In large part due to the selective focus of the film industry, the Second World War is often viewed as a conflict between Britain and Germany, with American intervention saving the day, and it’s often forgotten that many other nations suffered under Axis control and fought for their freedom. One such nation was Poland. It was Germany’s invasion of Poland that began the war, and Polish troops are considered to have been the fourth largest military presence among the Allied forces. The Polish Army fought in North Africa, the Polish Airforce fought in the Battle of Britain, and the Polish Navy fought in the Mediterranean. Arrayed against them, the combined forces of the German and Italian militaries. In the last of this six-part series, we take a look at two ships which had important roles to play on either side of the conflict – the Polish destroyer ORP Kujawiak and the German Schnellboot S-31, whose wrecks are now under the protection of Heritage Malta’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit.
- Part 1 – HMS Olympus and HMS Russell
- Part 2 – Fairey Swordfish and Junkers Ju88
- Part 3 – HMS Southwold
- Part 4 – HMS Nasturtium and Le Polynesien
- Part 5 – SS Luciston and HMS Trusty Star
- Part 6 – ORP Kujawiak and Schnellboot S-31
ORP Kujawiak (L72)
ORP Kujawiak was a British Type II Hunt-class destroyer escort built as part of the British Royal Navy’s Emergency War Programme and originally named HMS Oakley, a sister ship of HMS Southwold (L10), although built at a different shipyard.
HMS Oakley was built by Vickers-Armstrong at the company’s High Walker yard on the River Tyne in Newcastle, England. She was launched on 30 October 1940 but upon completion was commissioned by the Polish Navy and renamed Kujawiak, a type of Polish folk dance. The designation ORP is an acronym of Okręt Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, which translates as ‘Warship of the Republic of Poland’. Kujawiak was 85m in length with a beam of 9.5m and a crew of 160 men, and was commissioned on 17 June 1941.
Kujawiak came under attack by German aircraft the very next day on 18 June, as she made her way from the River Tyne to Scapa Flow for trials and testing before entering operational service. Fire from the German aircraft struck some of the ammunition of the Kujawiak’s guns, which exploded and resulted in the death of one crew member.
ORP Kujawiak served escort and patrol duties around the British Isles for a year before being deployed as an escort during Operation Harpoon, a relief mission to send supplies to Malta which was at the time under siege by Axis forces. The Siege of Malta saw the island subjected to a sustained bombing campaign by the Italian and German air forces, during which the Junkers Ju-88 featured in Part 2 of this series was most likely shot down.
The convoy of six merchant vessels left Gibraltar on 12 June 1942 accompanied by ‘Force X’, which included nine destroyers, the fast minelayer HMS Welshman, four minesweepers, some smaller minesweeping launches and the anti-aircraft light cruiser HMS Cairo. Distant support was provided by a number of other battleships including the aircraft carriers Argus and Eagle, which carried a contingent of 18 Fairey Swordfish among their complement of aircraft.
On 14 June the convoy came under heavy attack by submarines and aircraft of both the Italian and German forces. The attack would last until the evening of 15 June, during which ORP Kujawiak is reported to have shot down four Axis aircraft, but Allied losses were heavy, and tragedy was to strike again later that evening. On the approach to Valetta Harbour, the surviving ships of Operation Harpoon’s convoy ran into a minefield, not far from where the minesweeper Trusty Star had been sunk just a few days earlier.
Two destroyers, HMS Badworth and Matchless, and one of the two remaining freighters, the Orari, ran mines at the entrance to Valetta’s Grand Harbour and were badly damaged. Kujawiak was attempting to aid HMS Badworth when she sustained major structural damage after hitting a mine during the process. Kujawiak sank shortly after midnight on 16 October with the loss of 13 lives.
In total, four of the merchant ships and two of the destroyers (including the Kujawiak) that sailed from Gibraltar were sunk, with another seven of the ships sustaining heavy damage. More than 101 sailors were killed, over 20 wounded, and 216 taken as prisoners of war. Just two of the freighters reached Malta with their cargos of much-needed supplies.
A team from the Polish Shipwreck Expedition Association, supported by the University of Malta, located the wreck of ORP Kujawiak on 22 September 2014. Further dives were made in 2015 and 2017, when the dive team managed to recover the ship’s bell which has been passed to the Maritime Museum of Malta for conservation and display
Today, Kuwajiak is a designated war grave, lying at a depth of 97m on its port side, with the stern of the wreck pointing north. The stern of the ship is badly damaged, probably as a result of it striking the sea bed first. The bow and midships sections of the hull remain mostly intact, with the twin 102mm forward guns in good condition and a prominent feature of the wreck.
The Schnellboot (which translates as ‘fast boat’) or S-Boot, was the general German Kriegsmarine designation for fast attack craft, designated E-boats (E for ‘enemy’) by the Allied forces. There were ten different classes built between 1931 and 1944 which proved incredibly effective against Allied shipping during the Second World War. They are listed as having successfully claimed:
101 merchant ships … 12 destroyers, 11 minesweepers, eight landing ships, six MTBs, a torpedo boat, a minelayer, a submarine and a number of smaller craft, such as fishing boats. They also damaged two cruisers, five destroyers, three landing ships, a repair ship, a naval tug and numerous other merchant vessels. Sea mines laid by the E-boats were responsible for the loss of 37 merchant ships … a destroyer, two minesweepers and four landing ships.
Schnellboot S-31 was part of a group of eight boats (S-30 to S-37), three of which were intended for sale to the Chinese Nationalist Navy, but which were impounded and completed for the Kriegsmarine at the start of the Second World War. They were built at the Lürssen shipyard in Bremen-Vegesack, constructed with a light metal hull with a mahogany exterior casing. S-31 was 32.76m long with a beam of 5.1m, armed with two side-mounted torpedoes and a 20mm gun and would have been crewed by a complement of 25 – 30 men.
S-31 was dispatched to join the 2 Schnellboot Flotilla, which was based in the German-controlled Baltic at the time, participating in raids against Allied ships patrolling the North Sea. In May 1940 during the Battle of Norway, S-31 torpedoed and seriously damaged the British destroyer HMS Kelly, which had to be towed back to her home port of Tyne.
In September 1941, S-31 was deployed to the Mediterranean, based at the Tunisian port of Augusta, where she conducted minelaying operations during the Siege of Malta and defended the German supply lines to Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps against raids by the Allies.
On 9 May 1942, the Luftwaffe received intelligence that the fast minelayer HMS Welshman would be making a solo run from Gibraltar to Malta carrying vital supplies to the besieged island of Malta. Four Schnellboots loaded with torpedoes were ordered to intercept the Welshman – which would later form part of the convoy in which the Kujawiak was sunk – and three minelaying Schnellboots, including S-31, were deployed with orders to lay their mines at the entrance to Valletta’s Grand Harbour.
During the operation, the S-31 suddenly exploded, probably a result of hitting one of the mines she had just laid which had broken free of its mooring. The boat broke up and sank instantly, with the loss of 13 men. Thirteen survivors, including two Italian Navy observers, were rescued by Schnellboot S-61.
Today, the wreck lies at a depth of approximately 65m just outside Valletta’s Grand Harbour, and has been dived for some time, since its discovery in 2000 by a team of technical divers. The boat is broken in two where the mine exploded and the hull’s wooden outer casing has long since rotted away, but the S-31 remains otherwise mostly intact, complete with two torpedoes in their tubes, still ready to launch.
The wrecks featured in this series have been declared to be Archaeological Zones in the Sea by the Cultural Heritage Act of Maltese law, and it must be remembered that most are also war graves. As such, the wrecks can only be dived through dive centres approved and registered with the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit of Heritage Malta, and protective measures to prevent unauthorised diving are strictly enforced. For more information, the original UCHU reports and a complete list of approved dive operators, visit the Heritage Malta Historic Wreck pages at www.visitmalta.com.