Tuesday, June 7, 2011

ORP Burza

Figure 1: Polish destroyer ORP Burza before being launched, 16 April 1929. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: Polish destroyers ORP Burza (B) and ORP Wicher (W) at Kiel, Germany, in 1935. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Polish destroyer ORP Burza in Great Britain in 1940. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Polish destroyer ORP Burza during World War II. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Polish destroyer ORP Burza during World War II. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: Polish destroyer ORP Burza as a museum ship in Gdynia, Poland, in the 1960s. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: Polish destroyer ORP Burza as a museum ship in Gdynia, Poland, in 1962. Click on photograph for larger image.

ORP (which is the Polish acronym for “Ship of the Polish Republic”) Burza (which means storm or thunderstorm) was a 1,400-ton Wicher class destroyer that was built by the French shipbuilder Chantiers Navals Francais at Caen, France. The ship was commissioned on 10 July 1932, nearly six years after work started on the project. Burza was approximately 350 feet long and 34 feet wide, had a top speed of 34 knots, and had a crew of 162 officers and men. Burza was armed with four 5.1-inch guns, one 76-mm gun, two 40-mm guns, four 13.2-mm machine guns, eight 12.7-mm machine guns, three torpedo tubes, two depth-charge launchers, and two depth-charge throwers, although this armament varied slightly during World War II.

After being completed in France in 1932, Burza officially joined the Polish Navy and steamed to her new home port at Gdynia, Poland. During the next few years, Burza and her sister ship Wicher (namesake of the destroyer class) visited countries in northern Europe, including Sweden, Finland, Russia, Denmark, and Germany. Seeing that the political situation with Germany was deteriorating in the summer of 1939, the Polish government executed the “Peking Plan” on 30 August. Under this plan, the Polish destroyers Burza, Blyskawica, and Grom were ordered to sail to England before they could be either sunk or captured by the German Navy. The ships arrived in England on 1 September 1939, the day Poland was invaded by Germany. The British destroyers HMS Wanderer and HMS Wallace escorted the Polish ships to their new home port at Rosyth, England, where Burza received her new designation number, H 73.

On 7 September 1939, Burza, Blyskawica, and Grom attacked the German submarine U-27 near South Uist, located off the coast of Scotland. The U-boat got away, but this was the first of many attacks on German submarines Burza was involved in. After undergoing an overhaul in October 1939, Burza returned to active duty and for the next few months joined British Royal Navy vessels in patrolling the waters around England. On 4 April 1940, Burza was part of a small British/Polish task force sent to patrol the North Sea. It was later ordered to intercept the German amphibious force that invaded Norway on 9 April. Although they never located the German invasion force, the three Polish destroyers Burza, Blyskawica, and Grom were ordered to join the British destroyer HMS Tartar and escorted Convoy HN-24, a group of 31 merchant ships that escaped from Norway to England, some of them carrying gold possessed by the Norwegian government. The convoy reached Britain without any losses.

Burza continued to participate in the ill-fated defense of Norway against the Germans in May of 1940. On 1 May 1940, Burza reached the Norwegian port of Harstad and participated in the anti-aircraft defense of that port. On 5 May, Burza provided anti-aircraft cover for Allied merchant ships off Skaaland, Norway. Although German planes attacked Skaaland 11 times, few ships were damaged as a result of those attacks. On 8 May, Burza was once again assisting in the defense of Harstad. Two bombs were dropped from German planes which exploded near the ship. No major damage, though, was sustained by Burza. On 10 May 1940, Burza was ordered to leave Norway and steamed back to England.

After the Germans invaded France in May 1940, Burza was assigned to several missions off the coast of that nation. On 24 May 1940, Burza joined the British destroyers HMS Vimiera and HMS Wessex and shelled German positions in the Calais area. While attacking a position just west of Calais, the three destroyers were suddenly attacked by 27 German aircraft. The German planes bombed and sank Wessex and then turned their attention to Burza. Three bombs exploded close to Burza, which inflicted some boiler damage and a reduction in the ship’s speed. But then two bombs made a direct hit on Burza, causing some serious damage. But the ship’s anti-aircraft fire was effective (one of the attacking aircraft was shot down by Burza), so the German planes broke off the attack and returned to base. Fortunately, Burza was able to limp back to Dover, England, for temporary repairs.

After spending several months being repaired at Portsmouth, England, Burza was assigned to escort coastal convoys. On 26 October 1940, Burza assisted in the rescue of survivors from the large British ocean liner Empress of Britain, which had been heavily damaged by a German bomber. Burza rescued 254 men from the ship before it was sunk by a German U-boat. But on 26 October 1940, Burza was involved in a collision with the British anti-submarine warfare (ASW) trawler HMS Arsenal in a very dense fog. Arsenal was sunk in the collision, while Burza suffered some serious damage to her bow. The destroyer was able to make it back to port, but had to undergo substantial repairs over the next few months.

After the repairs to Burza were completed by the end of July 1941, the ship was assigned to escort convoys between England and Canada. Burza successfully escorted numerous convoys and there were many confrontations with deadly German U-boats. On 3 December 1942, Burza was attached to the escort group for convoy HX-217 that was sailing from Canada to Britain. On the night of 7 December, the convoy was attacked by several U-boats, or what was known as a “wolf pack.” Burza managed to attack four U-boats that evening. Using her sonar, Burza attacked the first submarine with depth charges, dropping roughly ten of them on the U-boat. The attack must have scared off the U-boat, because it retreated from the area. Burza spotted the second U-boat not far away steaming on the surface. The destroyer charged at the U-boat, but the submarine, after spotting Burza, dove quickly. Burza dropped another depth charge pattern over the U-boat, but then lost contact with the submarine. Later that night, Burza’s sonar picked up yet another submarine contact. After a brief pursuit, contact was lost. Then, a few minutes later, another submarine was detected, but this time the U-boat was steaming on the surface just a few hundred yards away from the ship. Burza turned toward the submarine and tried to ram it, but the U-boat managed to dive before Burza reached it. Burza again dropped ten depth charges over where the submarine was thought to be, but no official “kill” was scored by the Polish destroyer. During this battle, two merchant ships were sunk and two U-boats were destroyed. The balance of Burza’s convoy reached England on 14 December.

Perhaps Burza’s most famous convoy battle occurred on 22 February 1943. Burza was part of the escort group for convoy ON-166 headed from Ireland to Canada. The flagship of the escort group was the US Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Spencer and commanding the escort group on board this ship was Captain Paul Heineman, USN. Heineman was probably the best escort commander the Americans had and Spencer’s commanding officer, Commander H.S. Berdine (USCG), was one of the best escort captains of the war, credited with sinking two U-boats and damaging several others. This was truly an international escort group. Along with Spencer, there was the USCGC Campbell, one British corvette, four Canadian corvettes, and the Polish destroyer Burza. These eight Allied warships were responsible for escorting 63 merchant ships.

The battle for convoy ON-166 actually started on 21 February 1943, with a German wolf pack of approximately seven submarines attacking the merchant ships late that night. Spencer spotted a U-boat approximately 5,000 yards away and attacked it. The U-boat dove to escape the attack, but Spencer quickly dropped a massive pattern of depth charges on the submarine. The resulting explosions tore the submarine to pieces and U-225 went down with all hands. Meanwhile, Campbell had seriously damaged one unknown U-boat with depth charges and was attacking yet another, U-606. Campbell lost contact with U-606, but then Burza regained contact on the night of 22 February. Burza really took the fight to U-606, dropping a large number of depth charges on the U-boat and severely damaging it. Although Burza then lost contact with U-606, the U-boat was forced up to the surface. Incredibly, the U-boat surfaced not far from Campbell, which was nearby. Campbell’s skipper, Commander James A. Hirshfield, saw the U-boat and gave the order to ram the German submarine as all available guns on board the cutter opened fire on the surfaced U-boat. But the submarine turned just before Campbell could hit it. As a result, the U-boat’s hydroplanes sliced into the Coast Guard cutter, cutting a 15-foot gash in Campbell’s engine room, just below the waterline. Campbell continued pouring 5-inch, 3-inch, and 20-mm gunfire into the submarine. The crew of the now sinking U-boat abandoned ship and U-606 eventually sank. But Campbell was in bad shape, too. Her engine room was almost flooded and the cutter was dead in the water.

Two hours after Campbell’s collision with U-606, Burza arrived on the scene and began patrolling around the stricken cutter, guarding it like a sheep dog guards an injured lamb. Several of the U-boat’s crewmen were picked up by a lifeboat from Campbell and another seven men were rescued by Burza. The next morning, Burza offered to tow Campbell to Newfoundland, Canada, but Commander Hirshfield did not accept the offer. In his opinion, “They would be two sitting ducks rather than one.” Burza radioed for a tug and an escort for Campbell, but was informed that a tug would not arrive for three days. Burza’s captain then offered to take off some of Campbell’s crewmen as a precaution in case the cutter sank before help could arrive. Commander Hirshfield agreed and transferred 112 members of Campbell’s crew to Burza. The Polish destroyer continued guarding Campbell until she was relieved by a Canadian corvette the next day. Burza then left for Newfoundland, along with a number of survivors she had picked up from some sunken merchant ships. There were more than 400 men on board Burza and she was getting very low on fuel. By the time she finally arrived at St. John’s, Newfoundland, Burza had almost no fuel left. Campbell was finally towed to St. John’s by a tugboat while being escorted by two Canadian corvettes. The four ships finally made it to St. John’s nine days after Campbell’s confrontation with U-606.

Although Burza delivered its German U-boat survivors to the Canadian military authorities at St. John’s, some Polish ships may not have been so diligent in their duties. According to Captain John M. Waters’ book Bloody Winter (US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1967, p. 190), he states that, “The Poles were fierce fighters. After the rape of Poland, they had ample incentive. A story circulated among the escort forces about a Polish destroyer that picked up a number of survivors from a U-boat. When she arrived in port, none were on board. The author heard the tale from three different sources at the time. If there is any record to confirm the incident, it is well hidden.” One can only assume that the survivors from U-606 that were on board Burza were very fortunate indeed to not only have survived the battle, but also the trip to Canada.

Burza continued escorting convoys in the Atlantic throughout 1943 and even escorted one convoy to the Russian port of Murmansk. From January to March 1944, Burza was based at Gibraltar. In April 1944, the ship was sent back to England where she was used as a training ship and, in 1945, Burza was used as a submarine tender for Polish submarines. After the war was over, Burza was transferred to the British Royal Navy in 1946. In 1951, at the height of the Cold War, Burza was returned to the Polish Navy and towed to Gdynia in July. Burza was then completely overhauled and returned to active duty in the Polish Navy in 1955. In May 1960, Burza was converted to a museum ship and was docked at Gdynia. Unfortunately, the ship was scrapped in 1977, being replaced by ORP Blyskawica as the new museum ship in Gdynia.

Burza was a fine ship that had a tremendous career during World War II. Even though her homeland was overrun by the Germans, she continued the fight from Great Britain. It was a ship filled with spirit and tenacity and, as the men on board the stricken USCGC Campbell said of her, “She was the fightin’est ship they’d ever seen.”