Antoni’s Story (Told in 1962)
Steel hawsers lashed the large submarine to the quay. Powerful lights picked out her Polish markings, and the two armed guards patrolling alongside. With the Second World War only two weeks old, the O.R.P. Orzel, after a deadly game of hide and seek with the German navy in the Baltic, was under close guard in the Estonian port of Tallin, on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland.
She had put in to the supposedly neutral Baltic state on a mercy mission so that her seriously ill captain could be taken to hospital. But Tallin was almost completely under German domination, from the Consul to the port authorities. The harbour was packed with German shipping. Here the trap was sprung.
Orzel was impounded, her torpedoes and ammunition unloaded, the firing mechanism removed from her guns, and her navigation charts confiscated. This was the background and setting for one of the most courageous and fantastic sea escape stories in history. And there was 24 year old Antoni Szymczak, now of 97 Ellengowan Dr, Dundee, an inspector in the auto section of Yorkshire Imperial Metals, Carolina Port.
Turning back the clock 23 years, Antoni took up the story as a young AB Signaller and proud crew member of the brand new Orzel. Carrying a crew of 65, and 20 torpedoes, Orzel was tied up in Gdynia harbour when war broke out in September 1939.
“When we got the news about five o’clock in the morning, there were already three German aircraft flying overhead. We had been standing at full readiness, we knew war was coming. As soon as we got the signal, we slipped out into the Baltic on patrol. We spent the early days dodging German minefields and the German Navy, which, within a fortnight, destroyed nine tenths of the Polish fleet, leaving only submarines, alone and without orders. Before we could decide what ought to be done, our Captain fell very sick. Every time we submerged he fainted. This was a calamity, we were sure we were completely lost. We had to get him to hospital. We sent a signal to Tallin, chief port of neutral Estonia, asking for permission to enter harbour with a sick man. A small tug came outside with a pilot and led us to our berth. We put in during the night and were surprised when a full alarm was raised. Sirens started wailing, red lights flashing, searchlights shining, and all ships in port, many of which we recognised as German, were standing by. Their crews had been recalled from shore leave.
At daybreak we saw that a corvette had slipped across the harbour entrance behind us, blocking it. When the authorities came aboard, our captain asked them what the idea was. Estonia was allegedly neutral, but we seemed to be regarded as prisoners. ‘Oh the law has been changed’ they told us airily. They shifted the corvette, but later in the day, all our armaments were removed, along with all our charts. A doctor came aboard and our captain was taken to hospital. We never saw him again. At night they focused searchlights on us, and posted two guards on the quay and one on board. (The only profit we had from Estonia was a visit to the Turkish baths!!)
A heavy electric cable was led aboard to recharge the batteries. Somebody casually remarked, ‘If we blew up that cable, all the harbour lights would go out and we could escape in the dark.’ The escape idea was born. It gave the crew new hope. First thing to be done was to try to sever the steel hawsers holding us to the wall. During the night another man and I sneaked out and tried to cut them with hacksaws. It was impossible. We decided to make a break for it the following night. By midnight we were all ready. There was only one guard outside, and we took care of him by sneaking up behind him, knocking him unconscious and dragging him below decks. The man inside was overpowered just as easily. Then we cut the telephone cable linking the ship with the shore. We took the heavy electric cable from the battery and dropped it into the water. It worked a treat. There were all sorts of flashes and blue sparks, a puff of smoke, and all the harbour lights went out. Every fuse had blown.
The first officer took over as captain and gave the order to cast off the hawsers. In pitch darkness we pulled away from the quay. There was a huge rock right in the middle of the harbour, and we landed slap on top of it with an almighty crash. Our electric motors just wouldn’t shift us. They opened fire on us from the shore, and from ships, with machine guns and other small arms fire. The skipper ordered the diesels to be put full astern and we literally jumped clear. As soon as we had enough water under our keel, the captain ordered us to clear the bridge and prepare to crash dive. This was out of the question. There was a gaping hole in the side of the sub, where the cable had been fed through a hatchway in the battery, and the Estonians had the lid. We couldn’t go down without flooding the ship. We had to make a run for it on the surface. There was one big gun on shore and the crew were pretty accurate. It took us two hours to make another snug fitting lid, then we sank beneath the surface. We had done it, but we were without charts, alone in the Baltic, with the Germans watching to stop us sneaking through to the Kattegat, into the North Sea.
It was an inky night, lashed by rain sleet and hail when we approached Malmo at the southern tip of Sweden, but these conditions were perfect for our purpose. We had ‘doctored’ our engine to make it sound like the two-stroke of a fishing boat. To heighten this impression in the dark we were three quarters submerged, making the Orzel look the size of a fishing boat. We discovered two German destroyers, with searchlights, and E-boats were checking shipping in the narrow channel. They had blocked it with booms, and here and there were small minefields. We moved in behind a merchant naval ship and followed it closely to see what the procedure was. Suddenly a loud clang of something striking the hull outside caused panic. We thought we had struck a mine. There was no explosion and we realised we were aground, The electric motors took us off, then we stopped the motors and had a conference. Our acting commander was only a Lieut.-Commander in his late twenties, but he had a baby face and looked more like eighteen. He moved we should go through with our original plan, make up on the merchantman and try to slip through. This was agreed. As we approached the destroyers, one on each side of the channel, we were all wearing life jackets. The searchlights switched on and the whole channel seemed to be bathed in blinding light. Somebody hissed’ Say your prayers and jump overboard now’ Before anyone could move, the lights were extinguished. We could hardly believe it. We got nearer and nearer the boom which had been opened for the ship in front of us. The searchlights were switched on and off again. WE WERE THROUGH!
About 3 am we dived to the seabed, settled safely on the bottom, and fell into a sleep for the rest of the day. At nightfall we surfaced, threaded our way through the Skagerrak, and nosed out into the North Sea.
The Orzel sent a signal to the Admiralty in London asking permission to put into a British port and fight on from there. In answer to our signal the Admiralty sent out a destroyer to rendezvous with us in the North Sea. She escorted us into Rosyth, where we tied up in the middle of October 1939, six weeks after leaving Gdynia. We were the second Polish submarine to come to Britain to continue the war”
Sixteen members of the Orzel’s crew, including Mr Szymczak, were decorated for their initiative and bravery in making the daring escape possible. A Polish general travelled up to Dundee, and, at an early morning ceremony, on H.M.S. Unicorn , Antoni had the Polish Cross for Bravery (Valoury Cross) pinned on his uniform.
The Orzel’s first few patrols from Rosyth were uneventful. Then in the spring of 1940 she made her first kill, a 10,000 ton German merchantman, in Norwegian waters. “According to instructions we surfaced within hailing distance, and told the crew to abandon ship, as we intended torpedoing it. They didn’t budge. We sent off a signal to the Admiralty reporting on the position and asking for orders. Forty minutes passed, then an hour, and the captain of the merchant ship still refused to bale out. Our captain decided not to wait any longer for Admiralty instructions. Down we went to torpedo depth and two explosions told us we were on target. After a quick glance through the ‘scope, the skipper turned to me and said ’Look at this” The ship was sinking fast, and the water was covered with German soldiers in full uniform. It was the day before the invasion of Norway. The Germans had been moving up full companies as quietly as possible in tramp ships without any escorts. During the next two days we received the biggest pasting of our lives. The area became alive with naval ships and aircraft. We were depth-charged over 500 times. Fortunately the technique was not fully developed then, and the depth charges were set to blow around 100/150 feet, far too shallow”.
The Orzel built up a distinguished war record. For part of the time she was based at Dundee and Antoni actually slung his hammock in the building in which he now works. He met and married a Dundee girl, and they now have two children, Linda (7) and Robin (5)
When the war ended he was a chief petty officer in destroyers. Later he served in the British Merchant Navy, becoming a second mate before giving up the sea for a more full family life in 1954.
Copyright by Robin Szymczak (Son of Antoni Szymczak)