Escape to Tallinn

At the outbreak of the Second World War with the German invasion if Poland, the Polish submarine Orzeł was docked at Oksywie, northern Poland. As hostilities commenced, the submarine took part in the Worek Plan before being forced to withdraw as the Polish plans increasingly fell into disarray.

After being damaged by German minesweepers, the Orzeł, suffering a damaged compressor, general wear and tear and leaking oil, headed for Tallinn, Estonia, aiming to carry out repairs when it arrived. Upon docking at the port on 14 September, the commanding officer - Lieutenant-Commander Henryk Kłoczkowski – had to be taken ashore and to hospital due to illness.

ORP Orzeł

Old photos in color

Hague Convention

The Hague Convention of 1907 determines that combatant warships can use neutral ports for up to 24 hours before being interned, and without interference from enemy warships.

The Orzeł, minus its commander and with a range of mechanical issues, had a day to get itself ready to go to sea again. The clock was ticking.

Initially, the Estonians were cooperative and accommodating and happy to obey the Hague Convention and even helping with repairs.

However, presumably due to German pressure, Estonian military personnel then boarded the vessel, interning the crew, confiscating all navigational equipment, and commenced with disabling the armaments.

They even removed the naval ensign from the stern of the submarine. Clearly, the Estonians had significantly changed their tune.

1939 map of Tallinn showing the docks area.

Escape plan

Understandably perturbed at this sudden change of events, the Polish crew plotted to retake the submarine and escape with chief officer, Lieutenant Jan Grudziński, and its new first officer, Lieutenant Andzej Piasecki in charge.

The first step was the sabotage of the torpedo hoist which prevented the Estonians from removing six torpedoes from the aft (rear) of the submarine. While this was occurring, Boatswain Władysław Narkiewicz travelled around the harbour in a small boat, pretending to fish.

In reality, he was secretly measuring the depth of the harbour to ensure the submarine could safely exit in a hurry without incurring further damage or getting stuck.

Another Polish sailor managed to sabotage the mooring lines. With these loosened or even cut, the submarine would be free to move as required.

Deputy commander of the ship (ZDO) lieutenant Andrzej Piasecki, ORP Orzeł, in April 1940.

Colorized old photos of the Polish Navy - Joe Monster

Coverage of the Orzeł incident in Estonian newspaper.

The Estonian officer

At midnight on 18 September, the portlights suffered a ‘mystery’ malfunction which plunged the area into darkness. The crew now gathered, Grudziński readied the Orzeł to leave, only for an Estonian naval officer to arrive by chance at that exact moment. Unaware of the Poles plans, the officer merely inspected the vessel - presumably while the Polish sailors stood around whistling innocently and with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

The inspection took 30 minutes (although it probably felt like several hours to the coiled Poles) before the Estonian officer departed, finding nothing amiss. (It is possible of course that the Estonian sensed something was up but chose to ignore it, particularly if this individual happened to be pro-Polish or anti-German in his attitude.)

 With the officer gone, the only other Estonians in the vicinity were two guards, who were lured on board – presumably with the promise of alcohol of a nice cake – and peacefully disarmed and taken captive.

The mooring line was then completely severed with an axe, the lighting in the port sabotaged and the submarine started its engines and slipped away into the darkness.

Navy captain Jan Grudziński - commander of the ship (DO) ORP Orzeł, in September 1939 took command of the sick lieutenant commander Kłoczkowski and commanded the unit until its disappearance.

Colorized old photos of the Polish Navy - Joe Monster

The Orzeł slips away

The sound of the submarines engines eventually alerted the rest of the Estonians who quickly started sweeping the harbour with spotlights. Catching sight of the Orzeł as it sneaked away, machine gun and light artillery fire straddled it, damaging the conning tower.

Luckily for the Poles, the heavier guns in the Etonian arsenal were not used for fear of hitting other shipping in the vicinity.

After running briefly aground at the entrance of the harbour, the submarine managed to break free and escape into the expanse of the Baltic Sea.

The two captured Estonians guards were released off the coast of Sweden in a dinghy with clothing and 50 US dollars each as the guards felt that those "returning from the underworld deserve to travel first class only".

The Orzeł in Tallinn Harbour.

To Britain

With no navigational aids on the Orzeł (apart from a tourist guide of Swedish lighthouses) the Orzeł meandered around the Baltic, trying to spot a German vessel it could force to stop and steal its navigational aids.

None were found though, so Grudziński, with the help of a hand drawn map from his navigational officer, managed to manoeuvre the Orzeł through the heavily guarded waters that marked the entrance to the Baltic.

Once safely through, the vessel headed for Britain.

The Orzeł arrived off Scotland on 14 October and were escorted to a safe port by a Royal Navy destroyer, sent by a surprised British Admiralty who had long given up on the submarine as lost at sea. After various repairs, the submarine and its crew were then brought into service in the Royal Navy as part of the 2nd Submarine Flotilla in January 1940, patrolling the North Sea.

The Orzeł in England, 1940.


Estonia was quickly accused of allowing the Poles to escape, by the Soviet Union – who were gathering excuses to invade Estonia and assimilate it, as part of a secret clause built into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which the Soviets would also take over Lithuania and Latvia too.

The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, used the Orzeł incident to force the Estonians into signing the "treaty of defence and mutual assistance" on the 28th September – which allowed the Soviet Union to build several military bases on Estonian territory. 

This would eventually lead to Estonia being completely occupied by the Soviet Union in June 1940.

Fate of the Orzeł

Orzeł began its eighth patrol in the central North Sea on 23rd May 1940. Radio transmissions from the Rosyth Naval Base on the 1st and 2nd of June 1 and instructed the boat to change its patrol area and head to the Skagerrak (the strait separating Norway and Sweden from the Danish Jutland peninsula). Since she had not sent any radio signals since setting sail,

Orzeł was given the order to return to base on the 5th of June but no response from the submarine was received.

The submarine was officially deemed lost on 8th June 1940. Although the exact cause is uncertain, it is generally accepted that Orzeł most likely collided with a British or German sea mine in or around the Skagerrak.

However, according to a different opinion, the boat might have been accidentally sunk by British aircraft.

Further reading



Pertek, Jerzy (1987). Wielkie dni małej floty (10th ed.). Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie. p. 134

Colorized old photos of the Polish Navy - Joe Monster

Timothy J. Runyan and Jan M. Copes, “To Die Gallantly: The Battle of the Atlantic” (1994).

Richard Worth, “Fleets of World War II” (2001)

Clay Blair, “Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942” (2000),