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Tales of the Sea: The Orzel Incident, Part II


Part I

ORP Orzel broke into the Baltic, searching for German targets. The search was not immediately successful, however, and the situation onboard Orzel began to deteriorate. The captain became severely ill, and mechanical problems arose. Because of the German advance, no Polish port remained for Orzel to return. Her sister, Sep, faced a similar situation, with her crew deciding to seek refuge in Sweden. Orzel made for Tallin, Estonia, arriving on September 14. Like Poland, Estonia had regained its national independence in the wake of World War I. Along with Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania, it emerged from the wreckage of the Russian Empire. With British support, Estonian forces had defeated both Russian and German forces and even threatened Petrograd. Unlike Lithuania, Estonia did not come into direct conflict with Poland.

Unfortunately, Orzel was an unwelcome visitor. The Estonians wanted no part of Polish-German War, and feared Russian intervention. The Soviet successor to the Russian Empire had not relinquished its claims on the Baltic, and the Soviet invasion of Poland was deeply worrying to the Estonians. For their part, the Germans immediately stepped up pressure on the Estonian authorities to intern the ship and return both it and its crew to Poland. The Estonians complied, and shortly thereafter began to dismantle the Orzel’s military equipment. With few good options left, the crew, led by XO Jan Grudzinski, decided to try an escape. Their plans received a boost when the British naval attaché visited and left his card. At 3am on September 18, sailors from Orzel incapacitated a pair of Estonian guards and cut the mooring cables. Orzel quietly got under way, and promptly ran into a mudbank. Grudzinski ordered the boat to full power, which alerted the Estonian authorities. Under sporadic gunfire, the boat escaped Tallin and submerged. The two incapacitated Estonian guards remained onboard Orzel as unwilling guests.

Free, the crew of Orzel decided to continue the fight. The two Estonian guards were dropped off at Gotland, and Orzel proceeded to search for German ships through September and early October, as the last pockets of Polish resistance collapsed. Having no luck, she evaded Kriegsmarine hunters, made it through the Danish Straits, and set sail for England. On October 14, she surfaced just outside Rosyth, was met by a British destroyer, and entered the harbor. The crew decided, like so many other Polish escapees, that they would prefer to continue fighting rather than be interned in Great Britain. The Royal Navy initiated repairs and a refit to Orzel immediately, and brought her back into service in early December. During the refit process, the crew was visited by both the Polish Prime Minister and the Commander of the Polish Navy in exile.

The flight of Orzel had an unfortunate impact in Estonia. The terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, and had placed Estonia firmly within the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviets used the escape of Orzel as pretext for aggression, arguing that the flight indicated that Estonia was not neutral, but rather a pro-Polish belligerent. The Soviets immediately demanded military bases on Estonian soil, and an uneven treaty of cooperation was forced upon the Estonian government. The Red Army invaded in June 1940, and annexation was completed by August. The Wehrmacht conquered Estonia in 1941, incorporating the territory into the Reich rather than granting its independence. The Red Army returned in 1944. Estonia would regain its independence in 1989.

ORP Orzel conducted several missions in Royal Navy service in late 1939 and early 1940. In February 1940, King George VI visited Rosyth and met with Orzel’s crew, having bestowed the Distinguished Service Order on Lt. Commander Jan Grudzinski in December. In early April 1940, Germany launched Operation Weserubung, aimed at the conquest of Denmark and Norway. On April 3, troop transports disguised as civilian traffic began leaving German ports. The full German assault was launched on April 9, resulting in a quick Danish capitulation. The Norwegian component of the operation was more complicated, and represented the greatest mobilization of German surface seapower of the war. Much of southern Norway was seized in short order, but Norwegians in the north continued fighting with French, British, and Polish support. On patrol off Norway, not far from the site of the Battle of Jutland, Orzel sighted the German freighter Rio de Janiero. Acting according to prize rules (a courtesy the Germans rarely extended to Allied shipping), Orzel surfaced and challenged the suspicious ship. The Germans responded by attempting to flee, resulting in the launch of two torpedoes by Orzel, both of which hit. The German ship sank in five minutes, along with its contingent of German soldiers. Over the next five days, Orzel continued to harass German shipping to Norway, although none of her attacks were successful. She evaded German aircraft and surface vessels and returned to Rosyth in late April.

The Allied situation began to deteriorate in May…

To be continued.

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