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Orzel’s Escape – Act of Bravery or Provocation?

Little-known pages of history of Baltic countries annexation by the Soviet Union

September 1, 1939 when Germany attacked Poland the Estonian government decided to remain neutral to the hostilities. Yet in the middle of the month the government of this Baltic republic became involved in the ugly incident with regard to the Polish submarine Orzel (Eagle).


ORP Orzel. Photo is taken from the book Submarines of World War II.

Escape from Tallinn

This brand new Holland-built submarine was commissioned only 7 months prior to the outbreak of war on February 2, 1939 (water displacement 1, 473 tons submerged, speed up to 20 knots surfaced; armament – 12 (550 mm) torpedo tubes with 20-torpedo reserve, 1 Bofors wz.25 105 mm gun, 1 double Bofors wz.36 40 mm AA gun, 1 double Hotchkiss 13.2 mm machine gun; complement – 60 men; the funds for construction of Orzel and her sister ship Sep were raised on nation-wide subscription). At the start of hostilities Orzel was on patrol in the Danzig Bay. On 4th September a breakdown happened at the submarine (burst of a pressurized air line). The submarine headed to the southern part of Swedish island of Gottland to make repairs.

There all of a sudden submarine’s Captain Henryk Kloczkowski fall ill. The symptoms were very similar to typhoid that caused a threat to the entire crew. On September 12 the officers chose to go to Tallinn to deliver their captain to hospital. Orzel reached Tallinn on the night of September 15, 1939. The next morning Kloczkowski was placed into hospital where the doctors diagnosed simple overfatigue (however the events that followed Kloczkowski did not take part).

The German embassy insisted on the Estonian authorities to intern the submarine. Otherwise the Polish submarine would have sure put to sea again. Yet in the daytime on 15th September German merchantman Tallata left Tallinn. According to maritime law the interval between leaving neutral ports by naval ships and merchantmen of the warring sides should make up not less than 24 hours. Such circumstances prolonged Orzel’s stationing in the Estonian waters for over a day and due to that fact the submarine should be interned.

At the meeting with the Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian armed forces it was taken a decision to offload torpedoes and rounds from the submarine, confiscate navigation charts and nautical instruments, dismantle gun plug and place the crew in a land barrack. September 16 it was also decided to pump out fuel from the submarine. The same day Estonian papers published an article that according to the Staff of the armed forces the Polish submarine was interned. But the guarding service of the submarine was much to be desired. One of the guards was placed on the sub’s conning tower and another pacing the upper deck.

In the midday of September 16 the submarine was turned with her bow facing the open sea otherwise it was impossible for the harbor crane to offload the remaining torpedoes.

On 17th September international climate changed rapidly namely the USSR levied war against Poland. The Polish and English embassies in Tallinn immediately informed the crew of the fact. The Poles elected to escape. The escape was initiated by the second-in-command Jan Grudzinski and mine officer Andzei Pyasetski. On Sunday all dismantling works on the submarine ceased therefore nobody could interrupt the crew.

On the night of September 18 the crew warmed up the diesel engines, took the two Estonian guards captive and put to sea. The land battery located at Aegna Island opened cautionary fire. After several shots the submarine stopped. The fire ceased but at the same moment the submarine made a dive. From this point on the sub moved submerged.

Later the same day the foreign embassies and Estonian news agency received the following information form the Estonian authorities: the submarine left the port at about 3 a.m. To that moment there were offloaded 14 torpedoes, artillery rounds and the gun plug. The Estonian guards attempted to oppose the escaped but were taken captive by the Poles.

The scandal that followed was pretty ugly. The investigation was started in Tallinn. The German press covering the incident declared the two captured guards dead. A day later (September 20) the Navy Commander-in-Chief Valev Mere and Chief of the Naval Staff Rudolf Linnuste were removed form office. The official investigation failed to find proofs that the submarine was deliberately assisted in her escape. But the actions of the Estonian seamen was rated as indirect assistance as the dismantling of armament was carried out slowly, the crew not removed from the submarine and the fuel remained in the tanks. The Estonian military authorities did not dare taking strict measures as they counted general sympathy of the Estonian people to Poland.

It still remains a mystery how the submarine later succeeded to reach the Great Britain through the Danish straits and North Sea without navigation charts. Presumably the charts were given to the crew by a member of United Kingdom embassy who had informed them about the Soviet invasion and delivered a crate of whisky as well on September 17. The Englishman himself of course denied his involvement.

On the night of September 21 Orzel surfaced in the vicinity of Swedish Gottland. The Poles launched a lifeboat put the two captured Estonians in, provided them with a bottle of whisky, several cans, biscuits and a letter to Estonian authorities confirming the guards had been captured. Besides the acting commander gave the guards 100 dollars saying that "if one is returning from the underworld, one should travel first class only". After that boatswain Roland Kirikmaa and sailor Boris Malstein rowed towards the shore and after covering 14.6 kilometers they reached Gottland. Already on 24th September they returned home from Sweden on board of a plane.

Convenient Excuse

Actually the submarine could have headed both to Sweden and England threatening German and Soviet shipping (the submarine still had 6 torpedoes). However the Germans did not make an emphasis on this incident. There were no thundering notes from Berlin. The more so the Third Reich envoy in Tallinn while on visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said not without compassion “what an ugly story you have with that escape”. Several days later the Navy Staff was visited by German naval attache Korvettenkapitln Von Bonin but he as well did not clam protest that was expected by Estonians in fear.

The reaction of Moscow was quite opposite. On September 19 The Pravda newspaper published the notice of TASS saying literally the following “According to reliable information the Polish submarines find shelter in the ports of Baltic countries supported by some governmental authorities. According to some facts apart from the Polish submarines there are submarines of other nations. It is assumed the Estonian authorities deliberately assisted the Polish submarine to escape on September 18. The decorated with the Order of the Red Banner Baltic Sea Fleet will take the necessary steps against possible actions of the submarines hidden in the Baltic waters”. (Three of other four Polish submarines – Zbik, Rys, and Sep were interned in Sweden till the end of war and ORP Vilk reached England on September 20.)

Simultaneously some assaults against Estonian government were announced via Moscow radio. September 19 commissar for USSR Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov called Estonian envoy August Rei and accused Estonia of "helping them escape" and threaten with the Soviet Navy to enter marginal waters of the neighbor country to search for the submarine.

Actually late on September 19 the ships of the Baltic Sea Fleet started patrolling the area between isles of Aegna and Naissaar. Nine Soviet military aircrafts made demonstrating low-level flight over Tallinn. Considering the tense atmosphere the Estonian authorities decided to leave these activities unnoticed. In the ensuing days the Soviet aircrafts and ships proceeded to penetrate air and maritime space of the Estonian Republic. But General Laidoner on September 20 issued an order to withhold fire against the intruders.

At the military council at Commander-in-Chief Headquarters it was proposed to mine several coastal areas and the more so to make it openly before the face of the Soviets in order to keep them clear from the coast. But Laidoner stated should any ship trip a mine it would immediately give Moscow an excuse to avenge.

September 21 Italian envoy sent a wire from Tallinn “They are afraid that under the pretence of that fact (escape of Orzel – author’s note) Soviet ships would stay in the Estonian waters and set a blockade of the coast as a preparation for the following invasion. The demonstration of naval force and gathering of armed forces at the border serve the purpose to convince the Estonian government in fatuity of any sort of counter efforts”.

At the same time the Soviet-Estonian trade negotiations were carried out in Moscow. Molotov took on Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Karl Selter and with regard to submarine’s escape accused the Estonian government “either unwilling or incapable to maintain the order in the country hence put the Soviet Union in jeopardy”. The more so the people’s commissar mentioned that according to the Soviet information the Estonians themselves repaired the submarine, provided her with fuel, victuals and assisted to escape. As the result the submarine threatening the Soviet shipping was now at sea!

Next Molotov demanded from Selter to call Estonian president and prime-minister immediately and explain the situation and sign “mutual assistance pact” that would entitle USSR to place naval and air bases on Estonian soil.

All for nothing Selter tried to argue that in the case of Orzel Estonia had followed the rules of international law and Moscow’s claims were groundless as USSR and Poland were not officially in the state of war. The minister was given a draft of the agreement and next day he left for home in order to inform the government and parliament the choice was little either sign the pact or expect invasion. Soviet 8th army raised up from Novgorod army group was deployed at Estonian border.

The following days Soviet people were informed on the torpedo attacks of “unknown submarine”:

“Sinking of Soviet transport ship by unknown submarine.

Leningrad, September 27 (TASS). Yesterday on 27th September at about 6 p.m. Soviet, merchantmen Metallist 4000 tons displacement was torpedoed and sunk in Narva Bay. From the complement of 24 men Soviet patrol ships picked up 19 other 5 considered missing”.

“Attack of unknown submarine on Soviet transport Pioner.”

Leningrad, September 28 (TASS). According to the message received from the captain of Soviet steamer Pioner on 28th September about 2 a.m. at the passage into Narva Bay the ship was attacked by unknown submarine and as the result the captain was forced to run the ship aground near Vigrund sand bank. Rescue parties sent to transport’s accident site. Ship’s crew is out of danger”.

As it is seen the fakes of TASS were done cleverly. The submarine was not accused directly although the reference to her was obvious.

September 24, Soviet destroyers leader Leningrad at 13:30 aimed several shots at Erus Bay. Three rounds exploded in the water and the fourth fell in the woods ashore. Soviet officials called this “bombardment of secret bases of Polish submarines in Estonian bays”. The same day three Soviet aircrafts flew over the isle of Saaremaa for more than half an hour.

September 26 in Tallinn was carried out joint meeting of military and foreign affairs committee of the State Duma and State Council. All the participants of the meeting clearly understood the proposal of Moscow was nothing ultimatum. Its refusal would lead to military conflict and the acceptance meant set up of Soviet protectorate. It was clear also that no help was within reach. Faced with so little choice either pact or war the Estonian government voted unanimously for signing the pact in order to ensure “physical existence of the nation”. State Council member Puhk drew up clearly the nature of Estonian leaders position “We shell try to secure our nation as it is know should Russia come here we all to be deported to her territory”.

On September 28, 1940 in Moscow the “mutual assistance pact” between USSR and Estonia was signed. According to the pact Estonian government allowed Red Army troops to enter the country and organize naval and air bases near Paldiski and Haapsalu, islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa.

And Where was the Submarine?

From Gottland Orzel moved up north to Aland Island to search for merchant ships of the Third Reich. However the selection of patrolling position by Grudzinski and his officers was weird. German transports loaded with ironstone, nickel and timber for industry needs were shuttling between ports of Germany and Sweden. But it was impossible to intercept them beyond Swedish marginal waters but in the southern part of the Baltic and absolutely not in the strait between Sweden and Finnish Aland Archipelago.

Anyway but October 7 due to fuel shortage Grudzinski made a decision to battle through to Great Britain. On 14th October 27 days since escape from Tallinn Orzel successfully made it to Rosyth in Scotland. All the remaining 6 torpedoes after unloading major part of her ammunition in Tallinn were still on board. This fact serves as the clear evidence of the Poles not implicated in the attacks on Pioner and Metallist.

The mystery was revealed only in the 80’s when Yukka Mekel’s book Behind Enemy Lines. Finish Secret Service in War was published. Basing on information of interrogation of Soviet seamen captured by Germans and Finns in 1941 Makel says that the provocation was planned and carried out by a member of Politbureau of VKP(b), the first secretary of Leningrad city and regional party committee and a member of Baltic Sea Fleet military council. He was acting through the commissary of USSR Navy Nikolai Kuznetsov and the actual performer was submarine Sch-303 under Osipov (1913-1943).

Then the attack on Pioner occurred on paper only. As to Metallist she was actually sent to Narva Bay to the shallow water were she was to be sunk in such a way to have the upperworks above the water. After arrival to the designated area the crew of the transport got to the patrol ship Tucha and submarine Sch-303 made two-torpedo salvo from the surface but missed. The patrol ship was to make another attempt. Being armed with triple-tube torpedo launcher she made a shot from almost point-blank distance ultimately hitting the transport. Metallist sunk in shallow-water with the upper deck hardly covered with water.

It is possible some time prior to lifting the ship she was demonstrated to journalists although there are no direct indications on such fact. The steamer was sure to be filmed and pictured but these materials yet not public domain.

The equipment offloaded from Orzel almost 500 thousand crowns worth by Laidoner’s order was confiscated November 6. But it was cold comfort in comparison with political losses of Estonia incurred by the escape of the Poles.

However the clamor raised by Moscow with regard to Orzel’s escape was yet a “smoke screen”. The independent Estonian state was doomed anyway. Should Orzel stayed intern Moscow would have set up some other excuse for occupation.

Starting November 1939 for 7 months Orzel served in the Royal Navy but under Polish flag and with Polsh complement. For this period of time she succeeded in sinking only one German transport Rio de Janeiro (5,260 tons). Submarine was lost with all hands in the North Sea, on June 8, 1940 as a result of tripping a mine.

During the socialistic period in Poland there were a series of articles published regarding this incident and in 1961 a book was published by maritime historian Ezi Pertek. The Poles made a semidocumentary film about Orzel that by the way was shown in Soviet Union in the 70’s.

But giving credit for Orzel’s crew bravery and spirit it should be noted that her escape from Estonia to England did not resulted in causing damage to German navy and only minor harm was done to commercial shipping (one transport sunk). As for the fate of Estonian Republic the escape inflicted capital loss to the nation. Of course the Poles acted from good motives, but from objective point of view their odyssey became provocation against Estonia.

Consequences...

It is well-known fact that Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in Moscow on August 23 had a secret protocol enclosed to the pact providing for conspiracy between two dictators (Hitler and Stalin) regarding separation of the Eastern Europe. In the nearest future Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were to be taken over by the Soviet Empire ruled by the “red Tsar”. Having forced the Baltic countries to sign similar agreements on “mutual assistance and joint defense” Moscow embarked on their fulfillment.

From October 18, 1939 Red Army troops started entering the Baltic countries. By January 1, 1940 there were 20,954 soldiers and officers of the Red Army in Estonia that was half as much as the total amount of troops of yet independent country. Estonian air fields gave place for 2 fighter and 2 bomber wings. The Soviet naval ships anchored in the ports of Tallinn and Rohukyula. Soviet troops commenced construction of coastal anti-aircraft batteries.

October 29, commenting agreements with the Baltic countries Stalin said “We’ve such a configuration that would let us frame them in the Soviet Union circle of influence. We’re not going to force their “sovietization”. The time will come and they do it by themselves”.

The time came in 7 months when after campaign in France started May 10, 1940 the troops of England, France, Belgium, and Holland were smashed. During the period from May 26 till June 4 40 allied divisions suffering losses evacuated to the British Isles. Assured that England and France defeated at the battlefield and unable to intercede for the Baltic countries Stalin proceeded to the final stage of the “Baltic case”.

June 10 the order was given to the Soviet Navy aviation to set up maritime and air blockade of the Baltic countries. This severely violating the rules of international law prescribed to check all the ships leaving the ports of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and to engage the aircrafts leaving the air space of these countries without finding out their national identity. Thereby the agents of “ruling fascist regimes” were cut off the possibility to escape. It was highly desired to send them all to the death camps that was ultimately done. For less than a year starting August 1940 till June 1941 there were repressed about 15% of population in three countries (executed, committed to prisons and death camps, deported to the remote regions in Siberia, North, Kazakhstan, and far East).

Obeying the blockade order aircrafts of the Baltic Sea Fleet on June 14 shot down Junkers-52 passenger plane belonging to Finnish airline Kalevala. The plane crashed into sea killing all 9 on board including two Finnish pilots, two officers of French embassy in Estonia, one member of US embassy, two German businessmen, one Swedish and one Estonian citizen. Many years later one of the participants of the massacre of the passenger plane retired Lieutenant General of the Air Force Peter Khohlov (1910-1990) proudly mentioned this fact in his memoirs Over the Three Seas published in 1980.

On June 14 Estonian government received an ultimatum from USSR Sovnarkom (Latvia and Lithuania received similar ultimatum on June 16). The ultimatum contained an imperative demand on establishment of such a government that would suit Moscow interests. Besides the ultimatum stipulated for “the number of Soviet troops contingent to be significantly increased”. Already on June 17 “additional” Soviet troops entered Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – 10 rifle divisions and 7 armored brigades. Detachments of ships anchored in every port of theses countries.

Simultaneously with this invasion the agents of Moscow – local communists supported by occupation forces and numerous NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) agents announced of the overthrowing “fascist regimes” (September 21 in Estonia), carried out falsified parliamentary elections (threaten by Soviet tanks), established puppet governments – Sovnarkoms (Soviets of People’s Commissars). In Estonia Sovnarkom was headed by Johannes Lauritis (1899-1941) and with Johannes Vares (1890-1946) at the position of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (president).

Later the puppet governments announced of the “voluntary” entering of the newly established “soviet republics” into the USSR. Sovnarkom of Estonian SSR done this on July 22, Lithuanian SSR on August 3, Latvian SSR on August 5, 1940.

By the way the Baltic military district was established by USSR Defense Commissariat yet before the official “joining” on July 11, 1940!

This was the second capture of the Baltic countries by the Russian Empire if to consider the first during the Great Northern War by Peter I.

Source: nvo.ng.ru, Author: Anatoli Efimovich Taras – scholar, the author six-volume encyclopedia about submarines of USSR, Russia and World