Orzeł incident

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Orzeł Incident
Orzel incident in Uus Eesti.jpg
Orzeł incident in Estonian newspaper Uus Eesti (New Estonia)
Date18 September 1939
LocationTallinn, Estonia
CausePolish submarine interned by neutral Estonia
OutcomePolish submarine escapes
2 Estonian guards captured[Note 1]
Submarine Orzeł damaged

The Orzeł incident[1] occurred at the beginning of World War II in September 1939. The Polish submarine ORP Orzeł escaped from Tallinn, in neutral Estonia, to the United Kingdom. The Soviet Union used the incident as a pretext to justify its eventual military invasion and occupation of Estonia in June 1940.


Orzeł was docked at Oksywie when Nazi Germany attacked Poland and set off the Second World War. The submarine had initially participated in Operation Worek but withdrew from the Polish coast on 4 September as the situation evolved. Damaged by German minesweepers and leaking oil, it headed for Tallinn, which was reached on 14 September 1939 at about 01:30.[2] Lieutenant-Commander Henryk Kłoczkowski, the commanding officer, was taken to a hospital the next day for treatment of an unidentified illness from which he had been suffering since 8 September.

The Hague Convention of 1907 enjoined signatories, including Germany, from interfering with the right of enemy warships to use neutral ports within certain limits. Initially, the Estonians were quite accommodating of Orzeł and assisted with the repair of a damaged compressor.[2] However, probably because of German pressure, Estonian military authorities soon boarded the ship, declared the crew interned, confiscated all the navigation aids and maps and started to dismantle all armaments. An Estonian officer removed the naval ensign at the submarine's stern.[3]



ORP Orzeł

The crew of ORP Orzeł conspired to escape under the new command of its chief officer, Lieutenant Jan Grudziński, and its new first officer, Lieutenant Andzej Piasecki.[4] This started with Grudziński's sabotage of the torpedo hoist on 16 September, preventing the Estonians from removing the six aft torpedoes. Since it was a Sunday, another could not be immediately acquired. Meanwhile, Boatswain Wladyslaw Narkiewicz took a small boat around the harbour. Under the guise of fishing, he covertly measured the depth of the planned escape route.[3]

Another sailor sabotaged the submarine's mooring lines.[5]

At around 00:00 on 18 September, the portlights suffered an unexplained malfunction. Seizing the opportunity, Lieutenant Grudziński prepared the submarine for departure. The crew was forced to delay by the arrival of an Estonian officer. After a 30-minute inspection, he deemed nothing to be out of the ordinary and bid the Poles goodnight. The crew resumed with their plans. Two Estonian guards at the dock were lured aboard and nonviolently taken prisoner, the lighting in the port was sabotaged and the mooring lines were cut with an axe. Both engines were started, and the submarine made her escape in the darkness.[3]

Estonian spotlights began sweeping the harbour from the buildings to the quay before they finally locked onto Orzeł. The Estonians opened up with machine guns and light artillery, which damaged the conning tower. Heavier guns supposedly failed to open fire for fear of damaging other ships. At the mouth of the harbour, the submarine briefly ran aground on a sandbar but quickly managed to get free and escape to the Baltic Sea.[4]

At sea[edit]

Lieutenant Grudziński intended to seize the maps of a German vessel, as all of the navigational aids of Orzeł' except for a guide of Swedish lighthouses, had been confiscated. No German merchantmen were ever spotted, however. After three weeks of searching, it was decided to leave the Baltic and head for Britain. It took two days to pass through the heavily guarded entrance. The only references that the Poles had were the lighthouse guide and a rudimentary map drawn by the navigation officer.[4]

The Estonian and German press covering the incident claimed that the two captured guards had been murdered by the Polish sailors. In reality, they were deposited off of the Swedish coast in a rubber dingy and provided with clothing and food for their safe return home. The guards were also provided with 50 US dollars each, as the Polish crew believed that those returning from the underworld "deserve to travel first class only".[6]

Orzeł made landfall off of Scotland on 14 October. The crew sent out a signal in broken English, and a British destroyer came out and escorted them into port. The arrival of Orzeł came as a surprise to the British Admiralty, which had long presumed the submarine to be lost.[4]


ORP Orzeł memorial plaque in Tallinn, Estonia

ORP Orzeł was subject to a refit and subsequently brought into service alongside the Royal Navy in the 2nd Submarine Flotilla in mid-January 1940 to patrol the North Sea.[4][7]


After the event, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union reported that the Estonian government had deliberately allowed Orzeł to escape and that other Polish submarines were hiding in ports throughout the Baltic states.[8]

The Soviet Union, having invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, accused Estonia of conspiring with the Polish seamen along with "aiding them to escape" and challenged the neutrality of Estonia. Orzeł sank no enemy vessels during her journey from Estonia to Britain, yet the Soviet government also blamed the Polish submarine, and Estonia, for the alleged loss of the Soviet tanker Metallist in Narva Bay in Estonian territorial waters on 26 September 1939. The Soviets demanded to be allowed to establish military bases on Estonian soil and threatened with full-scale war if Estonia did not comply with the ultimatum. Accusations related to the submarine incident served as a political cover for Stalin's actions since in the secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Nazi Germany had already given approval for the Soviet takeover of Estonia, Latvia and Finland. The Orzeł incident was used by the Soviets to force the "Pact of Defence and Mutual Assistance" on Estonia, which was signed on 28 September 1939 and allowed Soviets to establish several military bases on Estonian soil. The Soviet troops occupied the whole territory of Estonia in June 1940.


  1. ^ The captured Estonian guards were later set free in Sweden.


  1. ^ His Majesty's Submarines; p 19; ISBN 1-57638-021-1
  2. ^ a b Kuzak, Rafal (31 October 2013). "Największy zdrajca z kampanii wrześniowej? Haniebna dezercja dowódcy ORP Orzeł". ciekawostki historyczne (in Polish). Retrieved 20 February 2016.
  3. ^ a b c Kuzak, Rafal (23 November 2013). "Orzeł wyzwolony. Brawurowa ucieczka z Tallina". ciekawostki historyczne (in Polish). Retrieved 20 February 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e Haar, Geirr H. The Gathering Storm p. 53
  5. ^ Kelly, C. Brian (1 November 2010). Best Little Stories from World War II: More Than 100 True Stories. Sourcebooks, Inc. pp. 21–24. ISBN 9781402243585.
  6. ^ Pertek, Jerzy (1987). Wielkie dni małej floty (10th ed.). Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie. p. 134. ISBN 832100542X.
  7. ^ Haar, Geirr H (2015). No Room for Mistakes: British and Allied Submarine Warfare 1939–1940. Casemate Publishers. p. 302. ISBN 9781473875319.
  8. ^ Crowe, David (19 January 1993). The Baltic states and the great powers: foreign relations, 1938–1940 (illustrated ed.). Westview Press. p. 88. ISBN 9780813304816.