Winston Churchill described it as “the greatest adventure story to come out of the war”. Yet the final chapter of the saga of the Orzel, a Polish submarine, is still a mystery which has intrigued millions of Poles and successive Warsaw governments.
The Orzel (Eagle) was lost without trace with 54 crew aboard somewhere in the North Sea in the early summer of 1940. She had been taking part in a wartime patrol for the Royal Navy, and disappeared only months after completing one of the most daring and extraordinary maritime escapes on record.
In September 1939, without charts and with most of its weapons removed, the Orzel fled from Estonia – hundreds of nautical miles through the Nazi and Soviet controlled Baltic – to Britain, where she took part in the campaign against the German invasion of Norway.
Poland’s latest drive to find the lost submarine will be launched next month, just as a new feature film and a television series about its exploits are being made to mark the 75th anniversary of the Orzel’s disappearance.
Britain during WWII - in pictures
Britain during WWII - in pictures
1939: A squadron of Spitfires took part in mimic 'air alarms', during a speed demonstration at Duxford Aerodrome
1939: British railway workers fit floodgates below river level at Underground Stations
1939: A patient on a stretcher is loaded into a Green-Line coach ambulance when being evacuated from Guy's Hospital in London
1939: Metropolitan Police Constables wearing gas masks line up to enter a mobile gas chamber at East Ham Police Station, London
1939: A young female British Navy officer sitting astride a minesweeper's cannon and lighting a cigarette whilst two officers look on
1939: Schoolchildren crowd Ealing Broadway Station in London, some of the first youngsters to be evacuated to the country during World War II
1940: Bells rescued from the belfry of St Giles in Cripplegate, London, which was bombed during a night raid
1940: A projector, operating from its sunken sandbagged emplacement, at a searchlight station in the London area
1940: Auxiliary Territorial Services personnel sealing and preparing a Churchill tank for export to the Soviet Union
1940: An Australian soldier leaps from a tank during training exercises in Britain
1940: A man flies a Union Jack on a bomb site. The area was bombed twice, and the second time it tore the flag in two
1941: A policeman coaxing his pony to leave an area which is being evacuated due to the discovery of an unexploded bomb
1941: Charles de Gaulle (C), Chief of the French Free Forces, inspects the French colonial troops during during his visit of a military base in Great Britain
1941: US politician Wendell Willkie viewing the bomb damage to the Guildhall during the Blitz, London
1941: Men, women and children stand with their belongings on a pavement in Clydeside, in the aftermath of a severe bombing raid
1941: The famous American 'Eagle' Volunteer Air Squadron, formed during WWI, takes its place in the ranks of the RAF
1942: Work in progress of the decks of almost completed ships, being built for the merchant navy
1942: Two London buses passing through thick smoke screens during Civil Defence Service training operations
1942: A British ship (either the Cathay or the Karanja) on fire in Bougie Harbour (Bejaia), during the North African 'torch' landings. The Luftwaffe bombed three of the Allied ships as they attempted to reach shore
1943: American soldiers viewing some of London's raid damage during a tour
1943: A crashed German Messerschmitt is towed past the Houses of Parliament in London
1943: The wreckage of Sandhurst Road School in Catford, south London, the day after it was partially destroyed in a German bombing raid
1944: Extensive manoeuvres for invasion being carried out by American Sherman tank units in Britain
1944: Rescue workers searching through the rubble of a block of flats destroyed by German raids in London
1944: Bomb damaged buildings in London's Pall Mall after an air raid
1945: British officers liberated by the 9th Army from Brunswick Oflag 79, the largest British officers' camp in Germany
1945: Essex-class fleet carrier USS Franklin after suffering a hit by a Japanese dive-bomber off Japan, during war in the Pacific
1945: The scene in Farringdon Road, London, after a V-2 rocket had fallen in daylight on the Central Markets
1945: VE day, held to commemorate the official end of Britain's involvement in World War II, is celebrated by crowds at Trafalgar Square in London
1945: Soldiers from the Women's Royal Army Corps in their service vehicle, driving through Trafalgar Square during the VE Day celebrations in London
Early in May, the Chieftain, a bright red, British-crewed 80ft fishing boat, will set out from Whitby harbour in Yorkshire, with a team of Polish divers equipped with underwater search machines. Tomasz Stachura, of the Polish diving concern Santi, which is leading the hunt for the submarine, told The Independent on Sunday: “The Orzel saga has become the stuff of Hollywood; there is huge interest in finding out just what happened to the submarine. For me, it has almost become an obsession.”
Since 2006, Poland has made five attempts to find the Orzel, without success. The North Sea is one of the world’s biggest maritime graveyards. The wrecks of hundreds of vessels sunk in both the first and second world wars lie on the seabed.
Mr Stachura is basing his search area on a theory that the Orzel was sunk by “friendly fire” and that the submarine hit a British minefield, which covered an areas of some 50 nautical square miles in the North Sea. His team has sought the help of British fishermen with specialist knowledge of North Sea wrecks.
Desmond King, the owner of the Chieftain, said wrecks were particular targets for the parties of line-fishing anglers he carries, because they are the favourite habitat of cod and ling. “Our search area is being kept a secret until the last minute. We don’t yet know where we are going,” he told the IoS.
Modern remote-controlled underwater vehicles equipped with video cameras could quickly identify and explain the fate of the submarine which began its heroic career on 8 September 1939, only a week after Nazi Germany launched its invasion of Poland. With the country’s few remaining harbours rapidly captured by the Germans, the Orzel had no option but to put to sea.
The 1,473-ton Dutch-built submarine made for the then neutral port of Tallinn in Estonia. But the Estonian authorities, acting under growing Nazi pressure, interned the submarine’s crew, confiscated its charts and navigational equipment and began dismantling its weaponry. All along, the Orzel’s captain, Lt-Cdr Jan Grudzinski, managed to keep up a show of co-operation which eventually enabled the submarine to escape.
Lt-Cdr Grudzinski sabotaged the torpedo hoist so that some weapons could remain aboard. That night his crew overpowered two soldiers guarding the submarine, axed through the port’s main electric cable, plunging the harbour into darkness, cut mooring warps, and headed at full speed for open water with the soldiers as hostages.
But within a matter of minutes the submarine ran aground on a sandbank outside the harbour entrance. Under a hail of Estonian bullets, the Orzel’s crew rammed the vessel’s powerful diesel engines into reverse and the submarine managed to slide off and refloat. By this time the Estonians had started shelling the submarine which only reached safety after entering deep water and diving.
The Orzel spent the next 24 hours lying motionless on the sea bed, by which time both the Nazi and Soviet Baltic fleets had begun an extensive search operation. Lt-Cdr Grudzinski made for the coast of Sweden and put the Estonian soldiers ashore.
He had hoped to stop a German merchant ship and take its charts, but the only German vessels the Orzel met were warships.
Without charts, the Orzel was forced to rely on a list of lighthouses to navigate its way out of the Baltic and across the North Sea, both of which were full of enemy ships. By flying a faked Swedish ensign, spending days submerged on the bottom, and once running aground on a rock in full sight of a German warship, the Orzel miraculously made it to Britain after a voyage lasting 44 days.
She lay on the bottom off the coast of Scotland until emergency repairs were made to her radio and then surfaced to transmit a message in broken English to an astonished Royal Navy, which had assumed that the Orzel had long since been sunk.
The submarine went on to become the first Polish warship in the Second World War to carry out a successful torpedo attack, when it sank the German troop-ship Rio de Janeiro during the Nazi invasion of Norway in early 1940.
Poland’s minister of culture has said that the film and television series planned to mark the 75th anniversary of the Orzel’s disappearance could inspire “modern patriotism”. But for divers such as Tomasz Stachura, discovering the wreck of the famed submarine would be the real icing on the cake.Reuse content