Łukasz Zalesiński discusses with Władysław Szarski about why Admiral Józef Unrug suddenly forgot the German language and bought a ship for the Polish navy.
Józef Unrug, while still a counter admiral, is said to have been able to reverse the fate of the war. In September 1939 Adolf Hitler arrived in Sopot. He stayed in today’s Grand Hotel, which was then called Kasino-Hotel. The building was within the reach of the Hel artillery. Unrug, however, said that he would not bomb it, because it would be dishonourable....
Władysław Szarski: Today it is difficult to tell how much truth is in this story. Let’s start with the fact that there are no preserved documents related to the defence of the Hel Peninsula. Shortly before the capitulation, Unrug commanded to burn all of them. All what we know comes from the accounts of the defenders, often written down in exile, many years after the war. Did the Admiral receive information that Hitler had appeared in the hotel? It is hard to say. Certainly, he knew that high-ranking German soldiers had been deployed there. But the hotel remained a civilian facility. Unrug decided that firing at it from the Laskowski Battery would be tantamount to a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Of course, at that time no one had an idea how cruel the war that had just begun would be, what methods Germany would use, what crimes it would commit. Perhaps, if the Admiral had been aware of this, he would have behaved differently. It is also possible that such a decision would have changed the course of history. Today, however, this kind of speculating does not make sense in my opinion.
Józef Unrug’s life is full of stories in which truth is mixed with fiction.
That is true. There were many anecdotes about the Admiral and often contradictory opinions. All because of his personality. He was an extremely serious man, not to say: lofty, but at the same time extremely principled and just. He kept his subordinates at a distance. In this respect, he resembled a little of the novel Hornblower [a character from a book by Cecil Scott Forester; a fictional officer of the British Royal Navy from the Napoleonic Wars]. Some bore a grudge against him, but he was generally respected by the sailors. To show his personality, I will quote a story which, in my opinion, has all the characteristics of probability. One day, Unrug commanded the commander of the Naval Port Workshops in Gdynia to immediately remove the shipyard’s technical director from his position. He did not even justify it in a word. The officer found himself in quite a trouble, because he could not fire such an important person without any explanation, and also without any procedures. Eventually, however, he executed the command. Later it became apparent that when Unrug drove by car at night, he saw a motorcyclist knocked down the old lady and ran away without helping her in any way. The Admiral managed to write down his registration plate numbers. He took the woman to the hospital and determined to whom the motorcycle belonged. The owner turned out to be the technical director, and Unrug decided on the spot that person was unworthy of working with him. He dealt justice right away...
In fact, this is an extraordinary story. The Unrugs came from an old Calvinist family with a strong German identity. Some of them settled in the Greater Poland Province, converted to Catholicism and gradually underwent polonisation. Józef’s father, Tadeusz Gustaw Unrug, served in the Prussian army, but in what army was he supposed to serve otherwise? There was no Poland at the time, and he wanted to enlist... Unrug Sr. had a fortune in the village of Sielec near Żnin [Kuyavian-Pomeranian Province]. At home he spoke Polish, surrounded himself with Poles, but on the other hand he often visited the imperial court. Emperor Wilhelm II used to greet him with words: “My friend, an old Pole, has arrived”. Interestingly, Tadeusz married a German woman who allegedly did not learn to speak Polish at all. Józef, growing up in such an environment, felt like a Pole - just like his father - and also wanted to serve in the army. So, he joined the imperial navy, but as soon as Poland regained independence, he switched from his German uniform to a Polish one. Already as an officer in the service of the Republic of Poland, he would ask his colleagues to review the documents prepared by him. He was not sure of his Polish language...
He started his service in the Polish Navy with a really strong, unexpected way. He bought a ship for it...
A rather small ship. A used unit was purchased in Gdańsk. The Polish government could not make the transaction on its own, because Prussian Gdansk did not want to sell the ship to Poland, so Unrug reached into his own pocket. Did he then receive compensation for this? It is hard to say. Surely, however, he could afford such an expense. He came from a very rich family... Already in Poland, the ship was equipped with hydrographic equipment, and there was a white-and-red flag waving above the deck. The ship was then given the name ORP “Pomorzanin”. Our first naval vessel may not have been especially modern, but we needed her badly. The Germans tried to convince the international community that Poland was not able to guarantee the safety of navigation on the part of the Baltic Sea which they controlled. Meanwhile, the hydrographic ship allowed to carry out seabed surveys and prepare new maps.
Unrug, however, did not stay in the navy for a long time. As early as in 1924, he was ‘placed on inactive status’. Why so?
This happened as a result of a conflict with the head of the Navy’s management, vice-admiral Kazimierz Porębski. Unrug was then the Chief of Staff of the Fleet Command. It is hard to know today what both men were all about. Perhaps it was simply a matter of incompatibility of characters. It cannot be ruled out that differences of opinion were the result of different professional experiences. Porębski originated from the Russian Tsarist fleet, took part in the conflict with Japan and in the First World War. It is a fact that more officers left the service during his rule in the Polish Navy. Unrug returned to service a year later, when Porębski was superseded by Jerzy Świrski, an officer he valued extremely highly. Świrski largely contributed to the expansion of the Polish navy. Thanks to him, it survived the German invasion of 1939 and, as the only kind of Polish armed forces, it maintained real continuity for one hundred years. And all this thanks to the Peking Plan, in which three Polish destroyers were sent to Great Britain just before the outbreak of the war...
When the war broke out, Józef Unrug commanded the defence of the Coast in the rank of counter admiral.
He was the highest military commander in the region. The land army, naval forces and the crew of the Fortified Region of Hel were reporting to him. He coordinated their actions, although he left a lot of freedom to individual commanders.
Many historians say that he made a lot of mistakes at that time. In the first hours, the army waited for specific orders, which did not arrive....
I do not agree with that. Today, many historians tend to make categorical judgements, to judge historical figures only from the perspective of our knowledge, without taking into account the specific conditions of those times. Unrug had to give orders under unbelievable pressure, having relatively scarce information, in addition to the knowledge that any error could cost his subordinates really a lot. The opponents accuse him, for example, of not having completed the “Rurka” operation, which consisted in mining the Gulf of Gdańsk. They do not take into account the fact that the Free City of Danzig was located on the bay. The blocking of the port there could have been treated by Germany as a casus belli.
Did the decision to surrender Hel raise such doubts as well?
There were no doubts here. The Hel Peninsula was the longest defending piece of the Polish territory. And although the resistance might have lasted even longer, on October 2, the counter admiral decided to sign the act of capitulating. First of all, he decided that further resistance did not make sense. After all, Germans and Soviets had already occupied the whole Poland, while the Allies did not hurry up coming to the rescue. Unrug wanted to save his own soldiers. He assumed that the war would end one day and that someone would have to rebuild Poland. His decision was also influenced by an armed rebellion on the Peninsula - some soldiers wanted to get through to Jastarnia [a town on the Hel Peninsula] with weapons, cross over to the Tri-City and surrender to the Germans. The rebels were local residents; they had been conscripted just before the outbreak of the war. They did not participate directly in the fight all the time. They were stationed in the forests, harassed by German artillery and bombers, waiting for fighting off a possible landing. However, it would not have come. They saw from their positions that the fights in Gdynia and the area stopped and they wanted to return to their families. The rebels were disarmed and arrested. A field court was pending, and there could only be one sentence for a rebellion with weapons in hand in war conditions: the death penalty. Unrug, however, did not want to allow this to happen. He tried to understand the motivations of these people, he did not want the heroic and effectively conducted defence to end with Poles shooting at Poles. So, he ordered the rebels be released, to burn all documents, and to surrender the Peninsula.
Then he also forgot how to speak German?
Unrug did not participate in the capitulation talks. Commander Marian Majewski and Captain Antoni Kasztelan travelled to Sopot. The latter was a counterespionage officer. Unrug knew that the Germans might want to take revenge on him, because before the war Captain Kasztelan denounced several agents of key importance to them. His appointment as a parliamentarian was supposed to be a protective umbrella for him. However, it was of little use. Eventually, the Germans brutally investigated Kasztelan, filed a mock trial and beheaded him in Königsberg. Returning to the Admiral, however, when the Germans invaded the Peninsula, they demanded to talk to the main commander. Unrug came to a meeting with an interpreter and threw out, ‘On September 1, I forgot how to speak German’. He also added that he wanted his officers to know what he talked about with the Germans. Those in turn tried to persuade him to change sides at any cost. They even sent relatives of the Admiral to the oflag, among whom was General Walter von Unruh. “You only have to sign a document that you are a German, because you are, and you will leave the camp immediately. You will also get a commanding position in the Kriegsmarine’. For the Nazis, such a recruitment would have had great propaganda significance. Unrug remained defiant.
Was his life threatened afterwards?
No, it was not. The Germans treated him well in captivity. He had his own batman and conditions slightly better than officers of lower rank. However, he was relatively often moved from place to place, because he had such a great authority that officers were naturally drawn to him. They told him about the camp life, informed him about their intentions and escape plans. The Germans were afraid that the Admiral could become the leader of a rebellion. Unrug remained a captive until the end of the war.
Nowhere have I heard that he would have such plans. The Admiral knew perfectly well what was going on in Poland. He knew about the trial and the murder of the three best officers: Przybyszewski, Mieszkowski, and Staniewicz. His fate probably would be similar. By the way, we should bust a certain myth. In many publications, there is repeated the assertion that the pre-war officers who decided to return to Poland did not fully know what to expect from the USSR. What a complete nonsense. They were educated and well-read people. Before the war, there had been many civilian and military publications on Soviet Russia, gulags, political police, cruel interrogations published in Poland. On the other hand, however, those officers still saw their homeland in Poland, they wanted to rebuild it, and they had families here who were not allowed to emigrate to the West. For five years, those who returned put the Polish navy back on its feet. And when the communists brought up the first generation of their officers, the pre-war officers were considered enemies of the people. They were imprisoned, murdered, persecuted.
But the fate of Unrug, who stayed in the West, was not cheerful either. In Morocco, the Admiral looked after cutters; in France, he worked as a driver. He died in a retirement home.
Unfortunately, this was the fate of most Polish officers. Of course, there were exceptions, such as Romuald Nalecz-Tymiński, who after the war commanded a fleet of destroyers in the navy of independent Pakistan. After the war, the Polish army in the West was disbanded; the British also drastically slimmed down their armies. Suddenly, it turned out that there were no institutions that would help the veterans to find a reasonable job. They were on their own. Besides, this is an age-old problem. For instance, the veterans of the Napoleonic Wars had found themselves in a similar situation. However, they were granted concessions to run tobacco shops, so to say that tobacco was subject to a state monopoly.
Now, years later, the sad fate of the Admiral will be symbolically compensated....
His remains have been moved from the French cemetery in Montrésor to the memorial graveyard in the Naval Cemetery in Oksywie, Gdynia. In this way, Unrug’s will has been fulfilled; the Admiral wrote in it that he would like to rest in Poland, but only when his subordinates murdered in Stalin’s times are buried with dignity preserved. And that is what happened. A few months ago, three commanders, Przybyszewski, Mieszkowski and Staniewicz, were solemnly buried in the memorial section. Now, the time has come for the commander.
Władysław Szarski is the director of the Museum of Coastal Defence in Hel.
autor zdjęć: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe; arch. Władysława Szarskiego