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It was close to 3 a.m. when two shadowy figures overpowered the guard atop the conning tower of the moored submarine. In the control room below, a second guard found himself staring into the muzzle of a revolver. Soon both were bound and gagged.

An ax-wielding seaman meanwhile severed the electrical cable of the nearest searchlight and the telephone wires. Next came the mooring cables, which already had been surreptitiously sawed half through. Her dual electric motors humming, the submarine moved away from the dock. The high-bowed, nearly 1,500-ton vessel slipped stealthily toward the outer harbor–and ran aground on a mudbank.

Lieutenant Commander Jan Grudzinski ordered one set of air tanks flooded and another blown, then requested full motor power. Grudzinski had no sooner called for power to be switched to the twin-shaft Sulzer diesels than sirens screamed, searchlights stabbed through the darkness and gunfire erupted.

The dramatic escape of the Polish submarine Orzel (Eagle) came 17 days after Adolf Hitler triggered World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939, and barely 20 months after her own launching. Built by public subscription, Orzel was one of two submersibles ordered from Dutch shipyards by Poland as part of an effort to create a navy strong enough to defend the nation’s 90-mile northern coastline.

On September 8, Orzel left the Gulf of Danzig for the open Baltic. So far, the submarine’s luck had held. Bombs and depth charges had been evaded. Orzel had narrowly escaped a German trap by running through a minefield without hitting anything more dangerous than two mine mooring cables. Now a blanket of bad luck seemed to enshroud the boat. The captain, Commander Kloczkowski, fell seriously ill; typhus was suspected. Grudzinski, his executive officer, took over. Four days later, on the 12th, the Nazi advance forced the evacuation of Gdynia, on the Gulf of Danzig, and its naval base. Next, mechanical problems befell the submarine. Finally, repair needs and the captain’s worsening condition forced Orzel to seek a neutral port. Her prow turned northeastward toward the Gulf of Finland.

The castle-and-tower-dominated medieval skyline of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, hove into view on September 15. Overtly friendly, the Estonians escorted Orzel into the port’s naval facilities. Kloczkowski was taken away in an ambulance. Repairs on the submarine began.

More influenced by pressure from the then-allied Nazis and Soviets than by international law, the Estonians informed Grudzinski that his command was to be interned. While the Polish officers objected and argued, soldiers boarded the submarine to disarm her.

The appearance of the British Embassy’s naval attaché boosted morale. Although guards prevented him from boarding Orzel, the official managed to slip his calling card to a Polish sailor. On the reverse side was written “Good luck, God bless you.” Another arrival was more ominous–a truckload of workers sent to extract the torpedoes. Some accounts say 15 or 16 torpedoes already had been disarmed and transferred to the truck when Grudzinski engineered a breakdown of the hoisting machinery. Other reports, probably more accurate, indicate that, with 14 torpedoes removed, six remained in the stern tubes on September 17.

Tense with anticipation, the sailors made preparations for their breakout. Midnight, the time selected, came. But so did an Estonian officer on an unexpected visit. Any suspicions he may have harbored were allayed. Nearly three hours late, Grudzinski gave the nod to overpower the two onboard guards, and Orzel fled. She lay on the seabed throughout the 18th, and that evening Grudzinski decided it was safe to set a southwesterly course for the Swedish island of Gotland. There the overpowered guards could be released before the boat went on toward the Polish coast.

Orzel returned to a war that had worsened for Poland. The Soviet Union had followed Germany’s invasion with one of its own. Grudzinski, relying on improvised navigational aids, pursued a lonely mission in the northern sea even after Poland’s last major army units collapsed on October 3. Influenced by a radio report that the Polish submarine Wilk had been welcomed by the British, and determined to avoid internment, the crewmen all agreed to go on fighting Germany at Britain’s side.

Once back in fighting trim, Orzel was assigned to the Royal Navy’s 2nd Submarine Flotilla in time to contest Germany’s invasion of Norway. On April 3, 1940, the first ships of Weserübung (“Weser Exercise,” the invasion of Denmark and Norway) left their German ports.

Weserübung called for unescorted merchant ships disguised as normal shipping to sail ahead of the faster warships so as to be in position when the invasion of Norwegian harbors came early on the 9th. One of those merchantmen was the tall-funneled, black-hulled Rio de Janeiro, originally a liner carrying passengers traveling between Europe and Latin America.

On the morning of April 8, the paths of Orzel and Rio de Janeiro converged in the Skagerrak just off Norway’s southern town of Lillesand. Grudzinski ordered the submarine, which had been cruising at periscope depth, to the surface to challenge the merchant ship. Instead of heaving to as the Polish captain instructed, the German transport increased speed and turned shoreward in a futile attempt to reach neutral water. Grudzinski was watching the suspiciously slow approach of a boat lowered by the now-stopped ship when he learned that the merchantman was sending out messages. But when a demand flashed from Orzel to abandon ship, no visible reaction came from Rio de Janeiro.

Five minutes after noon, Grudzinski ordered a torpedo fired. It missed. With the second, Orzel became the first Polish warship to make a successful torpedo attack in the war. The transport’s decks came alive with Wehrmacht soldiers as steam and smoke rose to form a shroud above the vessel. The submarine submerged to circle the listing Rio de Janeiro. When the steamer showed no sign of sinking, Grudzinski let loose a third torpedo. It exploded against the transport’s side, broke her back and sent her to the bottom.

German high command fears that Weserübung had been compromised were needless. News of the incident had to be bucked up Norway’s bureaucratic ladder to officials in the capital of Oslo before it was taken seriously, too late to do much more than trigger a last-minute limited alert.

When Hitler’s forces invaded the Low Countries and France on May 10, 1940, all Allied undersea craft in Norwegian waters, except Orzel, one French and two British boats, were shifted southward in case the Germans decided to support their latest ground offensive with naval units. Sometime during the first week of June, the Polish submarine simply disappeared. Although the cause never was determined, it is believed that Commander Grudzinski and his five officers and 49 crewmen fell victim to a mine in the Skagerrak.

Orzel and her crew were among the first during the conflict to show–in a most graphic way and against overwhelming odds–that while the Nazis could conquer a country, they could not conquer the spirit and determination of its people.