Sea of Iron:
Small (But Brave) Fleet
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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.
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.
Polish Thunderbolt. The destroyer Grom
before the war.
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.
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.
Object of Polish desire. The Imperial
Russian battleship Gangut.
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.
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
Polish Lightning. Destroyer Blyskawica,
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
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.
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.
Polish destroyer Wicher, sunk in
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
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.