Sea of Iron:
Poland’s Small (But Brave) Fleet

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2019

Extinguished in 1796 by her predatory neighbors, the Polish state emerged from the confusion of World War One with a large land area, an ethnically mixed population, and a tiny corridor leading to the Baltic Sea. At first Poland had a short coastline but no truly useful port, having to build one at Gydnia near Danzig.

Though nearly land-locked and having very little native naval tradition, Poland inherited several thousand experienced officers and sailors from the Imperial German, Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian, and Imperial Russian navies.

Polish Thunderbolt. The destroyer Grom before the war.
The Poles bought or seized a tiny handful of ex-Russian gunboats and ex-German torpedo boats. Four river monitors were laid down at Danziger Werft, even though the city remained disputed, and these craft fought in the Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920. Flotillas on the Vistula and Pinsk rivers saw extensive action during the war. But brown-water operations didn’t satisfy the new Polish navy.

From the start, the Poles wanted battleships — even before they had a port that could berth them, much less a shipyard capable of repairing them. Polish diplomats pressed for German battleships from the surrendered High Seas Fleet; but with Polish armies refusing to take direction from the French or British in their war with the Soviets, the Western Allies cut off military supplies to the Poles. Poland could not get rifles and machine guns, much less battleships.

When the Poles had defeated the infant Soviet Union, during the peace talks held at Riga they demanded two Russian dreadnoughts, plus cruisers, destroyers, submarines and small craft. The Poles lowered their demands to one uncompleted cruiser, five large destroyers and some small craft, but finally emerged with no naval reparations at all.

Object of Polish desire. The Imperial Russian battleship Gangut.
Having failed to seize other nations’ battleships, the Polish admirals began to dream of building their own. The 1920 “large program” called for two battleships, six cruisers, 28 destroyers and 45 submarines. The “small program” more realistically looked for one cruiser and four destroyers, and a Polish delegation began negotiations to acquire these vessels from Royal Navy surplus. British irritation over Poland’s independent prosecution of the war with the Soviets ended these attempts as well.

By the mid-1920s, Poland had re-established her military friendship with France, buying the ancient protected cruiser d’Entrecasteaux and towing her to Gydnia to serve as the training hulk Krol Wladyslaw IV (later re-named Baltyk). For more useful ships, the Navy Department looked to place its orders in French shipyards. The battleships and cruisers likely would have been French designs, as occurred in 1926 when Poland finally began work on large modern warships. Two modern destroyers were ordered from a French yard, as near-sisters of the Bourrasque class destroyers then under construction for the French Navy. The Poles stood ready to order a second pair plus a near-sister of the French light cruiser Duguay-Trouin, but soon grew disenchanted with the French yard Chantiers Navale Francais in Caen, which continually flirted with bankruptcy and delivered the two destroyers years late.

The two destroyers, Wicher (Whirlwind) and Burza (Storm), carried Polish translations of the next two names in the French series of atmospheric titles for the Bourrasque class. The Poles found that despite having made numerous changes to the original French design, the ships remained top-heavy and needed extensive refitting. That, together with extremely late deliveries (Burza remained under construction for six years), sent the Poles searching for a new firm for their next destroyers.

Polish Lightning. Destroyer Blyskawica, 1942.
The Swedish Göteborg class seemed the Polish destroyer of choice, as they liked the design’s very high speed (40 knots or more). But the Poles wanted heavier armament, and eventually signed with the British yard Samuel White. The Grom class design kept the high speed of the Swedish boats, but at 2,011 tons had almost twice the displacement and seven 120mm guns against three on Göteborg. Like Göteborg, Grom had six torpedo tubes, but the Polish design carried much heavier anti-aircraft armament (four 40mm and eight machine guns).

Pleased with their new Grom (Thunderbolt) and Blyskawica (Lightning), the Poles ordered two more to be built at Gydnia with help from White: Orkan (Cyclone) and Huragan (Hurricane). Some materials had been gathered when the Germans invaded Poland, but serious work had not yet begun.

Having built what world naval authorities widely acknowledged to be the finest destroyer design of the time, some of the Polish naval leadership once again became ambitious. Again they sought battleships, and the relationship with Dutch shipbuilders forged by the successful Orzel class submarines led to greater contacts with Dutch shipbuilders and design firms.
The Polish navy asked for two 25,000-ton fast battleships in 1936, plus two heavy cruisers.

By the late 1930s, the Royal Netherlands Navy had decided to reinforce their fleet in the Netherlands East Indies with three battle cruisers, similar to the German Scharnhorst class. The Poles appear to have learned of this, and in 1939 modified their new fleet proposal to include three similar ships for Poland, apparently to be built in Dutch yards. The two heavy cruisers dropped out of the program, replaced by one small aircraft cruiser similar to the Swedish Gotland, a dozen destroyers of the Grom type, and numerous auxiliaries and submarines.

Though Poland was definitely willing to spend zloty for defense, this insane program far outstripped the country’s financial and industrial resources — all of the ships other than the battle cruisers and submarines were to be built at the new naval shipyard in Gydnia. None had been started when war erupted in the early fall of 1939.

Polish destroyer Wicher, sunk in Gydnia.
Poland’s surface fleet began the war with four destroyers. With war imminent, the Poles activated Operation Pekin, the escape of their fleet to England. Grom, Blyskawica and Burza sped out of the Baltic, while Wicher remained behind to confuse the Germans as to Polish plans. Wicher covered minelaying operations on the first day of the war, and on 2 September fought a brief skirmish with German destroyers. On the 3rd, German bombers sank Wicher and the large minelayer Gryf in Gydnia harbor.

Just what a larger surface fleet would have done against the Germans instead is hard to say. The Poles could not protect the fleet’s bases from German land forces, nor did the Polish Army really intend to try. Eventually the Polish fleet would have had to undertake some version of Operation Pekin, no matter how many battleships it possessed.

Against the Soviet Union, as shown in Second World War at Sea: Sea of Iron, it's a different story. The Soviets definitely had plans to interfere with Polish sea commerce and the vital connections to Poland's Western allies. But they possessed very few modern warships capable of operating far from their base at Kronstadt. The squadron of modern, powerful Polish destroyers can do a great deal to clear the sea lanes of marauding enemies operating far beyond range of their own air support.

Sea of Iron includes the full Polish lineup, including the two destroyers started but never finished. Scenarios cover all the operations of the actual German invasion (including Operation Pekin) plus those projected by the Poles, Germans and Soviets.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.