Friday, February 28, 2020

Storm, Lightning and Thunder. Plus an Eagle.

Polish destroyers during Operation Peking.
View from the stern of ORP Błyskawica looking towards ORP Grom and ORP Burza.

No doubt at this point The Chant's Polish correspondent Paweł is exclaiming, "Najwyższa pora!" *

Paweł has mentioned in comments a couple of times that I should do a post on the Polish destroyer, ORP Błyskawica. A ship which in World War II logged 146,000 nautical miles and escorted 83 convoys in the North Atlantic. She was launched on the first of October 1936, commissioned on the 25th of November 1937, and decommissioned on the first of May, 1976. She was built in a British shipyard and is currently a museum ship in Gdynia, Poland.

Her name in Polish translates to "Lightning," an apt name for a destroyer especially considering that she exceeded her design speed of 39 knots during her sea trials. (Note that "ORP" stands for Okręt Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, "Warship of the Republic of Poland." So ORP is analogous to "USS" and "HMS.") She and her sister ship ORP Grom (Thunder) were the only two ships of the Grom-class.

At the start of World War II Poland's coastline was only 88 miles long, so the nation had a rather small navy, the assumed enemy in the Baltic being the Soviet Union, with good reason. When war with Nazi Germany loomed, a plan (the Peking Plan) was initiated which would send three of the Polish Navy's four destroyers to Great Britain before the outbreak of hostilities.

The Polish Navy in 1939
Click to embiggen

Of course there was some resistance in Polish government circles to the idea of sending a big chunk of the fleet to the UK. When some thought was given to the idea, cooler heads realized that keeping the ships in Poland would probably result in their destruction. The lead ship of the Wicher-class (ORP Grom was her sister ship), ORP Wicher ("Gale") demonstrated that point -
ORP Wicher, the lead ship of the Wicher-class, was a Polish Navy destroyer. She saw combat in the Invasion of Poland, which began World War II in Europe. She was the flagship of the Polish Navy. She was sunk by German bombers on 3 September 1939, making her the first warship sunk during World War II. (Source)
On the 30th of August, 1939, with war imminent, the Polish destroyers ORP Błyskawica, ORP Grom, and ORP Burza, were underway.
On August 30, around noon, Fleet Command received a radio signal about the start of Operation Peking. The ships got underway at 14.15 and in line astern formation, ORP Błyskawica leading, sailed towards Hel, and after passing it towards Bornholm. Information about their putting out to sea had been intercepted by German radio listening units, they were also detected several times by German units (including submarine U-31) and He-59 aircraft from Kü.Fl.Gr. 506 (Küstenfliegergruppe - coastal aviation squadron). At night, the Polish squadron was trailed by three German destroyers, then by the German light cruiser Königsberg and her escorts. On August 31 the squadron passed Kattegat, sighted by two U-Boats on the way, and in the afternoon sighted again by flying boats, most likely from Kü.Fl.Gr. 306. On September 1, at 9.25 a.m., the Polish ships received a radio messaging announcing the start of hostilities. In the early afternoon the Polish squadron rendezvoused with the British destroyers HMS Wanderer and HMS Wallace, which led them into port at Leith. There, and again in Rosyth, they were kept in "friendly internment" (treated not as units of a warring party, but as if they were conducting a courtesy visit) until September 3 - the day Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. (Source)
German Heinkel He-59
Operation Peking locations mentioned above

ORP Grom was lost in the Norwegian campaign after being hit by two bombs from a German Heinkel He-111 bomber. ORP Burza survived the war and was a museum ship until she was replaced in that role by ORP Błyskawica. She was scrapped in 1977.

ORP Błyskawica's war record was fairly typical for an Allied destroyer in the Atlantic theater, with the exception of course that her crew's homeland was under Nazi occupation with all the horror and misery that entailed.
On 7 September 1939, ORP Błyskawica made contact with and attacked a U-boat. 
In early May 1940, ORP Błyskawica took part in the Norwegian Campaign, shelling German positions and downing two Luftwaffe aircraft. Her sister ship Grom was bombed and sunk during the campaign. Later that month, she took part in covering Operation Dynamo, the successful British led evacuation from Dunkirk. 
During the rest of the war, ORP Błyskawica took part in convoy and patrol duties, engaging both U-boats and the Luftwaffe in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In 1941 her 120 mm guns were replaced with British 4-inch dual-purpose guns. The ship was also given escort duties for troop transports, notably RMS Queen Mary, being one of the few ships that could keep up with the liner. 
On the night of 4–5 May 1942, ORP Błyskawica was instrumental in defending the Isle of Wight town of Cowes from an air raid by 160 German bombers. The ship was undergoing an emergency refit at the J. Samuel White yard where she had been built and, on the night of the raid, fired repeatedly at the German bombers from outside the harbour; her guns became so hot they had to be doused with water from the River Medina. Extra ammunition had to be ferried over from Portsmouth. This forced the bombers to stay high, making it difficult for them to target properly. The ship also laid down a smokescreen hiding Cowes from sight. The town and the shipyard were badly damaged, but it is generally considered that without this defensive action, it would have been far worse. (Source)
It's important to remember that Poland never surrendered in world War II. The government and large portions of the armed forces managed to get out of Poland before Nazi and Soviet forces managed to overrun the entire country. The Polish government in exile (Rząd Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej na uchodźstwie) maintained a presence in London throughout the war. They never recognized the Soviet occupation of Poland after the war and the setting up of a Communist regime in Poland. This government stayed in existence until 1990!
When Soviet influence over Poland came to an end in 1989, there was still a president and a cabinet of eight meeting every two weeks in London, commanding the loyalty of about 150,000 Polish veterans and their descendants living in Britain, including 35,000 in London alone.
In December 1990, when Lech Wałęsa became the first non-Communist president of Poland since the war, he received the symbols of the Polish Republic (the presidential banner, the presidential and state seals, the presidential sashes, and the original text of the 1935 Constitution) from the last president of the government in exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski. In 1992, military medals and other decorations awarded by the government in exile were officially recognized in Poland. (Source)
Quite frankly, the Western Allies screwed Poland at the end of World War II, along with everyone else in eastern Europe by allowing Stalin's Red Army to set up multiple Communist governments throughout the region: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria. (Note that Yugoslavia screwed themselves.) Greece came perilously close to going Communist after the war.

ORP Błyskawica is the only Polish Navy ship to have been decorated with the Virtuti Militari, Poland's highest military order for gallantry.

Museum ship ORP Błyskawica in Gdynia, Poland

Which reminds me of the story of the Polish submarine, ORP Orzeł ("Eagle"), which escaped from Talinn in neutral Estonia near the beginning of the war. Giving the Soviets a pretext for occupying Estonia and subjecting that beautiful land to over fifty years of horror, first under Soviet occupation, then Nazi, then Soviet again until they gained their freedom in 1991.

ORP Orzeł

The story of ORP Orzeł's escape from the Baltic reads like a James Bond story.
ORP Orzeł was docked at Oksywie when Nazi Germany attacked Poland, setting off World War II. The submarine 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, the decision was made to head for Tallinn, which was reached on 14 September 1939 at about 01:30. Lieutenant-Commander Henryk Kłoczkowski, the commanding officer, was taken to a hospital the next day for treatment of the unidentified illness he had been suffering from 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
ORP Orzeł, assisting with the repair of a damaged compressor. 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 commenced dismantling all the armaments. An Estonian officer removed the naval ensign at the submarine's stern.

The crew of
ORP Orzeł conspired to escape under the new command of its chief officer, Lt. Jan Grudziński, and its new first officer, Lieutenant Andzej Piasecki. 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 one couldn't 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. Another sailor sabotaged the submarine's mooring lines.

At around 00:00 on 18 September, the port lights 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 intentionally sabotaged, and the mooring lines were cut with an ax. Both engines were started, and the submarine made her escape in the darkness.

Estonian spotlights began sweeping the harbour, from the buildings to the quay, before finally locking onto
ORP Orzeł. The Estonians opened up with machine guns and light artillery, damaging the conning tower. Heavier guns supposedly didn't open fire for fear of damaging other ships. At the mouth of the harbor the submarine briefly ran aground on a sandbar, but quickly managed to get free and escape into the Baltic.

Lieutenant Grudziński intended to seize the maps of a German vessel, as all of ORP Orzeł's navigational aids, with the exception of a guide of Swedish lighthouses, had been confiscated. No German merchantmen were ever spotted, though. 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 the Poles had were the lighthouse guide and a rudimentary map drawn by the navigation officer.

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 provided with clothing and food for their safe return home. The two 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."

ORP 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. ORP Orzeł's arrival came a surprise to the Admiralty, which had long presumed the submarine lost. (Source)
ORP Orzeł's subsequent involvement in the war was short-lived.
After a refit, ORP Orzeł was assigned to the Royal Navy's 2nd Submarine Flotilla, and was assigned to patrol missions. Shortly after noon on 8 April 1940 she sank the 5,261 ton clandestine German troop transport Rio de Janeiro off the small harbour village of Lillesand in southern Norway, killing hundreds of German troops intended for the invasion of Norway. Rio de Janeiro was heading to Bergen in order to take part in the initial landings of Operation Weserübung - the invasion of Norway and opening move of the Norwegian Campaign. News that several hundred German soldiers were rescued by the Norwegian Navy and some had admitted their intention to occupy Norway reached the Norwegian parliament that evening, however this news was dismissed and no steps were taken to alert their Navy or Coast Guard of the impending invasion. Two days later ORP Orzeł fired a torpedo at a German minesweeper V 705; however, she was forced to dive before the sinking of the German ship could be confirmed-the ship was not damaged by the torpedoes.

ORP Orzeł departed on her seventh patrol on 23 May, to the central North Sea. On 1 and 2 June a radio message was transmitted from Rosyth ordering her to alter her patrol area and proceed to the Skagerrak. No radio signals had been received from her since she had sailed, and on 5 June she was ordered to return to base. She never acknowledged reception, and never returned to base. 8 June 1940 was officially accepted as the day of her loss. Although various theories exist regarding her loss, and it is commonly believed that she ran onto a mine in the Skagerrak, the true cause of her loss remains unknown to this day. There is the possibility that ORP Orzeł may have been sunk either by a British minefield or by an adjacent German minefield, or mistakenly attacked by a British airplane. (Source)
A sad end for a fine boat and crew.

A salute to brave Allies.

Niech żyje polska Marynarka Wojenna!

* About time!
That last bit is "Long live the Polish Navy"


  1. Didn't realize that the Polish government in exile continued until the Soviet Union fell but considering the Polish co-workers I had in Chicago who were hard working, friendly and implacable, not surprised. Polish armed forces had a long war with ORP Blyskawica being one such example while ORP Orzel was lost as happened to many submariners. A fine post Sarge, giving a glimpse into the bravery and dedication to duty of the Polish people.

    1. There were a lot of Poles in my hometown when I was growing up, great people, great friends.

  2. Great post, Sarge! You're really on a roll this week.

  3. Been away for a while, returning now to all of this gallantry. So many gone. You're correct when you say that the operators make the machines weapons of war. In the air and on the sea. Thanks.
    Men and women give their all today. I hope their stories will someday be told.

    1. I'm too close to what's happening today. I have a son-in-law, and friends, "out there." At sea, on the line, the kids today do their predecessors proud. It gets emotional writing about the past, not sure I could handle the present.

  4. The poles have long memories [DAMHIK] and a long history of invasion.
    They do a grand job of passing it along to following generations.
    The Polish armed forces, what there were of them, fought well when they could.
    Great post, Sarge.

  5. Thanks for the information. Once again, I am frustrated by the lies told to me in history books and by teachers and the media.

    Poles fought very hard during and after WWII to keep the Polish dream alive. Between naval, ground and air forces and a government in exile.

    Having fought with a history teacher over the Katyn Forest massacres (he denying even though library books from the school's library talked about it)(this in the non-internet era) I am just astonished by what these valiant people managed to do and the achievements they... achieved. It's almost like those in power don't want us to know the truth.

    Thanks for continually proving the media and the elites are wrong about everything.

    As to the Polish navy? Let the finned Hussars sail again! Well, that doesn't sound as neat as winged hussars, but I hope you get my point.

    1. I do get your point Beans, it's a good one.

      Some history teachers are a disgrace to the profession.

  6. I used Google Streetview to drive past the ship and visited the ships website.
    I sorta knew about the submarine, but I had no knowledge of the destroyers.
    Thank you for helping to keep their memory alive.

    1. I like the way you dig deeper John. We are kindred spirits.

    2. If I don't scratch the information itch, it just gets worse. :)

    3. In C.S. Forester's The Good Shepherd, there is a Polish DD in the escort, ORP VIKTOR, which I have always thought of as a GROM Class DD.

    4. I think I read that once upon a time. Time for a re-visit.

    5. It is coming out as a movie, with Tom Hanks as Commander Krause!

  7. An notional American lend-lease submarine transferred to the Poles in 1941 played a part in Ned Beach's novel Run Silent, Run Deep. The fictional Poles named her Błyskawica, which the fictional US sailors pronounced "Blinks-a-wink." One wonders the how and why of that part of Beach's novel.

    Fun and informative post Sarge. Thanks muchly!

    1. I shall have to find my copy of that book.

      I had no ideer...

    2. Speaking of fiction...
      Ghost Fleet has Polish Kilo-class submarine delivering SEAL team to Chinese-occupied Hawaii.
      Won't get into details of how and why it happened to avoid spoilers.

    3. Another book to add to a rather long list!

  8. Poles fought over century from 1795 to 1918 to regain independence.
    With almost every generation organising some form of uprising (first allied in Bonaparte, then in 1830 alone, and in 1863 again, then in 1905 bandwagoning on Russian revolution with own nationalistic goals).
    In 1918 all 3 partitioning empires collapsed due to ww1, allowing miraculous revival of state long thought to be dead.
    So we were always quite stubborn bunch. WW2 was cataclysmic in way unprecetended, with estimated between 15% to 20% prewar population ending up dead to cruel Nazi occupation, and somewhat less indiscriminate but still painful Soviet one.
    Post-war communist state was regularily rocked by workers protests, culminating with huge Solidarity union movement.
    Eventually Soviets disbanded , and before that they left Poles to their own devices, which we used quite well I dare say so, with democracy taking roots and economy surging to almost levels of "Old" EU.
    I would say I don't harbor hard feelings to Allies for Yalta solution, because lets face it without Soviets there would be no way to defeat Nazis short of massive nuclear bombing. And again short of nuclear war, there was nothing to dislodge Soviets from Eastern Europe...
    If there is one thing I am bitter about it is French blowing their big chance in 1939 for quick kill on Germany. Hitler, the eternal gambler left 20-odd reserve divisions with paltry air support and not single tank to defend French border, while sending majorithy of Wehrmacht into Poland.
    Had French pushed on with even half-mobilised army it would be quick work, and German generals probably would dispose of Hitler immediately. Millions of lives would be saved...
    BTW, if Soviets immediately following WW2 packed up and left Poland with free elections, Russia probably would never have to worry about NATO enlargement, and memorials to Soviet troops would stand forever tended by grateful Polish citizens...

    1. Well said Paweł. We in the West can learn a lot from Poland.

      Never give up, never surrender!

  9. She must have had some work done in the US. That is a USN, rather than RN type stockless anchor.

    1. I'll take your word for that. Lend-Lease maybe?

  10. Note that the Polish Navy, during WWII, wore Dixie Cups! Only High Class Navies do that!

  11. (Don McCollor)...Another WW2 Polish destroyer was built in Britain as HMS Nerissa, then transferred to the Poles as ORP Piorun after the loss of ORP Grom. The night before Bismarck was sunk, she arrived in company with HMS Maroi, then dueled with Bismarck alone for an hour before retiring...


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