The identity of six Polish war heroes has been uncovered as part of a fascinating new exhibition at Audley End House and Gardens.
The men were members of the Cichociemni, or ‘Silent Unseen’ – elite special operations paratroopers of the Polish army in exile, created in Britain during the Second World War to operate in occupied Poland, who were based at the 17th-century Uttlesford mansion for training.
They left their mark by scrawling their surnames in pencil on the wall of a candle store.
Hidden from view for 80 years, English Heritage, which owns Audley End House, has managed to solve the mystery of the graffiti and identify the soldiers and discover what happened to them after the war.
To mark the 80th anniversary of Audley End becoming the ‘finishing school’ for the Polish section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), their remarkable stories form part of an exhibition featuring artefacts, photos and accounts from the time. It opened on May 2 and runs until October 31.
The Cichociemni were trained to drop behind enemy lines into occupied Poland to fight for their homeland. Much revered in their home country, these brave men undertook their final stage of training at Audley End.
A memorial to the Cichociemni stands in the grounds, commemorating their achievements and sacrifices, but the graffiti is one of the few tangible reminders of the Polish presence at the house.
Dr Andrew Hann, an English Heritage historian, said: “The story of the Cichociemni at Audley End House has long been a source of fascination and we’re delighted to have been able to identify the men whose names have been scrawled onto the wall of the house’s coal gallery candle store.
“Their story is of particular relevance, given current events in Ukraine. With ever-changing land boundaries, there is a deep connection between the Ukrainian and Polish people. Indeed, one of the men who scratched his name onto the wall came from Lviv and another studied at university there.
“Last year, we invited those with family connections to, or memories of, the Cichociemni at Audley End House to share their stories and we were overwhelmed by the response. The wealth of information we received has enabled us to expand our research and deepen our knowledge of this important period in Audley End’s history.
“We’ve been able to use this material in our new display telling the stories of some of the brave men who were trained at Audley End during the war.”
Photos taken from the archive of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust show the elite soldiers playing football on the lawn in front of the house while another shows them tackling an obstacle course as they hang from a rope over the water.
Other exhibits include devices used in secret communications training, everyday objects adapted to conceal and carry hidden messages, and a book of photos presented by the Polish SOE to Lady Braybrooke when they left and returned the property to the family in December 1944.
The six men who wrote their names on the wall were volunteers, plucked from regular Polish army units across Britain to train for special duties. They all trained in the same section and graduated on 12 April 1944 and hoped to be parachuted back into Poland to take on the Nazi occupiers. They were:
Jan Benedykt Różycki, 43, from Klimkiewiczów – a former civil engineer, fluent in English, French, German and Russian who was married with two young children. Training notes show he particularly excelled at weapons training, explosives and demolitions.
In the autumn following his training, Różycki was dropped into occupied Poland, taking supplies and equipment to support the home army. He was the only one of the six to parachute back into his homeland.
After the war, Cichociemni who remained in Poland were hunted down by the Soviet-imposed communist government, but Różycki remained, using his skills as an engineer to repair the shattered country.
He was arrested in 1949 on false charges and imprisoned for three years; his son was killed in an attempt to free him. Once released, he held a number of senior university posts and from 1968 to 1971 was director of the Polish institute of civil engineering. He died in 1991 in Wroclaw.
Theodor Paschke, 29, from Chodecz – an officer in the pre-war Polish army whose hobbies included rowing and horse riding. His notes from him pick him out as reliable, self-confident and intelligent, but also highly-strong and reserved. After graduating, he spent a short period as a trainer himself at Audley End, before working for Polish military intelligence.
Franciszek Socha29, from Przemyśl – a teacher, having studied at Lviv university, Socha had a tumultuous childhood in eastern Poland, fought over by the Poles and the Soviets.
Seemingly the group’s star student, he was rated ‘very good’ or ‘good’ in all exercises, other than communications, in which he was ‘satisfactory’.
After training, Socha was involved in several daring operations in occupied Europe, probably for British military intelligence. During one of these, he was parachuted into northern France to obtain a specimen of poison gas being manufactured there but was captured by the Gestapo. He managed to escape by jumping off a moving train and, with the help of the local resistance, made his way to a British submarine.
After the war, he remained in the UK and married a Scottish girl, Margaret. He returned to teach in Scotland and died in 1963 aged just 48.
Joseph Zbrzeźniak, 22, from Warsaw – the youngest of the group, he had been a courier for a printing company. After training, following three months at various holding stations waiting for a flight to Poland, he was transferred to Italy and saw action fighting on the Gothic Line in September 1944. He remained in Italy until 1946, when he was demobilized and returned to Britain. He settled in Bath, where he died in 2010.
Karol Dowksi38, from Lviv – before the war, he had been a prominent actor in theater and film, appearing many times on stage in his home city of Lviv and later in Kraków and Warsaw, as well as starring in several films.
Dorwski appears to have struggled with the training, rated only ‘satisfactory’ for most of the exercises and ‘unsatisfactory’ for irregular warfare. Despite this, he was marked as suitable for special operations work.
After the war, he returned to his roots and worked as an actor and announcer for the Polish broadcasting station of Radio Free Europe in Munich. Towards the end of his life, he returned to the UK and took part in lectures and concerts organized by the Association of Polish Theatre, Film, Radio and Television Artists. He died in London in 1980.
Czesław Migoś, 23 – little is known about Migoś, other than he was a sergeant in the artillery who escaped Poland and made his way to France, joining the Polish forces there. From France, he was posted to Britain, where he began his training with the SOE.
* A total of 2,613 Polish soldiers volunteered for special operations training during the war. Less than a quarter (606) completed the training – 527 of them at Audley End. Between February 1941 and December 1944, some 316 brave men and women were secretly parachuted into occupied Poland. Of these, a third (103) died in the war, in combat with the Germans, executed by the Gestapo or in crashes. A further nine were killed by communists in Poland after the war.