When studying the German Invasion of Poland, it is easy to focus on the land operations, understandable given the nature of the invasion and the location of the battlefields. It can be easy to forget that although less significant to the overall outcome of the invasion, there were Polish naval actions that were planned and took place during this period.

In the early days of the German invasion, the Baltic Coast area was an obvious location for the two sides to clash, given its proximity to the Polish Corridor and Danzig, and its overall strategic importance – particularly for Poland whose main port – Gdynia – was located here.

The Worek Plan in response to this – a plan to use five submarines – the Orzeł (Eagle), Wilk (Wolf), Sęp (Vulture), Żbik (Wild Cat) and Ryś (Lynx) - in an operation to block German attempts to land on the Polish coast and to attack any enemy shipping in the area, specifically Danzig Bay and the Hel Peninsula. In order to preserve ammunition stocks, the submarines were ordered to target only “significant military targets” - German destroyers or larger. They were also ordered to strictly adhere to international law and warn unarmed ships before attacking them.

If all Polish naval bases were captured though, the submarines were ordered to evacuate to Great Britain, or failing that, intern themselves at a neutral port.

Map showing planned positions of the submarines.

The Submarines

The submarines had specific orders:

  • Orzel was to patrol Danzig Bay – from Jastarnia to the estuary of the Vistula River
  • Wilk would be positioned east of Orzel
  • Sep would be further west near Rozewie
  • Ryś was further east of Sep
  • Żbik would be located in the centre.

Each submarine was armed with 10 torpedoes, 22 mines and 114 x 100mm shells

ORP Orzeł (Eagle)

ORP Wilk (Wolf)

ORP Sęp (Vulture) photographed in 1939

Ryszard Burza

ORP Ryś (Lynx) photographed in 1939

Ryszard Burza


With the Invasion of Poland on 1 September, Worek Plan was put into action after the defenders at Westerplatte reported the Germans attacking. After a few hours and having been given their orders to depart, the submarine slowly headed towards their allocated areas - submerged - due to the presence of German air units.

Orzel was given a major target to seek out – the aging battleship Schleswig-Holstein – whose bombardment of the Polish defences at Westerplatte signalled the start of the Second World War. Despite her age, the Schleswig-Holstein was capable of inflicting great damage on Polish forces and infrastructure and her sinking would be a major blow to German plans.

However, the Germans had decided against any attempts to land forces by sea so the original intentions of Worek became redundant. This forced the submarines to operate in shallower waters than planned and increased their vulnerability to enemy fire from the shore. Despite this, the Poles endeavoured to seek out and destroy any German targets.

The Schleswig-Holstein at Danzig at the outbreak of war.


On the morning of 2 September, the Wilk closed in on the German destroyer Z15 Erich Steinbrinck but was forced to withdraw after being spotted and attacked by supporting vessels. The same day, the Sep attacked the German destroyer Z14 Friedrich Ihn, firing a torpedo from 400 yards out. However, the torpedo missed, and the now alerted destroyer retaliated with depth charges and seriously damaged the Sep.

The next day the Sep found itself under further attack when the German U-boat (submarine) U-14 fired a torpedo at it. Luckily for the Sep’s crew, the torpedo exploded prematurely.

On 4 September, the Orzel's captain, Lieutenant Commander Henryk Kłoczkowski, decided further operations were futile and withdrew to the Baltic Sea.

On the way, two German minesweepers M3 and M4 attacked the Orzel with depth charges, knocking out all its lights and sending it tumbling to the ocean floor.

Fortunately for the crew, the submarine was able to skulk away under the cover of darkness. However, now leaking oil, Kloczkowski elected to head for Tallinn, Estonia.

On 5 September, the Wilk tried to lay mines in the Hel Peninsula but was driven off by German vessels. It’s commander, Lieutenant Commander Krawczyk, seemed to come to the same conclusions as Kłoczkowski on the Orzel, and elected to withdraw his vessel northwards.

A couple of days later, on the 7th, the Żbik managed to escape destruction at the hands of the German U-22.

Having regrouped, the Wilk entered the fray once again, attempting to intercept and destroy the Admiral Hipper – a modern and powerful German cruiser, built in 1935. It’s sinking would have been a major boost for the Polish cause, but such was the Polish luck that the Hipper made an unexpected change of course, defying the Wilks attempts to sink it.

Crew of the ORP Żbikin 1938.


Having had no success in disrupting German plans – they had failed to sink any ships and only damaged a German destroyer thanks to a mine laid by the Żbik – the submarines were ordered to withdraw by Polish Command and seek British waters.

The Wilk ended up surfacing in Swedish waters and had a narrow escape when spotted by the German Destroyer Z4 Richard Beitzen and an accompanying torpedo boat – the Germans assumed the Wilk to be Swedish and left it in peace. No doubt breathing a collective sigh of relief, the submarine withdrew to Kattegat – a stretch of sea between Sweden and Denmark.

Location of Kattegat, close to the North Sea.

Wikipedia / Hallvard Straume

Internment and escape

The Sep didn’t receive the withdrawal order until 13th September and as it was damaged, and with an increasing German presence, elected instead to intern itself in Stockholm, Sweden on 17th September.

It was joined in internment in Sweden by the damaged Ryś which arrived on 18 September and then the Żbik – low on provisions - on 25th September.

On 1 October one of the mines Żbik had laid holed the German minesweeper M-85 which sank with all its 24 crew.

The Orzel reached Tallin on 14 September intending to undergo repairs before departing again (International law allows 24 hours before interment occurs). However, the Germans pressured the Estonians into interning the submarine early, which led to the Orzel Incident – the Polish crew retaking control of the submarine and escaping.

The Wilk was the only submarine to successfully navigate its way through the Denmark Straits and escape to Great Britain, where it arrived on 20 September.

One of the surviving guns from the  ORP Sęp can be seen today in the Naval Museum in Gdynia.


Historians state that the Worek Plan failed due to the defensive nature of the operation being allocated to craft designed for the opposite – submarines are designed for offensive action. Much of the blame is put on Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Naval Command vice admiral Józef Unrug, who failed to grasp how submarine warfare had evolved and rejected the offensive plans suggested by Chief of Submarine Squadron commander Aleksander Mohuczy.

Therefore, the Polish submarines were restricted in their role and forced to operate in conditions that were not ideal and left them unnecessarily exposed to enemy attack, rather than being given more of a free reign to patrol and select their own targets of opportunity. While the submarines all survived intact, the operation itself had little or no impact on the German operations in the area.