English Heritage issues plea for memories of elite Polish unit that trained at UK stately home during WWII
An appeal for wartime memories has been launched on the 80th anniversary of the first mission of the Cichociemni, the elite Polish commandos who trained in Britain to lead the resistance against the Germans in occupied Poland.
English Heritage, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of British cultural heritage, has appealed to descendants of the Cichociemni, to share their family stories.
The Cichociemni, or the Silent Unseen, were elite special-operations paratroopers trained in the UK to carry out covert operations, sabotage and intelligence-gathering in occupied Poland.
Historians agree that they played a key part in helping the Allies defeat the Germans, including gaining key intelligence ahead of the D-Day landings and providing information on the launch bases of V1 and V2 rockets.
Between 1941 and 1945, 316 Cichociemni were dropped into occupied Poland. The youngest was 17 and the oldest was 54.
103 were killed in combat with the Germans or executed by the Gestapo. A further nine were killed by the communists in Poland after the war.
The Order of Virtuti Militari was awarded to 221 Cichociemni, the Cross of Valour was awarded 595 times.
More than 600 commandos were trained in sites around the UK, including Scotland, Manchester and Essex.
Most of them completed their training at Audley End House, an early 17th-century country house outside Saffron Walden, Essex, England, one of the finest Jacobean houses in the UK.
Andrew Hann, a historian for English Heritage, which looks after Audley End House, said: “We’d love to hear from the public who have a connection or story to share about the Cichociemni at Audley.
“We’re particularly interested in hearing from those in the local area at the time, who may remember hearing bangs in the night, or seeing troops crossing fields in the darkness.
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they were highly trained to be both ‘silent and unseen’, they left little obvious trace.”
English Heritage's appeal comes on the 80th anniversary of the first Cichociemni mission.
On the night of 15-16 February 1941, the first Cichociemni were parachuted into occupied Poland.
Their plane, a Whitley Z-6473, took off at 6.20 p.m. on Saturday, 15th February 1941 from RAF Newmarket.
The plan was to transport three paratroopers and four containers with equipment to occupied Poland. The drop was supposed to be made near Wloszczowa in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, about 50 kilometres west of Kielce.
When the three Poles, Józef Zabielski, Czesław Raczkowski and Stanisław Kzymowski, parachuted out of the plane, they were in a completely different location.
Due to a navigation error they ended up near the village of Dębowiec, which had been incorporated into the Third Reich. The plane returned safely home after spending almost 12 hours in the sky.
During the landing Zabielski damaged his ankle. Together with Raczkowski they hired a wagon from a local farmer, reached Skoczów and from there took a train to Bielsko, where they separated. They crossed the border of the General Government separately.
Krzymowski and Zabielski reached Warsaw. Later Raczkowski also found himself in the capital, after being stopped by the Germans while crossing the border. They considered him a smuggler and imprisoned him in Wadowice. Raczkowski made contact with the Peasant Battalions, which managed to free him.
Raczkowski died in a firefight with Germans in 1944, when he was on his way to Suchedniów to take command of a battalion.
The three men were trained at Audley End, where they learned skills including sabotage, unarmed combat and memorising complex cover stories in case they were captured and interrogated.
In 1941, the house was given to the Special Operations Executive, Britain’s secret organisation for conducting espionage and sabotage.
The Poles arrived there on around April 1942 to set up their main training base, known as Station 43.
At any one time, there were around 60 to 80 trainees at Audley End. In all 2,613 Polish Army soldiers volunteered for special operations training during the war, but only 606 completed the rigorous training course, 527 of them at Audley End.
Much of their training took place within the grounds of the house, though some exercises took them further afield including raiding the local post office and railway station.
Polish trainers were allowed off base to visit local pubs and cafes, and during night exercises the trainee agents occasionally came to blows with the local police or Home Guard who came across their nocturnal manoeuvres.
Polish volunteers arrived at Audley End having already passed paramilitary and fitness courses in Scotland and completed parachute training at Ringway in Cheshire.
The training at Audley End was a finishing school before being dropped into occupied Poland.
The men were trained in sabotage, field craft, reconnaissance, micro-photography and wireless operation. They were briefed on the current situation in Poland.
They invented aliases and false identities and were given clothes and false documents. The course lasted 4–6 weeks.
When they parachuted into Poland, they were to take up leadership roles within the Polish Home Army to fight the underground war against the Germans.
Arkady Rzegocki, Polish Ambassador to the UK, said the anniversary is an “important date in the history of Poland, Polish special operations forces and Polish-British relations”.
Their first mission offered a “glimmer of hope to the besieged homeland that help was coming”, he said, adding that their service was “brave and heroic”.
The Cichociemni were the forerunners of today’s Polish special forces. Their traditions are continued by the GROM Military Unit, which is named in honour of the Cichociemni Paratroopers of the Home Army.