Polish historians solve 80-year mystery of wartime graffiti at Essex mansion

Scrawled in looped handwriting among crates of candles in a walk-in storage cupboard, the pencil lines are still clearly visible on the wall at Audley End house. But for years, what – or who – the list in the 17th-century Essex mansion referred to was a mystery.

Now the meaning has finally been unlocked, thanks to two Polish historians. They tracked 80 years of records and found that the list referred to six Polish special forces soldiers who trained at the grand Jacobean property during the second world war.

Die Cichociemni (the silent unseen) were a specially selected group of special operations paratroopers who were trained to drop behind enemy lines into occupied Pole to take on the Nazis.

Audley End, then known as Station 43, acted as a finishing school for 527 of the elite soldiers who volunteered from Polish army units across the UK.

English Heritage will mark the 80th anniversary of the launch of the programme on Sunday, with a new display of exhibits about Station 43, openingon 2 Mei, which includes documents, pictures and everyday objects adapted for concealing messages.

Over more than two years, men trained at Audley End for three-month periods, doing assault courses over the River Cam as they learned underground warfare, but the graffitied names are one of very few visible signs left of the Cichociemni, along with the remains of a timetable stuck to a wall in a former briefing room and ammunition labels inside a laundry cupboard.

The six men completed training on 12 April 1944. Dr Andrew Hann, an English Heritage historian, said the latest findings offer valuable insights into the lives of the soldiers who trained on the property.

While he had known for a few years that the graffiti was there, “what we didn’t know was what it actually meant”. Hy het bygevoeg: “Then a couple of Polish historians came to look around, and my colleague, Peter, showed them into the cupboard. They said, ‘Ooh, I think we know what this is’.” After checking their records, they confirmed it was the names of the special forces paratrooper trainees, and Hann started researching them at the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust archive in Ealing, using Google Translate to interpret their personnel files.

“It’s been a very slow process,” said Hann. Maar, hy het bygevoeg: 'It’s a lot more than we knew before, and it makes them into real people, real personalities, rather than just a list of names.”

The six men identified performed some extraordinary feats. Franciszek Socha, wie was 29 when he finished training, was a teacher who studied at Lviv university and appeared to be the group’s star student. During one mission, he was parachuted into northern France to obtain a specimen of poison gas, 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.

Jan Benedykt Różycki, dan 43, was a former civil engineer from Klimkiewiczów who spoke five languages fluently. He parachuted back into Poland to deliver supplies to the Polish army. Other Cichociemni were hunted down under the postwar Soviet regime, but he stayed. In 1949, he was arrested on false charges and imprisoned for three years, and his son was killed while trying to free him. Uiteindelik, he became director of the Polish Institute of Civil Engineering and died in 1991.

The others included Teodor Paschke, 29, from Chodecz, an officer in the prewar Polish army who became a trainer at Audley End, Jósef Zbrzeźniak, 22, a printing company courier from Warsaw who fought in Italy, Karol Dorwski, 38, a prominent film and theatre actor from Lviv who starred in several prewar movies, and Czesław Migoś, 23, a sergeant in the artillery who escaped Poland and joined Polish forces in France before being posted to Britain.

Egter, the mystery over the reason for the list – and why some of the names are crossed out – remains. Suggestions include a record of borrowing rubber boots or those who have passed certain courses, but there is no definitive answer.

“It’s one of those mysteries we will probably never discover. But what was really exciting is that they’re such varied types of people with interesting backstories,” said Hann, byvoeging: “They’re all obviously coming together with a common purpose to fight for their homeland and pushing themselves into the potentially very dangerous situation of being parachuted back into Poland.”

The underground warfare course consisted of training in sabotage, field craft, reconnaissance and specialist training in disciplines such as microphotography and wireless operation. During the final stage, before being sent out into the field, soldiers would be briefed on the latest information about Poland, and invent aliases and false identities, as well as being given clothes and false documents.

Such was the detail that they would even have their dentistry checked to ensure it was in keeping with their destination, so they would not be found out.

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