At Station 43

Chris Larkin

Photo © Polish Underground Movement Study Trust

Audley End, the Jacobean country house near Saffron Walden, was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works in 1941 and became a base for the Special Operations Executive. Codenamed ‘Station 43’, it was a training ground for the Polish section of the SOE, an elite group of paratroopers also known as the Cichociemni, or the ‘Silent Unseen’.

An exhibition commemorating their time at Audley End is currently on display at the house. Photographs show the men traversing a tightrope slung precariously over the River Cam, enjoying a game of football and eating together. Alongside the pictures are objects intended for use behind enemy lines: not only weapons, but also everyday items such as razors, pens, tobacco pipes, cigarette tins and jewellery. Many have been modified to conceal messages, microfiche, maps or suicide pills.

Attention to detail was paramount to the survival of those who parachuted into occupied Poland. A tailoring shop was set up in one of the turrets of the house to make sure all the clothing looked authentically Polish. A Polish dentist visited before the soldiers left, to change any fillings they might have had while in Essex to match those available in their home country.

Some 2500 volunteered for service at Audley End, and around seven hundred completed the course. In total 316 men and one woman, Elżbieta Zawacka, parachuted back into Poland, of whom 112 were killed: nine died during flights or jumps; 84 were killed in combat or murdered by the Gestapo; ten took poison after being arrested; and nine were executed after the war by the Communist authorities. Zawacka fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was imprisoned for several years in the 1950s. She died in January 2009, two months before her hundredth birthday.

On display in one of the cases is a small silk map (silk being sturdier and longer-lasting than paper) that would have been rolled up and hidden inside a hollow-handled razor or pen. Among the military instructions and symbols are the names of prominent features, roads and locations in Eastern Europe. At the bottom edge you can just about make out the name of the city of Mariupol.