The Polish Navy

Prior to the Second World War, the Polish Navy had focussed on communications with France in the event of another conflict with Russia. However, when it became clear that Nazi Germany appeared to be the main aggressor and access to the Baltic Sea could be affected, a rethink was needed.

Operation Peking saw most of Poland’s modern military ships relocate to the UK. That left Poland with the remaining ships:

  • One destroyer – the ORP Wicher
  • One mine-layer – the ORP Gryf
  • Five submarines
  • Minelaying minesweepers Jaskółka, Czapla, Żuraw, Czajka, Rybitwa and Mewa
  • Gunboats Komendant Piłsudski and Generał Haller

With such a limited force, the Polish navy limited itself to two main operations – both aimed at hampering German naval movements should conflict break out:

The Submarines were sent from the southern Baltic to take part in the Worek Plan, which planned to repel any attempted German landings and ideally, sink as many German ships as possible.

The Polish minelayer, ORP Gryf

Operation Rurka

The rest of the Polish fleet were sent to the Hel Peninsula to undertake Operation Rurka which involved laying a network of mines between Hel and Danzig to stop the German ships from entering the area.

Coastal batteries on the Peninsula would prevent or hamper any German minesweeping attempts, so the operations success would severely restrict German naval movements and could have a knock-on effect on any planned land operations.

Lieutenant Commander Stefan de Walden was appointed commander of Operation Rurka.

At dusk on 1 September 1939, the Polish ships left Gdynia and headed across the bay to Hel where they would start their minelaying operation. The ORP Wicher left before the rest of the flotilla to take up a shielding position at Hel.

However, enroute they were spotted by a German reconnaissance aircraft and an airstrike was quickly launched. While travelling through Danzig Bay, the Polish ships were attacked by 33 German warplanes – mostly the dreaded JU 87B Stuka drive bombers (which had already made their mark at the Battle of Westerplatte).

Polish naval AA gunners.


The Germans attack

The German aircraft targeting the Polish ships were from the 1st Luftwaffe Air Fleet – who had been ordered to attack Polish naval vessels, coastal defences, air or sea bases and artillery positions, as well as supporting the Kriegsmarine in its operations. It was classed as an elite unit, equipped with Ju 87B dive bombers and commanded by Hauptmann (Captain) Peter Kögel.

The ORP Wicher


Organised into two groups, the German aircraft attacked but thanks to frantic zigzagging by the Polish ships and spirited anti-aircraft fire from the sailors, the German planes were prevented from getting too close to the Polish fleet and were forced to launch their bombs from a higher altitude – which affected their accuracy. As a result, the Polish only suffered minor losses and their most important ship – the ORP Gryf which was carrying 300 naval mines – escaped with minor damage.

The German bombers soon returned and launched another attack at 18:00 and again the Polish ships escaped mostly serious harm with only two minelayers, the aforementioned Gryf and ORP Mewa suffering damage from both nearby bomb misses and machine gun fire. The Mewa was effectively disabled from a near miss, suffering 22 casualties, and had to be towed by the Rybitwa.

German Ju 87B Stuka dive bombers taking off, Poland 1939.

Loss of the mines

Mines and120mm Bofors gun at the stern ORP Gryf.

The Gryf suffered damage - including a jammed rudder and radio and compass damage - from several near misses and her captain – Commander Stefan Kwiatkowski was killed and 29 of her crew were wounded. Lieutenant Commander Wiktor Tomidze took command. Worried that the 300 mines might prove to be an explosive problem should more damage be taken to the ship, he ordered them dumped overboard.

Capt. Stefan Kwiatkowski, Commander of the Gryf, killed in action during the battle.

Rurka called off

Although the Polish Flotilla eventually reached Hel, the operation had to be called off due to the Gryf having dumped the 300 mines overboard, thus rendering Operation Rurka impossible.  Shortly after, two German destroyers were spotted by the Wicher although realising that discretion was the better part of valour, the captain wisely chose to not engage and risk drawing attention to the rest of the fleet, so the German ships were allowed to pass unmolested. Later that evening, they spotted a Leipzig-class German Cruiser – an even more formidable prospect. The Wicher and Gryf were then stripped of most of equipment and served as anti-aircraft platforms in the Hel naval base which would then come into use at the Battle of Hel.

1939 map of Danzig Bay