Execute Pekin. The most worthy destroyers of the Polish Navy evacuated from the Baltic Sea en route to Great Britain. The view from the Błyskawica's astern on Grom and Burza.



On Wednesday 30 August 1939 the commander-in-chief of the Polish Navy, Rear-Admiral Józef Unrug, received an unequivocal signal from Warsaw: "Execute Pekin". That signal meant sending three most worthy Polish destroyers - Błyskawica, Grom and Burza - to Great Britain. All three of them had already been readied in the roadsteads of the navy port in Gdynia, but when the signal was received at 12:50, probably none of their crewmen had any inkling what would be the consequences of that order. Nobody probably thought that it meant that three ships and half a thousand sailors would leave Poland at the most critical point of the Germano-Polish political relations. For six months then they had been preparing for defence of the Polish territorial waters, and now they had to abandon them. Only Wicher would be left at the disposal of the Coastal Sea Defence Command.

Upon receiving the signal, the commander of the Destroyer Squadron, Captain Roman Stankiewicz, summoned his officers for briefing aboard his flagship, Błyskawica. Meanwhile the crewmen on leave had been recalled and general quarters were sounded. As Unrug procrastinated a while before forwarding orders to the Destroyer Squadron, it was not until 14:15 that the ships weighed anchors and set off, formed a line ahead, and steamed towards Hel at 23-knot speed.

As soon as the squadron made away from the coast and the range of the observation posts, it changed its course again - to Bornholm. That manoeuvre was supposed to let the squadron to evade German observation. That did not work though. First, the German submarine U-31 (Lt.-Cdr. Johannes Habekost), from the squadron detached to trace the movement of the Polish fleet, spotted Polish destroyers some 30 miles north of Rozewie and - undetected by the Poles - radioed their position to the German command in Swinemunde. Second, on the way to Bornholm the Polish squadron passed up a German passenger liner from the Seedienst Ostpreußen transporting German troops to East Prussia. It is not known whether the transport reported the position of the Polish ships, but since the encounter took place in broad daylight, there is little doubt about that they were spotted.

As the squadron approached the Danish straits, close to the lightship Falsterborev, another encounter took place, this time with unidentified warships steaming from the straits southward. Although Polish commanders agreed that those might be Danish ships (a gunboat and a torpedo boat), the ships were blacked out, and that could arouse understandable concerns and called for caution. The outbreak of the war was expected daily, potential enemy could turn a real one any time, and torpedo apparatuses on the Polish ships were kept ready to fire in case of an attack.

Nevertheless, the two squadrons passed each other and disappeared in the darkness. It was not until many years later that it became known that the ships the Polish squadron encountered at night 30/31 August 1939 was actually German. Those were cruisers Köln and Königsberg with a group of destroyers, so the enemy was way stronger than the polish squadron. What is more, the Germans perfectly knew whom did they encounter, while the Poles were left to more or less correct guessing that the encountered squadron might be German, although - as the practice has clearly demonstrated - they were not able to identify them positively.

And then the Poles passed the Falsterborev, surrounded by underwater rocks. Beyond the Falsterborev there was the Sund, full of shallows and banks, so the squadron had to reduce its speed to 16 knots. It was the most difficult stage of the voyage, since the Poles took - according to the Danish regulations regarding foreign warships steaming in the Danish territorial waters - more difficult of the sea routes in the Sund: the Flintrinne passage. Soon after that, few miles away from Skagen lighthouse, the Polish squadron was intercepted by German planes, which followed it till the night, when the Poles turned towards the Norwegian coast, and from there to the North Sea. In the evening of 31 August the Polish squadron was also spotted from the German submarine U-19. The German conduct was correct, without provocative actions, as there still was no state of war between Germany and Poland.

On 1 September at 7:00 the crews were officially informed about the outbreak of the war. That caused a great commotion among the Polish sailors. They demanded immediate return to fight in the Baltic. Yet, categorical orders of the Polish command sent the squadron in exactly opposite direction. Very soon it was spotted from the planes of the Coastal Command. That was a sure sign that the Polish squadron was already within the range of the Royal Navy. At the time and place agreed upon - at 13:00 off the May Island at the entrance to the Firth of Forth - Polish ships met British destroyers Wanderer and Wallace. The Polish commander made on the Wallace in a boat, and came back with a British liaison officer and two sailors - a pilot, and a signalman. After the usual courtesies and formalities, the whole flotilla continued into the Firth of Forth: Wallace leading, followed by Polish ships, and Wanderer closing the line. Due to the dense fog the ships had to reduce their speed, and it was not until 17:30 that they anchored off Leith (Edinburgh). The Poles were finally in allied - although at that time still neutral - Britain.