Clare Mulley on the daring exploits of a highly decorated WWII special agent.
Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, was the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the Second World War. She was also the longest-serving.
Her extraordinary contribution to the Allied effort in three theatres of the war led to her being presented with the George Medal and OBE in Britain, the Croix de Guerre with one star from France, and enough ribbons to make any general proud.
Yet she died just seven years after the end of the conflict, murdered in a south London hotel with a commando knife much like the one she herself had carried during the war.
SMUGGLER TO SPY
The daughter of a Polish aristocrat and Jewish banking heiress, and a pre-war Polish beauty queen, Skarbek was not an obvious prospect for the British Secret Intelligence Services.
Most SIS officers and agents were recruited through the ‘old boys’ network’, and Skarbek was neither British nor male.
Nevertheless in late 1939, when she demanded – rather than volunteered – to be taken on, her skills and knowledge made her impossible to turn down.
Britain was anxious to know how the Nazis were organising inside occupied Poland. Skarbek spoke Polish, French, and English, and had excellent contacts in Warsaw and around the country.
What made her exceptional, however, was that as a rather bored countess before the war, she used to enjoy smuggling cigarettes into Poland over the high Tatra mountains, so she also knew the secret routes into and out of the country.
The following year, Skarbek undertook four perilous missions, mainly skiing from then-neutral Hungary into Nazi-occupied Poland.
She brought information, propaganda, and money to the fledgling Polish Resistance, undertook fact-finding missions, and smuggled back out information, radio codes, coding books, and sometimes microfilm – which she hid inside her gloves.
More than once, Skarbek’s quick thinking saved not only her own life but also the lives of her male colleagues. One report from the official British files simply states that she showed ‘great presence of mind’ and secured the release of both herself and the Polish officer with whom she had been arrested.
‘Great presence of mind’ during interrogation meant making a virtue of her apparent weakness: a hacking cough. Repeatedly biting her tongue, she appeared to cough up blood, a well-known symptom of tuberculosis.
Rightly terrified of this disease, the Nazis threw both her, and the man, whom they presumed she had already infected, out into the street.
Among the information that Skarbek smuggled across borders was the first film evidence of Nazi-German preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the planned invasion of their erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union.
When this film landed on his desk – according to Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah Oliver – Churchill remarked that Skarbek was his favourite spy.
Most would serve as couriers and radio operators in Nazi-occupied France, where able-bodied women travelling around the country aroused less suspicion among the occupying forces than men in the same role.
By then, Skarbek was working in Egypt and the Middle East, both providing intelligence and being trained. She studied coding (including Morse), wireless transmission, parachuting, weapons and explosives, and – the subject in which she excelled – silent killing.
She was preparing to be dropped behind enemy lines in France in the summer of 1944. It was here that she undertook the work that would make her legendary in the Special Forces.
ORGANISING THE RESISTANCE
Skarbek was sent to France to serve as courier for Special Operations Executive agent Francis Cammaerts, coordinating supplies and training, and providing international and local communications for the French Resistance in the run-up to D-Day in the south of France.
Among other achievements, she established the first communications between units of the French Resistance and the Italian partisans, on opposite sides of the Alps.
Identifying the Italian commander during a gun battle, she swiftly made contact and brought back his request for ‘guns, uniforms, and packed meat’.
Skarbek soon returned to the mountains, alone again, to secure the defection of an entire Nazi-German garrison on a strategic pass.
On the given signal, the conscripted Poles at the garrison deserted, first rendering the heavy weapons useless by removing the breech-block firing pins, and then bringing as many mortars and machine-guns with them as they could carry.
Francis Cammaerts was later arrested at a roadblock with two fellow officers, and sentenced to death. When the local resistance rightly refused to risk the men and materials to stage a rescue, Skarbek cycled over to the prison where the men were being held, and secured the release of all three through a mixture of guile and bluff. There seemed to be no limit to her courage and ability.
LOVE AND FREEDOM
Krystyna Skarbek was a very passionate woman. She loved action and adrenaline, and she loved men – she had two husbands and many lovers during the perilous war years.
Above all, she loved freedom and independence: for herself, for
Poland, and for all the Allies in the face of the Nazi advance. Tragically, her life was cut short after the war by a stalker whom she had rejected.
Stabbed to death at the Shelbourne Hotel in London, on 15 June 1952, Skarbek never saw her beloved Poland eventually gain independence.
On 1 May 2018, it will be the 110th anniversary of Krystyna Skarbek’s birth – a good moment to remember the wartime achievements of this remarkable woman.
Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of The Spy Who Loved (Macmillan, 2014), about Krystyna Skarbek, and The Women Who Flew for Hitler (Macmillan, 2018), about test-pilots Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg.
This article is an extract from the June 2018 issue of Military History Matters. Click here to subscribe to the magazine and have it sent straight to your door.