Defending the Baltic

The Polish Navy tries to stem the tide

Poland was one of the countries most severely impacted by the Second World War, having been invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union and divided up between the two countries, losing its sovereignty in the process, its population exposed to brutality and mistreatment and the Holocaust rearing its ugly head as Polish Jews were systematically exterminated by the Nazis.

While Poland's role in the war is often associated with its army's heroic resistance against overwhelming odds and the actions of the pilots serving with RAF fighter command, Poland also had a navy that played a significant role in the conflict.

Under Attack

At the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Poland's navy was relatively small, with only a few destroyers, submarines, and auxiliary vessels. The Polish navy was mainly focused on coastal defence, as the country's territorial waters were considered too shallow for larger warships. Poland had built several modern destroyers, intended to operate in the Baltic Sea, but these were not yet commissioned when war broke out, with the first shots being fired at Westerplatte as the Germans launched their sudden attack.

Poland's navy was thus ill-equipped to face the German navy, which was much larger and more modern. Recognising this, the Polish Navy had even evacuated several of its Destroyers to the UK before hostilities had even broken out as part of the Peking Plan.

...The Polish navy's strategy was to use its submarines and destroyers to attack German shipping...

Despite its smaller size and relative lack of modern warships, Poland's navy had a clear doctrine and strategy. This doctrine was based on the idea of sea-denial, which aimed to make it difficult for the German navy to operate in the Baltic Sea.

The Polish navy's strategy was to use its submarines and destroyers to attack German shipping lanes and disrupt naval operations. The Worek Plan had been formulated precisely for this reason - to use five submarines 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. The navy would work in cooperation with the air force, which was tasked with providing aerial reconnaissance and cover.

This doctrine was based on Poland's limited resources and the belief that the navy would play a supporting role in the overall war effort, rather than engaging in major naval battles. The goal was to cause enough damage to the German navy to disrupt their operations, without trying to match them on a ship-for-ship basis.


Poland's naval doctrine had several weaknesses that would ultimately contribute to its downfall.

  • First, the doctrine was built around the belief that the Baltic Sea was too shallow for major warships to operate in, which turned out to be incorrect. The Germans were able to operate their largest battleships in the Baltic Sea, giving them a significant advantage.
  • Second, Poland was heavily dependent on Allied support, both in terms of supplies and naval cooperation. However, the Allies were not able to provide as much support as Poland needed, due to their own commitments in the war.
  • Third, Poland's submarines and destroyers were outdated and had limited capabilities. The Polish navy lacked modern equipment, such as radar, and had to rely on outdated communications technology.
  • Fourth, the naval doctrine was based on the assumption that the air force would be able to provide adequate cover, but this assumption proved incorrect. The Polish air force was quickly overwhelmed by the much larger and more modern German air force.


While Poland's navy's role in the war was relatively limited, it still had an impact on the overall conflict. The navy's strategy of sea-denial did cause some damage to the German navy and disrupted their operations. The Polish navy's submarine ORP Orzeł, for example, sank several German merchant ships and was able to escape to the UK after losing touch with the Polish land-based command.

However, the weakness of Poland's naval doctrine ultimately led to the navy being overwhelmed by the German navy. The navy was unable to effectively contest German control over the Baltic Sea, and as a result, it had limited effect on the course of the war.


Poland's naval doctrine during The Second World War was based on the idea of sea-denial and aimed at making it difficult for the German navy to operate in the Baltic Sea. While the doctrine had some strengths, it ultimately had several weaknesses that contributed to its failure.

Poland's navy was unable to effectively contest German control over the Baltic due to several factors, including outdated equipment, limited resources, and insufficient support from Allies.

Despite this, Poland's navy still made an important contribution to the overall war effort, and its legacy lives on as a reminder of the country's heroic and courageous resistance against overwhelming odds.

Further reading