Krystyna Skarbek

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Countess Krystyna Skarbek (May 1, 1915 - June 15, 1952) was a Polish-born World War II British SOE agent also known by the nom de guerre, Christine Granville. She became celebrated especially for her exploits in German-occupied Poland and France. She was the longest-serving and most capable of all SOE's women agents. (She actually became a British agent months before the Special Operations Executive was founded in July 1940.) Her resourcefulness and success have been credited with influencing the espionage-and-subversion organization's policy of recruiting increasing numbers of women.


She was born in Młodzieszyn, Poland, about thirty miles from Warsaw, to Count Jerzy Skarbek, scion of one of Poland's oldest noble families, and Stefania Goldfeder, daughter of a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker. Krystyna Skarbek grew up in comfort until her father frittered away the proceeds from his wife's dowry with lavish entertaining. As a teen, Krystyna's father now dead, she falteringly entered the worlds of work and matrimony. A first marriage, at eighteen, to businessman Karol Getlich soon ended without rancor. On November 2, 1938, at age twenty-three, she married the choleric writer Jerzy Giżycki {1899-1970), and the couple soon moved to British East Africa.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, ushering in World War II, the couple sailed for London, where Krystyna sought to offer her services in the struggle against the common enemy. British authorities showed little interest but were eventually convinced by her acquaintances, including journalist Frederick Voigt. She left for Hungary, where in February 1940 she persuaded a skeptical prewar Polish Olympic skier, Jan Marusarz, to escort her across the snow-covered Tatra Mountains into Poland. Arriving in Warsaw, she vainly pleaded with her Jewish mother to leave a Poland whose German occupiers would eventually murder her at one of their concentration camps. An achievement of the Polish courier missions was the smuggling across the Tatras of a secret, unique Polish anti-tank rifle which was fated never to see wartime service.

While in Hungary, Krystyna took up with a Polish Army officer, Andrzej Kowerski (1912-1988), aka "Andrew Kennedy." Kowerski, who had lost part of a leg in a prewar hunting accident, was exfiltrating Polish and other Allied military personnel and collecting intelligence. Krystyna showed her penchant for stratagem when they were arrested by the German Gestapo in January 1941 and she managed to win her own and Kowerski's release by feigning symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis. (It did not hurt her cause that the Gestapo had not been anxious to get on the wrong side of Krystyna's aunt and of the aunt's relation, the Hungarian Regent Mikló³ ˆorthy.) Krystyna and Kowerski made good their escape from Hungary via the Balkans and Turkey.

Upon their arrival at SOE offices in Cairo, Egypt, it came as a shock to them that they were under suspicion due to Krystyna's contacts with a Polish intelligence organization called the "Musketeers." This group had been formed in October 1939 by engineer-inventor Stefan Witkowski, who would be killed in 1942 — it is unclear by whom or for what reason. Several versions exist as to why the Musketeers were viewed by the exile Poles and the British with disfavor.

Another source of suspicion against Krystyna and Kowerski was the ease — which her accusers might have understood, had they known her better — with which she had managed in Istanbul, Turkey, during their flight from Hungary, to charm transit visas through French-mandated Syria from the pro-Vichy French consul. Only German spies, some Polish intelligence officers thought, could have gotten the visas.

There were also specific suspicions about Kowerski. These were addressed in London by General Colin Gubbins — to be, from 1943, head of SOE — in a letter of June 17, 1941, to Polish Commander-in-Chief and Premier Władysław Sikorski:

"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, owing to the fact that 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."

Kowerski eventually cleared up any misunderstandings with General Kopański and was able to resume intelligence work. Similarly, by the time Krystyna was holding a commission, for cover purposes, as a British WAAF flight officer (November 21, 1944May 14, 1945), when she visited Polish military headquarters in uniform she was treated by the military chiefs with marks of the highest respect. It could not but have helped that in the meantime Germany had invaded the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941) as her intelligence obtained from the Musketeers had predicted. (It is now known that Operation Barbarossa had been predicted by a number of sources, including Ultra.)

In the meantime Krystyna's husband, Jerzy Giżycki, when informed that Wilkinson had told Krystyna and Kowerski that their services were being dispensed with, took umbrage at their shabby treatment and abruptly bowed out of his own remarkable career as a British intelligence agent. And when Krystyna told him she loved Kowerski and would not return to Giżycki, he left for London, eventually to emigrate to Canada. (She would divorce him at the Polish consulate in Berlin on August 1, 1946.)

Krystyna now spent an appreciable hiatus, sidelined from substantial action. Her situation would only change in 1944, in a turn of events that would lead to some of her most famous exploits.

Fluent in the French language, she was assigned to SOE's F [French] Section under the nom de guerre "Christine Granville," by which she would become best known. Vera Atkins, assistant to the head of F Section, would later describe Krystyna as a very brave woman but a law unto herself who, despite her attractive presence, was in many ways a loner.

Krystyna was chosen to replace SOE agent Cecily Lefort, who had been captured and brutally tortured (and would later be executed) by the Gestapo. Krystyna — under the assumed identity of "Pauline Armand" — parachuted into southeastern France on July 6, 1944, 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, especially conscripted Poles, in the German occupation forces to defect to the Allies.

On August 13, 1944, at Digne, two days before the Allied "Operation Anvil" landings in southern France, Cammaerts, Xan Fielding — another SOE agent, who had previously operated in Crete — and a French officer, Christian Sorensen, were arrested at a roadblock by the Gestapo. Krystyna, learning that they were soon to be executed, arranged to meet with a key Gestapo officer, introduced herself as a niece of British General Bernard Montgomery, and threatened the officer with terrible retribution if harm came to the prisoners. She managed to cow him into releasing them. For this remarkable exploit she was recommended for a George Cross and eventually received, instead, a George Medal and an OBE.

Several years after the Digne incident, in London, Krystyna told another Polish World War II veteran that during her negotiations with the Gestapo she had been unaware of danger to herself. Only after she and her comrades had made good their escape, did it hit home: "What have I done! They could have shot me as well."

Krystyna Skarbek's contributions to the liberation of France were recognized with a Croix de Guerre.

After the war, she was left without financial reserves or a native country to return to. Xan Fielding, whom she had saved at Digne, wrote in his 1954 book Hide and Seek, dedicated "To the memory of Christine Granville":

"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.

"[T]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."

She was stabbed to death on June 15, 1952, by an obsessed fellow merchant-marine steward, who subsequently went to the gallows.

Krystyna was interred in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery at Kensal Green. Buried next to her in 1988 was her comrade in arms and chief partner in life, Andrzej Kowerski.

To those in the know, Krystyna Skarbek had become a legend in her lifetime. Soon after her death, she entered the realm of popular culture. It has been said that Ian Fleming, in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), to some extent modeled Vesper Lynd on her. Nearly half a century later (1999), Polish writer Maria Nurowska published a novel, Miłośnica (neologism: Lovegirl?), an account of a fictional female journalist's attempt to plumb Krystyna Skarbek's story.


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