Past Lives

Station 43 at Audley End House

80 years ago, Audley End House in Essex was transformed into a training school for the Polish Special Operations Executive – and its secrets are still being uncovered

Image: Illustration of a Polish operative

2022 marked the 80th anniversary of the establishment of Station 43, the principal training school for the Polish section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), at Audley End House and Gardens in Essex. Audley End had been requisitioned by the government following the death of Henry Neville, 7th Lord Braybrooke, in March 1941. By October it was being used by the SOE – Britain’s secret organisation for conducting espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe – as a packing station for canisters used to drop supplies to its agents. The Poles arrived in April 1942 to set up Station 43.

It served as a finishing school for operatives. Agents arrived there having already completed paramilitary, fitness and parachute training. At Audley End there were two courses: underground warfare and briefing. The underground warfare course included field craft, reconnaissance, sabotage, silent killing and wireless operation. During the briefing course, agents were informed about the current situation in Poland and given new identities, authentic Polish clothes and false documents. The courses lasted four to six weeks.

Once they had been parachuted into occupied Poland, agents came under the command of the Polish Home Army, leading detachments of men in underground warfare against the Nazis. Many were involved in bitter fighting during the Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944, while others led partisan activities against the retreating Germans.

Between 1941 and 1945, 316 agents were dropped into Poland, the majority of them trained at Audley End. These brave men, and one extraordinary woman, Elzbieta Zawacka, were known as the cichociemni – the silent unseen. A total of 103 were killed in combat with the Germans or executed by the Gestapo. A further nine were killed by communists in Poland after the war, and many others were forced to flee their homeland, some of them settling in Britain.

Today, only small fragments of evidence from the days of Station 43 survive, including a few lines of graffiti listing the names of six agents. These names provide the basis for an episode of our Speaking with Shadows podcast to mark the anniversary. We have also mounted a small display in the library telling the story of the cichociemni.

Words by Andrew Hann

Illustration by Jasmine Whiteleaf

English Heritage and the author are indebted to Ian Valentine, whose research can be found in Station 43: Audley End House and SOE's Polish Section (The History Press, 1998).