Orzeł incident

Orzeł Incident
Orzel incident in Uus Eesti.jpg
Orzeł incident in Estonian newspaper Uus Eesti (New Estonia)
Date 18 September 1939
Location Tallinn, Estonia
Cause Polish submarine interned by neutral Estonia
Outcome Polish submarine escapes
2 Estonian guards captured[Note 1]
Submarine Orzeł damaged

The Orzeł incident[1] occurred at the beginning of World War II. 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 occupation of Estonia.


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

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, which invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, accused Estonia of conspiring with the Polish seamen and "aiding them to escape" and challenged the neutrality of Estonia. The Soviets demanded to be allowed to establish military bases on Estonian soil and threatened war if Estonia did not comply. That served as a political cover for their actions since the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had already given German approval to the Soviets' taking over the Baltic states. The Orzeł incident was used to force the "Pact of Defence and Mutual Assistance" on Estonia, which was signed on 28 September 1939 and allowed for the occupation and the annexation of Estonia by the Soviets in 1940.

Orzeł sank no enemy vessels during her journey from Estonia to Britain, but Soviet authorities blamed her for the loss of the Soviet tanker Metallist in Narva Bay on 26 September, and the incident was used as a pretext for the Soviets invading the Baltic states.