70 Years Ago This Month
By Douglas W. Jacobson
“In all the dispatches of naval operations and major engagements I almost always find the name of a Polish ship that distinguished itself.”
– Sir Dudley Pound, British First Sea Lord, 1942
Of the many aspects of Poland’s contribution during World War Two, perhaps one of the most over-looked is the performance of the Polish Navy. The bravery and tenacity Poland’s cavalry brigades is well documented, the skill and daring of Polish pilots during the Battle of Britain is legendary, the perseverance of the hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers who fought in France, Belgium, Holland, and the Middle East is gradually getting its well deserved recognition. But in the annals of World War Two history, little is written about the Polish Navy.
When the war broke out in 1939, the Polish Navy consisted less than a thousand sailors, four destroyers, five submarines, and six mine sweepers, as well as a few training ships. By prior arrangement most of the Polish naval vessels were to make their way to Great Britain in the event of war, and fight alongside the Royal Navy. On September 1st, 1939, the destroyers, Blyskawica, Grom, and Burza, (Lightning, Thunder and Tempest) sailed to Scotland and entered the Firth of Forth. This destroyer squadron soon began clandestine operations off southern Ireland marking the first time the Polish Navy fought in two seas, the Baltic and the North Sea.
The destroyers were soon joined by two Polish submarines, the Wilk (Wolf) and the Orzel (Eagle). The daring escape of the Orzel from Estonia – described by Winston Churchill as “epic” – was the subject of an earlier installment of this column. But the escape of the Wilk was every bit as harrowing. For twelve days the Wilk navigated the treacherous, shallow waters of the Danish Straights, evading mines and German warships. When the Wilk finally broke through to the North Sea, damaged by a depth charge, and dangerously low on fuel, commander Boguslaw Krawczyk, sent his last telegram before arriving in British waters: “I crossed the sound. I’m going to England. Long live Poland.” Krawczyk became the first Polish naval officer to receive the Distinguished Service Order from Britain’s King George VI.
By the end of the war the Polish Navy had participated in major naval operations including: Narvik; Dunkirk; Tobruk; the landings at Dieppe, Anzio, North Africa, and Normandy; the Battle of the Atlantic; and the hunt for the Bismarck. Polish sailors – who numbered over four thousand by the end of the war – sailed over a million nautical miles, escorted more than seven hundred convoys, and carried out more than a thousand combat patrols.
The Polish Merchant Fleet also managed to escape from the Baltic with nearly fifty vessels. During the war the fleet evacuated British and Polish troops from France; brought American troops to Britain; carried millions of tons of cargo to Murmansk and Africa; transported Allied troops to North Africa, Salerno, the south of France, and Normandy; and brought children to safety in America.
Unable to return to Soviet-dominated Poland at the end of the war, hundreds of Polish naval officers and sailors settled in Scotland. On September 28, 1946, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Navy, Vice-Admiral Jerzy Swirski addressed his troops. “Thus we come to the end of the glorious pages of the history of our navy . . . deprived of our Motherland and our ships . . . may the good God take care of us . . . and lead us back to a free Poland. Long live Poland.”
Douglas W. Jacobson is the Polish-American author of the award-winning book, NIGHT OF FLAMES: A Novel of World War Two. Mr. Jacobson has been a frequent contributor to this newspaper and has written a second historical novel set in Poland in World War Two. THE KATYN ORDER will be released in May, 2011.