Tomb restored for WWII hero dubbed ‘father’ of top secret unit of special agents called Silent Unseen
The small gathering at a graveyard in Hounslow, UK, earlier this month to commemorate a Polish WWII hero was a sombre affair.
Attended by officials from the Polish embassy in London and several Polish community organisations, the ceremony was also a relatively unnoticed one.
Given the hero being recognised, though, this was probably what he would have wanted.
For the man in question was Colonel Józef Hartman, otherwise known as ‘the father’ of a top secret WWII unit of special agents known as the ‘Cichociemni’ (Silent Unseen).
Trained in the UK by Hartman, the agents were parachuted into occupied Poland to aid the fight against Hitler’s occupying forces.
Born on the 27th of October 1898 in Kielce, Hartman’s significant role in training and mentoring the young Polish soldiers who had volunteered for the special undercover mission, came soon after his arrival to Great Britain in 1940.
Following the fall of France, and with the Polish Government in Exile now operating from London, Prime Minister General Władysław Sikorski gave the order for the creation of Section III of the Commander-in-Chief’s Staff which foresaw planning for covert operations in Poland, including the training of paratroopers to be dropped behind enemy lines.
Following the order, Colonel Hartman was entrusted with the training of the elite special-operations paratroopers, who were comprised of volunteers, many of whom had left their units secretly in order to enlist for the special mission.
Having been one of the first Poles to receive training in Britain on sabotage and having completed courses on organising underground resistance, Hartman had the right skills and experience to be sent to Poland as one of the ‘Cichociemni’ himself.
But despite several attempts, his superiors refused on the grounds of him being well-known and recognisable as former adjutant to the Polish President and the risks to the covert operation should he be involved.
Disappointed by being denied a chance to take part, Hartman turned his energies to providing the best possible training for those who had volunteered for the unit, showing his tireless care and dedication towards each of the young men and women under his charge, ultimately earning him widespread respect and the affectionate title of the ‘Father of the Silent Unseen’.
With training taking place in various places from Scotland to Cheshire, from early 1942, the main training base, known as Station 43, was situated at Audley End House, near Saffron Walden in Essex.
Hartman took on a leading management role as Head of the Special Training School, as one of two Polish commandants working alongside their English counterpart Colonel Roper-Caldbeck.
Amongst others, volunteers were taught how to use every type of weapon (British, Polish, German, Russian and Italian) as well as mines. They were also educated in skills like topography, cryptography, shooting at invisible targets, sharpshooting, parachuting, as well as details about life in occupied Warsaw, including the prevailing fashions.
Hartman also introduced the requirement that every volunteer should be able to drive a car and ride a motorcycle and bicycle, which was not a common skill in pre-war Poland due to the high price of bicycles.
A guardian, father figure, mentor and teacher all in one, Hartman took a holistic approach to his students, believing that each of the paratroopers should not only be technically prepared for battle, but also mentally prepared.
He consequently took care of their psychological and spiritual wellbeing by developing their moral virtues, patriotic feelings and spiritual resilience.
Recognised for the active role he had taken in the training of the ‘Cichociemni’ and the results he achieved, Hartman was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1944.
One superior wrote of him: “a keen observer with sound judgement, highly intelligent, affectionate, extremely loyal to his superiors and with an approachable attitude towards subordinates, who like him very much. He is extremely conscientious, accurate and reliable.
“He has considerable military knowledge and is tactically well-prepared. He has the makings of a great battle commander. As the commander of a "cadre" company, he achieved very good results.”
Of the over 2,600 volunteers who applied, only 606 managed to complete the training. Whilst the vast majority of the volunteers were men, 15 women also passed the training to qualify as part of the ‘Silent Unseen’.
Of those who passed the training, between 1941-1945, 316 were dropped into occupied Poland and of them 103 were killed in direct combat with the Germans or were executed by the Gestapo.
Testament to Hartman’s uniquely close and fatherly connection with each of the Cichociemni is the fact that he planted a rose bush in the front garden of his London home to commemorate each of his fallen subordinates, cultivating these with great care until the end of his life.
In a poem about Hartman, a surviving Cichociemni special agent, wrote: “You walked humbly, a modest man who loved the Cichociemni more than his own life and fickle fame, A quiet hero expecting no reward.”
After the war, Hartman remained in exile in London unable to return to Poland, like other Polish soldiers, due to fear of persecution by the Communist authorities now ruling the country, a fear confirmed by the death of 10 Cichociemni paratroopers killed after fake show trials in Stalin’s Poland.
Until his death in London in 1979, he continued to keep active correspondence with the surviving ‘Cichociemni’, cultivate the memory of the fallen members and was active in veteran’s circles including the Cichociemni Associates UK.
He also helped set up the Piłsudski Institute.
During the ceremony 11 October this month in New Brentford Cemetery in Hounslow, to honour Hartman and his wife Grace, Jacek Garncarson of the Grupa Zadaniowa "Pamięć Cichociemnych" (The Memory of the Cichociemni Group), who helped restore Hartman's tomb alongside Stowarzyszenie Odra-Niemen (Odra-Niemen Association) and Polish history researcher Tomasz M Muskus who rediscovered the grave, gave a short speech, which he ended by saying: “Let the memory of this honourable pair live in our memory and remind us of the basic values of friendship, solidarity and responsibility for others.”
In addition to unveiling a restored tomb, the ceremony also saw the installation of a permanent bouquet of red and white roses in recognition of Hartman’s own lifelong cultivation of his rose memorials for the fallen Cichociemni.