Krystyna Skarbek (1 May 1915 – 15 June 1952) was a Polish Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent who became a legend in her own time for her daring exploits in intelligence and sabotage missions to Nazi-occupied Poland and France.
She was a British agent just months before the SOE was founded in July 1940 and had been the longest serving of all British women agents during World War II. Skarbek was extremely resourceful and quite persuasive. Because of her influence the SOE began to recruit increasing numbers of women agents into the organization.
In 1941 she chose her began using the nom de guerre Christine Granville, which she ultimately legally adopted after the war. Skarbek was a friend of Ian Fleming, and is said to have been the inspiration for the charachters of Bond girls Tatiana Romanova and Vesper Lynd.
Krystyna Skarbek was born on an estate at Mlodzieszyn, 56 km (35 miles) west of Warsaw, to Count Jerzy Skarbek, a Roman Catholic and Stefania née Goldfeder, the daughter of a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker. It was a marriage of convenience which allowed Jerzy Skarbek the benefit of using Stefania`s dowry to pay his debts and continue his lavish life-style.
The Skarbeks were well connected with notable relations such as the composer Fryderyk Chopin, Chopin's godfather and prison reformer Fryderyk Skarbek, and American Union General Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski.
The couple's first child, Andrzej took after the mother's side of the family while, Krystyna, second born, took after her father. She shared his love for riding horses, which she sat astride, rather than side-saddle. During family visits to Zakopane in the mountains of southern Poland, she developed into an expert skier. From the very beginning, there was a complete rapport between father and daughter and her penchant for being a tomboy developed quite naturally.
Krystyna first met Andrzej Kowerski her childhood playmate, a her family stables, when his father met with her father the Count to discuss agricultural business. The 1920s financial crisis had left the family in dire financial straits in which they had to give up their country estate and move to Warsaw. In 1930, when Krystyna was just 22, her father died. The financial empire of the Goldfeder family had almost all but collapsed leaving barely sufficient money to support the widowed Countess Stefania.
Krystyna found work at a Fiat dealership but soon had to quit due to illness incurred as a result of the auto fumes. Initially, a doctor's diagnosis concluded that the shadows on her chest e-rays were that of tuberculosis, since her father had died of the disease. She received compensation from her employer's insurance company and followed the advice of her physician to spend as much time in the outdoors as possible. She spent a great deal of time hiking and skiing the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland.
During this time, Krystyna married a young businessman, Karol Getlich but the marriage ended amicably. They were incompatible. Subsequently, she was involved in a love affair, but it was nipped in the bud, as Karol's mother refused to allow him to marry a penniless divorcee.
One day while skiing at Zakopane, Krystyna lost control on the slopes and was saved in the nick of time by a giant of a man who stepped into her path and saved her. His name was Jerzy Giżycki - a brilliant, moody, irascible eccentric young man, who came from a wealthy family in Ukraine. At the age of fourteen, he had quarreled with his father, run away from home, and worked in the United States as a cowboy and gold prospector. Eventually he became an author and traveled the world in search of material for his books and articles. He had visited Africa and knew it well. It was his hope to one day return.
On 2 November 1938, Krystyna and Jerzy Giżycki married at the Evangelical Reformed Church in Warsaw. Shortly thereafter Jerzy accepted a diplomatic posting to Ethiopia, where he served as Poland’s consul general until September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Skarbek would later refer to Giżycki as having been "my Svengali for so many years that he would never believe that I could ever leave him for good."
With the outbreak of World War II, the couple sailed for London, England, where Skarbek offered her services to the British Empire. At first the British authorities had little interest in considering her, but were eventually convinced by Skarbek's acquaintances, including that of journalist Frederick Augustus Voigt, who had previously introduced her to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). In 1940 Voigt was working as advsor for the British in the Department of Propaganda in Enemy Countries. After World War II, George Orwell described Voigt as a "neo-tory" who expounded on the need to maintain British imperial power as a necessary bulwark against communism and for the maintenance of international peace and political stability.
Krystyna Skarbek helped to organize a team of Polish couriers that transported intelligence reports from Warsaw to Budapest. Among them, was her cousin Ludwik Popiel who managed to smuggle out the unique Polish anti-tank rifle, model 35, with the stock and barrel sawed off for easier transport but it never saw wartime service with the Allies. Its designs and specifications had to be destroyed upon the outbreak of war and there was no time for reverse engineering. Captured stocks of the rifle were, however, used by the Germans and the Italians. For a period of time Skarbek, had the weapon concealed in her Budapest apartment.
In Hungary, Skarbek met long-lost childhood friend, Andrzej Kowerski, a Polish Army officer, who would later use the British nom de guerre "Andrew Kennedy". Skarbek met him again briefly before the war at Zakopane. Kowerski had lost part of his leg in a pre-war hunting accident, and was now exfiltrating Polish and other Allied military personnel and gathering intelligence.
Skarbek demonstrated her penchant for quick-thinking strategy. When she and Kowerski were arrested by the Gestapo in January 1941 she feigned symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis by biting her tongue until it bled. She won their release. Skarbek was related to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Mikos Horthy, though a distant one at that. A cousin from the Lwów side of the family had married a relative of Horthy. The pair made good their escape from Hungary via the Balkans and Turkey.
As soon as they arrived at SOE offices in Cairo, Egypt, they were stunned to discover that they were under suspicion.because of Skarbek's contacts with a Polish intelligence organization called the "Musketeers". The organization was formed in October 1939 by Stefan Witkowski, an engineer-inventor who would be assassinated in October 1941, whose identities have never been determined. Another source of suspicion was the ease with which she had obtained transit visas through French-mandated Syria and Lebanon from the pro-Vichy French consul in Istanbul, a concession offered only to German spies.
Suspicions also surrounded Kowerski and were addressed in London by General Colin Gubbins, head of the SOE (from September 1943). In a letter dated 17 June 1941 to Polish Commander-in-Chief and Premier Władysław Sikorski, he wrote the following:
Last year […] a Polish citizen named Kowerski was working with our officials in Budapest on Polish affairs. He is now in Palestine […]. I understand from Major [Peter] Wilkinson [of SOE] that General [Stanisław] Kopański [Kowerski's former commander in Poland] is doubtful about Kowerski's loyalty to the Polish cause [because] Kowerski has not reported to General Kopański for duty with the [Polish Independent Carpathian] Brigade. Major Wilkinson informs me that Kowerski had had instructions from our officials not to report to General Kopański, as he was engaged […] on work of a secret nature which necessitated his remaining apart. It seems therefore that Kowerski's loyalty has only been called into question because of these instructions.
Eventually,Kowerski was able to clarify any misunderstandings with General Kopański following which he resumed intelligence work. Similarly, when Skarbek visited Polish military headquarters in her British Royal Air Force uniform, she was treated by the Polish military chiefs with the highest of respect.
Intelligence obtained by Skarbek through her connections with the Musketeers, had accurately predicted the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941). Consequently, when Skarbek and Kowerski's services were dispensed with, Jerzy Gizycki took umbrage and abruptly resigned from his own career as British intelligence agent. (It was discovered only later that a number of Allied sources, including Ultra, also had similar advance information about Operation Barbarossa.)
Skarbek informed Jerzy, her husband that the man she loved was Kowerski. Giżycki left for London, eventually emigrating to Canada. Their divorce became official at the Polish consulate in Berlin on 1 August 1946.
Krystyna Skarbek was sidelined from mainstream action. The assistant to the head of F section, Vera Atkins, described Skarbek as a very brave woman, though very much a loner and a law unto herself.
By 1944 events had occurred that would lead to some of Skarbek's most famous of exploits. Due to her fluency in French, her services her offered to SOE teams in France, where she worked under the nom de guerre, "Madame Pauline". The offer was timely one - the SOE was encountering a shortage of trained operatives to meet the increased demands being placed on it in the run-up to the invasion of France. Though new operatives were already in training, the process took time to complete. The could not be posted throughout occupied Europe until they acquired the necessary physical and intellectual skills, otherwise their fate as well as that of other SOE colleagues and that of the French Resistance would be greatly compromised.
The SOE had set up several branches in France. Though most of the women in France reported to F Section in London, Skarbek's mission was launched from Algiers, the base of the AMF Section. This fact, combined with Skarbek's absence from the usual SOE training program, has been the source of mystery to many historians and researchers. The AMF Section was only set up in the wake of the Allied landings in North Africa, 'Operation Torch', comprising of staff from London's F Section and the MO4 from Cairo.
The functions of the AMF Section were three-fold: it was simpler and safer to run the resupply operations from Allied North Africa acroos German-occupied France, than from London; since the South of France would be liberated by separate Allied landings there ("Operation Dragoon"), SOE units in the area needed to be transferred to have links with those headquarters, not with forces for Normandy; the AMF Section tapped into the skills of the French in North Africa, who did not generally support Charles de Gaulle and who had been linked with opposition in the former "Unoccupied Zone".
After the two invasions, the distinctions became irrelevant; and almost all the SOE Sections in France would be united with the Maquis into the Forces Francaises de l'Interieur (FFI). (There was one exception: the EU/P Section, which was formed by Poles in France and remained part of the trans-European Polish Resistance movement, under Polish command.)
On July 6, 1944, Skarbek, as "Pauline Armand", parachuted into southeastern France and became part of the "Jockey" network directed by a Belgian-British lapsed pacifist, Francis Cammaerts. She assisted Cammaerts by linking Italian partisans and French Maquis for joint operations against the Germans in the Alps and by inducing non-Germans, in particular Poles who had been conscripted in the German occupation forces to defect to the Allies.
On August 13, 1944, just two days before Operation Dragoon landings, Francis Cammaerts, another SOE operative,Xan Fielding who had been operating in Crete, as well as a French officer, Christian Sorensen, were arrested at a roadblock by the Gestapo. When Skarbek learned that they were to be executed, she managed to meet with Capt. Albert Schenck, an Alsatian, who was the liaison officer between the local French prefecture and the Gestapo. She introduced herself as a niece of British General Bernard Montgomery and threatened Schenck should any harm come to the prisoners. She reinforced her threat by offering two million francs for the men's release. Schenck in turn introduced her to a Gestapo officer, a Belgian named Max Waem.
Cammaerts and the other two men were released. Capt. Schenck was advised to leave Digne. He did not and was subsequently murdered by a person or persons unknown. His wife kept the bribe money and, after the war, attempted to exchange it for new francs. She was arrested but released after the authorities investigated her story. She managed to exchange the money but received only a tiny portion of its value.For three hours Christine argued and bargained with him and, having turned the full force of her magnetic personality on him... told him that the Allies would be arriving at any moment and that she, a British parachutist, was in constant wireless contact with the British forces. To make her point, she produced some broken... useless W/T crystals.... 'If I were you,' said Christine, 'I should give careful thought to the proposition I have made you. As I told Capitaine Schenck, if anything should happen to my husband [as she falsely described Cammaerts] or to his friends, the reprisals would be swift and terrible, for I don't have to tell you that both you and the Capitaine have an infamous reputation among the locals.'
Increasingly alarmed by the thought of what might befall him when the Allies and the Resistance decided to avenge the many murders he had committed, Waem struck the butt end of his revolver on the table and said, 'If I do get them out of prison, what will you do to protect me?'
Skarbek's service in France restored her political reputation and greatly enhanced her military reputation. When the SOE teams returned from France some of the British women sought new missions in the Pacific War, however Skarbek, being Polish, was ideally suited to serve as a courier for missions to her homeland during the final missions of the SOE. As the Red Army advanced across Poland, the British government and Polish government-in-exile worked together to establish a network that would report on events in the People's Republic of Poland. Kowerski and Skarbek, fully reconciled with the Polish forces, were preparing to be dropped into Poland in early 1945. However, the mission, Operation Freston, was canceled because the first party to enter Poland were captured by the Red Army (they were released in February 1945).
All women SOE operatives were assigned military rank, with honorary commissions in either the Women's Transport Service - which was an autonomous, though elite part of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) or the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Skarbek appears to have been a member of both.
In preparation for service in France, Skarbek worked with the Women's Transport Service, but on her return had transferred to the Women's Auxiliary Air Force as an officer, a rank she held until the end of the war.
Skarbek was one of the few SOE female operatives to have been promoted beyond subaltern rank to that of Captain, or the Air Force equivalent, Flight Officer, the counterpart of the Flight Lieutenant rank for male officers. Skarbek, by the end of the war was Honorary Flight Officer, a title that of Pearl Witherington, the courier who had taken command of a group when the designated commander was captured, and Yvonne Cormeau, considered to be the most successful wireless operator.
For her remarkable exploits at Digne, Skarbek was decorated with the George Medal. Years after the Digne incident, in London, she spoke about her experiences to another Pole, also a World War II veteran that, during her negotiations with the Gestapo, she was completely unaware of any danger to herself. Only after she and her comrades had escaped did she realize "What have I done! They could have shot me as well!"
In May 1947, she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for her work in conjunction with the British authorities. This award is usually presented to officers about the rank of colonel, and a rank above the "standard" award of Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) given to other women of SOE.
In recognition of Skarbek's contribution to the liberation of France, the French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre.
After the war, Skarbek was left without financial reserves or a country to return to. Xan Fielding, whom she had saved at Digne, wrote in his 1954 book, Hide and Seek, and dedicated "To the memory of Christine Granville":
During the latter part of her life, she had met Ian Fleming, with whom she allegedly had a year-long affair,although there is no proof that this affair ever occurred. The man who made the allegation, Donald McCormick, relied on the word of a woman identified only by the name "Olga Bialoguski"; McCormick always refused to confirm her identify and did not include her in his list of acknowledgments.After the physical hardship and mental strain she had suffered for six years in our service, she needed, probably more than any other agent we had employed, security for life. […] Yet a few weeks after the armistice she was dismissed with a month's salary and left in Cairo to fend for herself ... [Alt]hough she was too proud to ask for any other assistance, she did apply for […] a British passport; for ever since the Anglo-American betrayal of her country at Yalta she had been virtually stateless. But the naturalization papers […] were delayed in the normal bureaucratic manner. Meanwhile, abandoning all hope of security, she deliberately embarked on a life of uncertain travel, as though anxious to reproduce in peace time the hazards she had known during the war; until, finally, in June 1952, in the lobby of a cheap London hotel, the menial existence to which she had been reduced by penury was ended by an assassin's knife.
Christine Granville met an untimely end at a Kensington Hotel on June 15, 1952 where she was stabbed to death by a man by the name of Dennis Muldowney, an obsessed merchant-marine steward and former colleague whose advances she had rejected. After being tried and convicted of her murder, Muldowney was hanged on the gallows at HMP Pentonville on 30 September 1952.
Krystyna Skarbek / Christine Granville was interred in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery at Kensal Green, in northwest London.
Following his death in 1988, the ashes of Skarbek's comrade-in-arms and partner, Andrzej Kowerski (aka Andrew Kennedy) were interred at the foot of her grave.
Skarbek became a legend during her lifetime and after her death, has become forever after immortalized by popular culture. In Ian Flemings first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, the character Vesper Lynd is said to have been modeled after Skarbeck. According to William F. Nolan, Fleming also based Tatiana Romanova, in his 1957 novel From Russia, with Love, on Skarbek.
Four decades later, in 1999, Polish writer Maria Nurowska published a novel, Milosnica (The Lover)—a fictional story about a female journalist's attempt to probe Skarbek's story.
A Polish TV series has been announced by Telewizja Polska (Polish Television) about Skarbek.
The Krakow Post report on February 5, 2009 that Agnieszka Holland will direct a big-budget film about Skarbek—Christine: War My Love.
|Order of the British Empire|
|Croix de Guerre (France)|
Editors Note: FYI: The images of medals posted here may or may not be the exact version which was awarded to the recipient.There are several classes for each medal depending on various factors such as type of military (or civilian)service, rank of officer (or soldier), class of award, year in which it was awarded, etc. The lack of sufficient information on the web (or omission) has compounded the difficulty in selecting the correct class of medal. I apologize for any inaccuracies.