The families of an elite group of Polish resistance fighters who trained in the UK before fighting the Nazis from behind enemy lines during the second world war are being encouraged to share their stories on the 80th anniversary of the unit’s first mission.
English Heritage is appealing to the relatives of Cichociemni agents to come forward and provide details of the group who parachuted back into their own country to help lead the strongest resistance movement in any region occupied by the Germans.
More than 600 Cichociemni – or the “Silent Unseen” – were trained in sites around the UK, including Scotland, Manchester and Essex, with more than 300 eventually being sent back into Poland.
Janusz, the son of Józef Zabielski, who was on the first Cichociemni mission, said his father, who had served in the Polish army, was recruited into the unit after making his way to England via Romania and France after the Nazis took control in 1940.
“I think he was a realist,” he said. “Like most of us, they realise that that’s not going to change the course of the war what they did. But they gave the locals the people still living in Poland some hope that they were not completely forgotten.”
Zabielski and other recruits were put through training in the Scottish highlands and at English Heritage’s Audley End House in Essex, where they learned skills including sabotage, unarmed combat and memorising complex cover stories in case they were captured and interrogated.
Zabielski parachuted into Poland with two other agents but broke his ankle on landing. He then fooled the authorities when questioned about the cause of his injury and made his way to Warsaw over several weeks, often avoiding checkpoints by jumping off trains before they reached their station.
Andrew Hann, of English Heritage, said Józef Zabielski’s heroics were typical of members of a unit who operated at incredible risk to themselves. “It is a hugely important story and it had implications for Britain’s war effort because of the great successes in espionage that the some of the agents had when they were dropped in,” he said.
Hann said the exploits of the Cichociemni played a key part in helping the Allies defeat the Nazis, including gaining key intelligence ahead of the D-Day landings and sourcing information on the launch bases of V1 and V2 rockets.
After the war, Zabielski retrained as a pastry chef in London before going into property management and opening a B&B. But his son said he was still marked by his exploits during the war and would never sit with his back to a door.
“He always had to see who’s coming in, who’s going. It was like an instinct – he had to do it, well after the war in fact,” he said.
Hann said many of the agents who worked with the Armia Krajowa (the “home army”), which had 300,000 recruits at its peak, took part in the Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944. In total, 112 were killed during the war and nine more by the communist regime that was hostile to the Cichociemni, which it saw as English infiltrators.
The agents are celebrated in Poland, but their story is still relatively unknown in the UK, despite the crucial role they played in the war effort.
“I think it hugely important for Poland, but it sort of slips out of the collective memory in the UK because we focused on the agents that were in France and the French resistance,” he said.