In 1456 the Kingdom of Poland launched what may considered as the first Polish naval effort. Letters of Marque were issued to thirteen armed merchant ships from Gdansk to intercept Dutch ships bringing supplies to the Teutonic Knights at Konigsberg. The following year the ships from Gdansk defeated a Danish and Kurland fleet off of Bornholm. In the following years Polish Naval power continued to expand and culminated in 1463 when the Royal Polish Navy sank or captured 43 of the 44 Danish/Teutonic Knights ships arrayed against them. Poland had become a dominant naval power in the Baltic. In 1571 the King of Poland established a Polish Commissio Maritima in effect, a Polish Admiralty.
With the 17th century the Polish Royal Navy faced another challenge, the emerging navy of the Kingdom of Sweden. On November 28, 1627 the Polish fleet met and defeated the Swedish fleet off the Polish coast between Gdansk and Gdynia. This marked the high point for the Polish Navy, as well as the Kingdom of Poland. As the 17th century turned into the 18th, Poland was in a steep decline that resulted in three partitions of the country among three surrounding empires, Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary. In 1795 Poland ceased to exist as an independent country. During the height of Polish naval power, the warships of the Kingdom of Poland flew an unique ensign consisting of arm holding a cutlass on an amaranth field on a Maltese cross on the amaranth and white national colors of Poland. That ensign would not again be seen in the Baltic until after the rebirth of an independent Poland in November 1918. The first warship in the new Polish navy, the ORP Pomorzanin, was a hydrographic survey vessel.
The creation of a modern Polish navy was a daunting prospect. Germany to the west had erected high tariffs on the importation of Polish goods and the Soviet Union to the east had been a war with Poland from 1919 to 1921. Poland relied heavily on France, both economically and for military assistance. The first new vessels of the Polish navy were smaller combatants, such as armed trawlers, but by 1924 Poland approached France for the construction of modern submarines. Poland wanted nine submarines but Polish plans ran afoul of French internal politics. It seemed that different French firms all wanted a slice of the large Polish contract. Due to this and continuing Polish financial restrictions, the initial Polish navy construction program resulted in the construction of two destroyers, which were not originally desired by the Polish navy, and three submarines. The submarines were the Wilk Class.
The Wilk Class submarines consisted of the Wilk, Zbik and Rijs. They were fairly large, 246-feet 10-inches, at 980 tons surfaced, 1,250 tons submerged, but were slow with a top surface speed of 14 knots. In keeping with the Russian-German experience of naval warfare in the Baltic during World War One, they were equipped to carry and deploy 38 mines in vertical tubes. In 1932 the first of the three was commissioned and a Polish Submarine Division was formed under the command of Kdr. Ppor. Eugeniusz Plawski. The Polish submarine officers and senior NCOs were sent to Toulon to study at the Ecole de Navigation Sous-Marine.
As the newly trained officers and crew of the Polish Submarine Division gained experience with submarine operations in their new French boats, it was decided to expand the submarine force. The Polish navy announced that they would accept bids for two boats of a new submarine design. The French bid was rejected and the contract went to the Rotterdam Dry Dock Company. The Dutch design was slightly larger at 275-feet 6-inches at 1,092-tons surfaced and 1,450-tons submerged. Performance, however, was much better. The earlier French design was slow on the surface because it was distinctly under-powered with 1,800shp from the two Vickers-Normand diesel engines. With only a slightly greater size hull the Dutch design carried two Sulzer diesels that produced 4,740shp. This gave the new boats a surface speed of 19 knots. Both the French and Dutch designs had a maximum submerged speed of 9 knots, even though the French electric motors were more powerful at 1,200shp compared to 1,000shp for the Dutch design. Armament consisted of eight 21-inch (533mm) torpedo tubes, four in the bow and four external traversing tubes, one 4-inch (102mm) deck gun and one 40mm AA gun. The two boats were also equipped for mine warfare with storage for 40 mines. The design was not completely Dutch, as many features were of Polish origin. The deck gun was in a watertight compartment that allowed the crew to man the gun before the submarine surfaced. The two boats Orzel and Semp known as the Orzel Class were built from 1936 to 1939.
The Polish Submarine Division
On September 1, 1939 all five Polish submarines were in the Baltic. The Polish Submarine Division was the main offensive weapon of the Polish navy. Under the command of Kdr. Ppor. Aleksander Mohuczy the submarines had been at full combat readiness since August 24. The boats were used defensively, operating near Polish ports and offensive operations were hamstrung due to political considerations, as the western powers asked the Poles to refrain from provocative acts. For five days the Polish boats were attacked by German aircraft and twice by German U-Boats, near their ports. It was two days after the declaration of war by France and Britain against Germany that the submarines were given orders for offensive operations in the Baltic. On September 5 all five boats were ordered to the northern Baltic to get respite from the German attacks and to repair the damages sustained while they had been passive targets outside of the Polish ports. On the 7th new orders came in and each boat was assigned a 60-mile sector from the German coast to the Swedish coast in interdict German shipping. The operation had no success as the boats were limited by their damage and there was a lack of German targets. On September 11 Wilk, which was furthermost west, was ordered to proceed to Great Britain. With the Polish coast being overrun, on September 14 the Division commander ordered the remaining four boats to carry out the patrols as long as possible and then to break out to Great Britain. If this was not possible, then they were to seek internment in Sweden. Semp and Rijs had sustained serious damage and it would have been suicide for them to try to break out of the Baltic. Those two, along with the undamaged Zbik, sailed to Sweden and were interned. Wilk, which had left for Britain on the 11th arrived at Rosyth on September 20, 1939.
The Flight of the Eagle
At 0200 the Estonian guards aboard the Orzel were overpowered but before the searchlight and telephone lines at the pier could be cut the alarm was raised. Orzel cut the last cable, fired up her engines and started out of the port. The surprised Estonians opened up with small arms fire but fortunately for Orzel, nothing heavier. Orzel made it out of the harbor before Estonian heavy guns opened up on her. When they opened fire, Orzel submerged and steered blindly, since all of the charts had been removed. The propellers of pursuing Estonian destroyers were heard but the boat evaded detection. With dawn Orzel settled on the bottom to await the next night. During the day numerous surface ships were heard, as well as random depth charging but the boat was not damaged. At midnight she surfaced and found that she was alone at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland. With an armament of only the five torpedoes that had not been removed, Grudzinski decided to hunt for enemy ships, which in addition to Germany now included the Soviet Union, which had invaded Poland from the east on September 17. With no charts the Orzel kept running into rocks, which are strewn in Gulf of Finland and along the coasts. The hull was taking a considerable battering.
The Orzel intercepted a German broadcast, which declared the Polish crew to be murders of their Estonian guards. These very guards were prisoners aboard the Orzel and the Polish crew grew tired of their wailing about their fates so on the 22nd they were given a small inflatable boat, money, cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey and were watched until they had landed on the Swedish island of Gotland. They subsequently signaled their families that they were safe and sound in Sweden. For over two weeks the Orzel hunted on the surface at night and submerged during the day but all shipping seen were inside neutral waters. With supplies running low Grudzinski decided that it was time to leave for Britain.
Orzelfollowed the Swedish coast until it curved to the entrance to the Baltic. German destroyers were seen patrolling the entrance routes. The boat was bottomed until nightfall for the run through the narrows. At first the Orzel tried to navigate the narrows at periscope level but soon grounded in the shallow water, she then rose to have the conning tower awash but grounded again. She rose to normal surface level but grounded for a third time. German destroyers were still patrolling the area but failed to detect the Polish submarine. During this time lookouts spotted a channel so shallow that the destroyers didnít use their searchlights on it so Orzel blew all ballast to ride high and went up that channel on her electric motors to minimize sound. Finally they reached deep water but then experienced trim problems in the Kattegat where the Baltic met the North Sea and fresh water from Norwegian fiords entered the mix. They turned on their diesels but the noise alerted the patrolling destroyers and Orzel again dove to bottom the boat until the destroyer sounds died out after two hours. They went back to the surface and went west until dawn when they bottomed the boat again until the following nightfall.
Finally, Orzel was in the North Sea but without charts, without recognition signals and further without radio, as it had been damaged by the rifle fire in their departure from Tallinn. While in the North Sea they would be the target of both German and British air and naval forces. Orzel managed to get the radio working partially and at 0600 on October 14, 1939 British shore installations picked up a message. "Supposed position from 0630 on appointed place for Polish Navy. Beg permission entrance and pilot. But have no chart. Orzel". Two hours later a British destroyer joined with Orzel and took her into harbor. Grudzinski had only three requests of his British hosts; 1. To land a sick cook, 2. To replenish water supplies, and 3. To get replacement breach mechanisms for his deck guns and British orders for a patrol against the Germans. Grudzinski became the first Pole in the war to receive the highest Polish decoration for bravery, the Virtuti Militari, as well as the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) from the British. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time wrote, "the young Polish Navy had distinguished itself" and the "escape of the ORP Orzel was an epic"
Both the Orzel and the Wilk were repaired and made ready for sea. They both became part of the 2nd Submarine Flotilla of the Royal Navy. On December 29, 1939 Orzel left on her first war patrol from Great Britain. She quickly made four uneventful patrols. These patrols were each around two weeks and ranged from south of Norway to Heligoland Island off the German coast. In April 1940 the pace of the patrolling accelerated, as the German Navy became more active in the area. The reason, unknown at the time, was the preparation for the invasion of Denmark and Norway. Orzel was involved in one of the very first actions of the German invasion of Norway. For her fifth patrol Orzel was operating off of southern Norway. On April 8, 1940 at 0945 an unknown ship was observed off of the entrance of Oslofyord. The ship was not flying a flag but by 1100 was identified as the Rio de Janeiro of 9,800-tons, a liner registered to Deutscher Lloyd out of Hamburg. At 1103 Orzel surfaced 1,200 meters from the liner and ordered her captain to come aboard Orzel with his papers. Although Rio de Janeiro stopped, no boat was lowered. At 1112 a burst of machine gun fire was directed across the bow of the merchant ship and a boat was finally launched but the boatís crew pretended to make no headway towards the submarine. At 1120 Grudzinski signaled Rio de Janeiro to abandon ship in 15 minutes. One more warning was given and then at 1145 torpedoes were launched which sank the liner. Hours later the crew of the Orzel noticed bodies of German soldiers floating in the water, as the Rio de Janiero had been transporting German Army units in the first strike in the invasion of Norway.
Orzelmade an uneventful sixth patrol between April 28 and May 11, 1940 and after resupply sailed on her 7th patrol from the United Kingdom. She was never heard from again. On May 23, 1940 the Orzel, Commander Grudzinski, six officers and 58 enlisted were reported as missing. The exact cause of her loss was never discovered, although it is probable that she hit a British laid mine from a minefield which Commander Grudzinski had not been informed. (History of the Orzel fromPolandís Navy 1918-1945, 1999 by Michael Alfred Peszke, Submarines of World War Two by Erminio Bagnasco)
Niko Model Orzel
At first glance the hull seems somewhat bare. The Niko Model Orzel hull has a nice undulating line where the deck casing meets the pressure hull and there is a streamlined fairing for the small anchor on the port side. As you look at the piece, youíll notice that it is a nice casting but smoothly finished with no deck plates cast as part of the hull. However, Niko Model has followed a different tack in giving the hull of the Orzel detail, through the extensive use of brass photo-etch, most especially a full photo-etch deck.
The streamlined conning tower is the next largest part. With this part Niko Model has piled on the detail. The enclosed gun position is on the lower forward portion of the sail. It is shown in a closed position, although the gun barrel exits the forward edge and protrudes over the deck. The joints between the opening bulkheads of this position and the rest of the conning tower are clearly delineated. The sides of the conning tower have a great deal of detail with a series of access doors and windows curving around the front edge. There is additional detail on the top with two sunken crew positions. The forward one is a small rectangle and is the command position. The much larger opening runs half the length of the upper sail and contains an AA gun position. Niko Model adds the super-detail treatment for this position in the form of a small brass photo-etched deck. There is a small runner of very finely done small resin parts. These parts are the two periscopes, mast, gun barrel for the enclosed gun mount and one deck fitting. An even smaller run has two more deck fittings and there is a separate resin twin AA gun for the position at the rear of the sail. All of the resin pieces are finely done without being oversize.
Poland's Navy 1918-1945
Poland's Navy 1918 - 1945 is an excellent reference on the Polish navy from the independence of Poland in 1918 through the continuing combat of the navy even after Poland was overrun. Written by Michael Alfred Peszke and available in English, the volume consists of 222 pages that chronicle the navy's turbulent history during this period. The value comes in the textual history but the title also contains a section with 25 photographs.
The hull and conning tower appear to be poured into open face molds as there is a moderate width resin sheet at the bottom of each piece that should be sanded away before construction. The photographs of these parts in this article show the parts with this casting base still present and the casting bases on both parts are easy to see. The removal of the casting bases is probably the most time consuming step in the build of the Orzel because care should be used to ensure that a flat bottom is achieved after sanding off the casting bases. It is not difficult but not to be rushed. There were no pin hole voids, breakage or any other type of casting defect in the resin pieces.
Brass Photo-Etch Fret
The photo-etch fret comes with 31 pieces. Obviously the most important is the main deck piece. Itís relief-etched with recessed bollard base plates. You will have to add thin plastic or brass rod for the bollards themselves. The deck engraving reflects a wooden deck with numerous circular and rectangular access plates and panels. The overall effect is really impressive. The fret contains a second deck for the large deck on the aft portion of the conning tower with detail for the different fittings at that location.
At one end of the fret you find ten crewmen done in five different poses. Next to that is the wire cutter. It is not raised off the deck in the style of U-Boats but instead runs along the midline of the bow like the back crest of a razorback boar. Also found next to the crew figures are four side panels of the traversing torpedo tubes for the side of the deck casing where it joins the pressure hull. Again, like the photo-etch decks, Niko is using the brass photo-etch parts to layer detail onto the hull. Also found at this location on the fret is a short run of vertical ladder.
In the middle of the fret you find additional deck and conning tower detail. The fret contains separate brass hatches for a relief appearance if placed flat on the deck or providing the option to show the hatches open. There are three such hatches included, two for the main deck and one for the conning tower gun position. Also in brass is a DF loop, one small anchor that fits inside the port bow fairing and a life ring that fits on the inside bulkhead of the conning tower gun position.
The two forward dive plane positions are represented by six photo-etched parts. Each side has a dive plane and two guards, one above and one under the plane, which add significant detail to the front of the boat. One brass piece is somewhat of a mystery. It is numbered #5 on the fret but doesnít appear in the instructions. By shape it appears to be twin AA guns but those also appear as one of the resin pieces and is shown on the instructions. My guess is that originally Niko Model was going to represent the AA guns with the brass piece but then decided to supply a much more three dimensional resin part instead. The Orzel appeared to have single bar railing on either side of the conning tower. This is not included in the fret but should be easily added with any spare photo-etch.