flotilla, ordered all his minehunter commanders to "destroy enemy submarines wherever they will be found". Five flotillas (Nos.11,13,15,17 and 19) each of 8 minehunters, would be thrown into the Baltic Sea after 21 September, to locate and sink Orzel. Aircraft, escort vessels, sub-chasers and minesweepers would participate in the search. Marinegruppenkommando Ost sent sub-chasers to the Sund Narrows to prevent Orzel from making any attempt to head for Great Britain. More than 50 German vessels would participate in that hunt!

The Polish campaign was over at sea, but the Germans were concerned that Orzel, loose in the Baltic, would paralyse the movements of heavy ships going from the Baltic to the North Sea for other operations. She was something like an irritating insect to the Germans and Soviets, and that insect had to be eliminated. Orzel gave courage to all the Polish people who were fighting for their freedom, and to the Germans, sinking Orzel was now a question of honour.

From 20 to 21 September Orzel was east of the Swedish island of Gotland. Two nautical miles from Ostergarn lighthouse the two overpowered Estonian officers were left in the only small boat that Orzel had, with food, vodka and some money that Grudzinski gave them (50 dollars each) to return to Estonia. Grudzinski told them, with a sense of humour, "Pamietajcie ze z zaswiata nie wypada wracac gorsza klasa niz pierwsza". (Don't forget that you shouldn't be returning from the world of the dead other than first class.) The two guards thanked Grudzinski and the others for their good treatment on Orzel, and for setting them free to leave for Gotland.

During the following days Orzel patrolled east of Íland. From periscope depth, an armed German merchant ship was seen. It seemed to be heading for the Latvian port of Lipawa. Orzel surfaced and was ready to fire torpedoes when she hit a rock and stuck. With flag signals, Grudzinski ordered the ship to stop. The enemy ship could be heard sending coded radio messages, probably calling for help.

Orzel was still on the rock when a black object was seen in the sky, heading for them. Grudzisnki screamed "Alarm!" and everybody went inside. The black object was a German Heinkel seaplane. Fortunately once again the powerful diesels performed another miracle, and at the last moment Orzel slid off the rock. The bombs dropped from the aircraft hit the rock, but Orzel was not there any more. The German ship set off quickly, making smoke to conceal her moves, and with air cover provided by the Heinkel.

The position of that incident was noted on the improvised map as "Lawica Strachu", (which roughly translates as Wave of Fear, or Bank of Fear). Navigator Mokrski had a very hard job to do on the improvised charts, which were very important for the success of Orzel's journey. Orzel was patrolling between Gotland and Bornholm, but their improvised chart did not include any details of that area. It was expected that after that incident, German warships would come to search for Orzel. Probably some did, but failed to locate Orzel, or maybe the German ships remained in their positions west of Bornholm, waiting for Orzel.

German propaganda claimed that the two Estonian guards considered dead, and the Soviets also instigated risky and deadly propaganda to provoke anti-Polish feelings abroad. The Soviet submarine Szcz 303 was ordered by the Command in Leningrad to sink the Soviet freighter Metallist, which would be near the Estonian coast on 26/27 September. With two torpedoes, the submarine sank the ship with the loss of five men. Immediately the Soviet press claimed that Orzel's crew had acted with barbarity in sinking a merchant vessel in Estonian territorial waters, without warning. In addition, on 28 September, the same Soviet submarine fired two torpedoes at another Soviet freighter, Pioneer, but both torpedoes missed - probably intentionally. Of course the Soviet and German press did not miss the chance, and again accused the Orzel which, to them, was spreading panic and terror in the Baltic Sea, and had to be destroyed.

In late September and early October, the German and Soviet press spent more time accusing Orzel and writing about her than they did about the campaign in Poland, which was almost over, with tragic results for all the heroic Polish people. Several times German radio communications called upon Orzel's crew to surrender, otherwise they would be sunk by the powerful German Kriegsmarine, since there was no way to escape to Great Britain. But no one in Orzel was fooled by these messages.

On 1 October, the German minesweeper M-85 hit a mine laid by the Polish submarine Zbik near Gdansk, and sank with the loss of 23 men. It was assumed that Orzel had torpedoed M-85, and the minesweepers M-3 and M-8, which were near M-85, immediately started to drop depth charges everywhere. Soon other minehunters joined in the attack, and started to search the area without success. Panic fell in the German Command, when they heard that Orzel had sunk a ship, and the submarine had not been located and sunk. For the rest of war, the Germans believed that M-85 had been sunk by Orzel.

But Orzel was far away from Gdansk then. At that time she was between Bornholm and Íland. Suddenly on 2 October, the crew felt very worried and scared. Poland had been occupied completely. No Polish radio station could be heard any more, only German stations with German victory announcements and glorious martial music. Nothing more could be heard. The sea was clear. Orzel was the only Polish vessel in the Baltic Sea, alone amongst the powerful German Kriegsmarine, and the crew was acutely conscious of that. Grudzinski and the other officers gave a lot of encouragement to the crewmen. Besides the crew was in good spirit after their successful escape, even if more and more bad news was emanating from Poland.

After all, Orzel was the only Polish unit, not only in the Baltic Sea but also in the whole of Poland, still fighting for freedom. It was only in fairytales that something so touching and brave, could be found. Once a German aircraft appeared in the sky and located Orzel, which quickly dived, under the frightening sounds of the aircraft engines, and lay very deep on the seabed. The aircraft gave the position of the attack, and German minehunters and fast sub-chasers headed there but did not find her. On 5 October, Grudzinski saw three unidentified destroyers in the distance through the periscope. Attack was impossible from far away, and besides, it would have been very risky. It was believed they were German destroyers, which had probably left their base to look for Orzel after the loss of M-85, and the failure of smaller vessels to locate her.

As the supplies of food and fresh water were rapidly running short, the decision was taken on 7 October to make for Great Britain through the narrow strait between Denmark and Sweden, in order to join the Allied naval forces. There was no question of surrendering, or heading for neutral Sweden.

At 21:00 hours on 7 October Orzel passed Ystadt, going west. The navigator was working hard on the improvised charts, and at 23:17 hours saw a lighthouse, and recognised as it as Smyge Huk, near the southern tip of Sweden. His memory was good! But Swedish and German patrol boats were also seen on both sides. For a moment the light shone towards Orzel. "It was like death, looking for us", said one officer. As the light continued to swing round, Orzel was not caught in its beam any more. Maybe the observers did not see Orzel, or thought it was a Swedish submarine. After that, Orzel quickly dived and lay on the bottom at 30 meters.

Part 4: THE DEADLY PASSAGE OF SUND