Krystyna Skarbek (AKA Christine Granville)
Krystyna Skarbek (who was later known as Christine Granville) arguably influenced the Second World War in Britain’s favour more than any other woman, and yet she is far from a household name in her adopted country. She was a Polish national who went undercover for MI6 as Christine Granville, moved around war-time Europe fearlessly and with huge impact. She saved lives, sabotaged critical infrastructure and secured the release of strategically important prisoners, often single-handedly. Among the remarkable intelligence Krystyna gathered was an advance warning of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
Her bravery and magnetism inspired Ian Fleming to base two characters on her, although her true exploits were so unbelievable that no modern Bond script would accept them. There are few people worthier of the name “heroine,” and so it is a great shame that her story has largely gone untold. We are therefore proud that one of our team, Lt General (Ret’d) Sir Graeme Lamb featured on the recording of an episode of Radio 4’s Great Lives where he proposed Christine Granville (whose original name was Krystyna Skarbek) as a great life.
Krystyna was born in Warsaw on Friday 1st May 1908 to an impoverished but aristocratic Polish family. Her death is recorded in the Royal Borough of Kensington’s register office dated 1952, her age stated as 37. Over the course of her life she lost seven years.
In a life tragically cut short, Krystyna changed her name, nationality, husbands and lovers, helped transform the outcome of a World War and picked up numerous international honours.
Krystyna Skarbek arrived in Britain on October 6 1939, her own country having been occupied by the Nazis at a loss of 200,000 fellow citizens. Far from trying to escape the war, she wanted to fight in it.
Within days she had found an MI6 agent and by December she had joined the Secret Intelligence Service. MI6 records described her as “a flaming Polish patriot…. expert skier and great adventuress”. She had submitted a bold plan to ski into Nazi occupied Poland across the Carpathian Mountains in winter. The report went on to say “she is absolutely fearless” and “says the matter is urgent.”
Krystyna’s first accomplishments were the establishment of communications in and out of Poland and the creation of an escape line across the mountains through which she facilitated the escape of several hundred Polish pilots who would later go on to play a decisive role in the Battle of Britain.
The escape lines entered Hungary and Romania, where she was captured a number of times and escaped. At the request of MI6, she and Andrejz Kowerski, her SIS partner, organised surveillance of all the rail, road and river traffic on the borders with Romania and Germany. She is credited with sabotaging the main communications on the River Danube as well as providing vital intelligence on oil transports to Germany from Romania’s Ploiesti oilfields.
On one occasion, having been picked up by the Gestapo in Budapest with her SIS partner, she kept coughing and bit her tongue so badly she was coughing up blood – a telling symptom of one of the most feared wartime infections, tuberculosis. The Germans called a Hungarian Doctor who conspired with Krystyna and her partner to confirm a diagnosis of tuberculosis. Both were released and escaped across the border into Yugoslavia in the boot of the Ambassador’s car.
She ended up in the Middle East and was swiftly noticed by the British Special Operations Executive in Cairo, which recruited her in 1943. Over a number of months she undertook parachute, weapons and explosives training as well as learning Morse code and wireless communication.
On 7th July 1944, she was driven to the airfield and departed for France. Krystyna was sent to the Vercors region as courier to Francis Cammaerts – one of Britain’s top agents and leader of the resistance in that area. They established a highly productive partnership.
After the Germans captured the Vercors region, she ended up in Piedmont, on the Italian side of the Alps. A border patrol caught sight of her, and despite her best efforts she was found hiding by an Alsatian dog trained to man-hunt. according to legend, Krystyna won the affection of the dog which subsequently refused to obey its owner’s whistles and remained by her side.
On another occasion, she was stopped by two Italian conscripts while guiding a group of partisans to the nearest Maquis group. When ordered to put her hands above her head at gunpoint she instead brandished two grenades and threatened to blow the entire crowd unless they disappeared.
In early August 1944, she made contact with Polish conscripts in the German garrison at Col de Larche, a high-altitude pass. After a two-day hike through the mountains she persuaded the Polish conscripts to desert and then managed to convince the resident German troops to surrender.
On Sunday August 13th 1944, Francis Cammaerts was arrested by the Gestapo along with two other agents. After a quick interrogation they were condemned to death and due to be shot a few days later. Krystyna tried to persuade a local French resistance group to form a small commando team and raid the garrison; she offered to lead them but the French commandant decided the risk was too great. Krystyna announced she would have to do it herself.
Having located where they were being held, she secured a meeting with the Gestapo. She bluffed the entire way, announcing that she was the niece of General Montgomery, that one of the men they held was her husband and that she was a British spy. She said that, unless they released all three men immediately things, were about to turn very grim for the captors, as she claimed that the Allies had already landed and were due to arrive imminently. Leveraging a combination of Gestapo fear and the promise of a significant bribe, she cycled back to the resistance headquarters and established communications with Algiers to arrange a parachute drop of some $2m in bribe money. The three men were released two hours before their appointed execution. General Stawell, in Krystyna’s citation for her bravery award, wrote: “her nerve, coolness and devotion to duty and high courage…must certainly be regarded as one of the most remarkable personal exploits of the war.”
Krystyna survived the war and carried on living in London as Christine Granville. However, she was murdered on 15th June 1952 at the Shelborne hotel in Kensington, London, by a man who had become infatuated with her.
Krystyna loved life and the freedom to enjoy it to the full. When it was threatened by invasion, occupation and terror she fought back with patriotism, commitment and courage of the highest order.
Her former SIS partner died in 1988. His ashes were flown to London and he was buried at the foot of her grave. In 1971, the Shelbourne hotel was bought by a Polish group, which found in a store-room Krystyna’s trunk full of clothes, papers, and her SOE issue dagger. This dagger, her medals and some of her papers are now held in the Polish Institute and Sikorski museum at 20 Prince’s Gate London.
Krystyna Skarbek showed that, with courage, determination and creativity one person can have a disproportionate impact on events. She delivered the seemingly impossible through leadership, focus and optimism. These are the values which inspire Skarbek Associates.