Monday, October 1, 2018

An Epic Submarine Escape

by Cindy K. Stewart

With the outbreak of WWII, submarine warfare took on new dimensions, and many heroic battles occurred “under the sea.” In today’s story, I’m sharing the adventures of a Polish submarine that received international attention and provided inspiration to many.

The Orzel in 1939 - Public Domain - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Who?  The Orzel (“Eagle”) and her crew
What?  One of five submarines in the Polish Navy
When?  September – October, 1939
Where?  The Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, and the North Sea

Poland’s submarines were commissioned to protect the 90 miles of Polish coastline on the Baltic Sea. The Orzel had only been at sea for about twenty months when Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, and World War II began. At first, the Polish submarine fleet carried on very low-key operations, observing and reporting German naval activity, but on the seventh day of the war, the fleet was ordered to return to the Central Baltic region.

Poland’s submarines weren’t prepared for war—they’d missed their May maintenance because of the seriousness of the international situation and had been at sea for nearly twelve months without an overhaul.

The Orzel in 1940 - Public Domain - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On September 14th, the commanding officer of the Polish submarine division ordered the sub commanders to carry out patrols and thwart enemy shipping for as long as possible. When they could no longer continue, they were to head for the United Kingdom, and if that wasn’t possible, they should seek internment in Sweden. When the Polish submarine Wilk attempted the long journey, the Germans attacked with depth charges and thirty-eight bombs from the air. Despite the opposition, the Wilk made it safely to the rendezvous point at Rosyth, Scotland on September 20th.

The Orzel’s adventure lasted much longer. . . .

After patrolling the Baltic Sea for nine days, the Orzel landed at Talinn, the capital Estonia, so the captain could seek medical treatment for stomach pains. Officially neutral, but sympathetic to Germany, Estonia insisted upon following international law. The Orzel was required to leave port within twenty-four hours, but the Estonian government wouldn’t allow her to depart until a German freighter left (also international law). The German freighter remained in port, and the Orzel missed the departure deadline. 

The Estonians then interned the Orzel and her crew. They removed the ship’s charts, the sailors’ small arms, the breach locks on the ship’s guns, and fifteen of twenty torpedoes. Two guards were also stationed on the ship to conduct surveillance. But, undetected, the Polish submariners partially cut through the thick ropes mooring the ship and left the sub attached to the jetty by a single strand.

On the night of September 17th-18th, two Polish sailors crawled ashore and cut the lines powering the jetty searchlights. The sailors severed the last rope, overpowered the two Estonian guards, and took them aboard the sub. At the mouth of the harbor, the ship hit a rock, but the crew trimmed the tanks, and the sub floated free. The Estonians fired on the sub with rifles and artillery from the small fortified islands outside the city, so the submarine submerged and fled. The sailors steered blindly with no chart for soundings. At dawn, they lay down at the bottom and waited as the hunters passed over them and depth charges burst around them.

At midnight, the Orzel cautiously rose, and the submariners discovered they were at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland. Nothing was in sight, so they remained surfaced and recharged the sub’s batteries.

Public Domain - Courtesy of Wikipedia
Meanwhile, the Orzel’s escape from Estonia became an international incident. Germany accused the Estonians of complicity with Poland, and the Soviets, who had invaded Poland on September 17th, patrolled the Gulf of Finland with cruisers and six destroyers, looking for Polish subs. The Orzel’s crew dropped the Estonian guards off on the island of Gotland, Sweden (see map – green island between Latvia and Sweden) with money, cigarettes, and a bottle of whiskey. Then the Orzel cruised the Baltic for two weeks, evading the Soviets.

With their water supply running low and their cook suffering from an infected finger, the crew of the Orzel decided to proceed to Scotland. On the way, they sighted a flotilla of German destroyers, so they dove to a shallow bed and avoided detection. After dark, they surfaced to periscope depth, ran aground, floated free, and crept along until reaching deeper water, all while the flotilla continued to patrol.

The Orzel traveled up the narrow waterway between Denmark and Sweden, arriving at the North Sea where she was vulnerable to German attack and “friendly fire” from British patrols. At six o’clock in the morning on October 14th, a British shore naval station picked up a faint transmission from the Orzel, and a few hours later a Royal Navy destroyer escorted the submarine into Rosyth.

The arrival of the Orzel shocked the Royal Navy. . . . The British had presumed the ship was lost at sea.

The Orzel went on to serve the Allies and sank the clandestine German troop transport, Rio de Janeiro, in southern Norway in April of 1940. During her seventh patrol in May-June of 1940, the Orzel disappeared and was never heard from again. To this day, her fate remains a mystery, although the Polish government has made repeated attempts to locate her final resting place.

The Orzel in English Port, 1940 - Public Domain - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Source: Poland Betrayed by David G. Williamson


Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s 2017 Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s 2014 First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-seven years and near her married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. Thanks for the tales of adventure!!! The Orzel did some amazing things!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Connie! Even German soldiers have admitted that the Polish soldiers were tough fighters during the War.

  2. Who knew submarines could be so interesting! I've never heard of the Orzel before. Thanks for sharing this tidbit of history.

    1. Thank you, Vickie! So many interesting stories keep coming out of WWII.