“She could do anything with dynamite, except eat it.” – Sir Owen O’Malley
One of the longest serving and most valuable secret agents of World War II, Krystyna Skarbek joined Britain’s Special Operations Executive, or SOE, before it was even officially formed. Also known by her nom de guerre Christine Granville, Skarbek served throughout Europe during the war aiding resistance efforts and smuggling information.
Born in 1908 to the Polish Count Jerzy Skarbek and Stefania Goldfeder, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, Skarbek enjoyed a certain amount of privilege, including an upper-class education, despite being somewhat stigmatized for having a Jewish mother. An adventurous child, Skarbek was fond of riding horses, climbing mountains, and skiing; as a young woman, this desire for adventure led Skarbek to smuggle cigarettes across the mountains into Poland. These skills would eventually serve her well during the war.
After a brief, failed first marriage, Skarbek eventually met and married Jerzy Giżycki, a Polish diplomat. When he was posted to Africa, Skarbek travelled alongside him. Soon after reaching Africa, word came of the German invasion of Poland. Not ones to sit idly by, Skarbek and Giżycki immediately made their way to London and sought ways to serve their battered country.
In December of 1939, Britain agreed to support Skarbek’s plan to travel to Hungary from where she would make her way across the mountains into Poland to aid the resistance. During this mission, Skarbek reconnected with her childhood friend Andrezj Kowerski, now a lieutenant with the Polish Army. After a year, several crossings into Poland, and some close calls, Skarbek and Kowerski were arrested by the Hungarian police and handed over to the Gestapo in January of 1941. After hours of brutal interrogation, Skarbek, who was ill with the flu at the time, played up her cough and bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood, making it look like she was coughing up blood. A sympathetic doctor confirmed Skarbek’s claim of tuberculosis, and she and Kowerski were released to return to house arrest at their apartment for fear of contagion. British Ambassador Sir Owen O’Malley helped them escape into Yugoslavia from where they made their way across Nazi-occupied Europe to reach the SOE office in Cairo, Egypt. Along the way, Skarbek managed to deliver intelligence she had compiled suggesting that Germany would soon invade the Soviet Union, a prediction that was proven to be true in June of that year.
After being left to languish in Cairo for a couple years reporting to the SOE on the intrigue among the Polish military and spy community, it was decided to send Skarbek back into Europe in 1944. Skarbek was sent to Algiers in order to prepare for being sent into France, including earning her paratrooper wings. In July of 1944, Skarbek was dropped into France.
Working with the French Resistance, Skarbek worked as a courier within the “Jockey” spy network under the command of Francis Cammaerts and arranged deliveries of supplies of explosives and weaponry to sabotage teams. While working in the French Alps along the Italian border, Skarbek had a series of near-misses, escaping through quick wits and sheer unflappability. When discovered by a border patrol’s large dog while on Italian side of the border, Skarbek was able to charm it as she had many men, though this time aided by some chicken fat with which to keep it distracted. The dog remained faithful to the Allies for the rest of the war. On another occasion, when stopped by two Italian soldiers and ordered to put her hands up, she obeyed, but held aloft two live grenades with which she threatened to blow everyone up.
In mid-August of 1944, Cammaerts and two other agents were arrested by the Gestapo and scheduled to be executed. Posing as Cammaerts wife and despite the reward for her capture, Skarbek made contact with the Alsatian Captain Schenck, who was the liason between the local French and the Gestapo. Pointing out that the Allies would soon be invading, Skarbek managed to strike a deal for the agents’ release by describing what collaborators like Schenck would be subject to once the town was liberated.
Though her service record was remarkable, including both foreign and domestic honors, Skarbek’s life after the war was not easy and she did not adapt well to peacetime. Despite having lived a life of adventure and intrigue, Skarbek was forced to take a series of menial jobs, and on June 15, 1952, was killed by a stalker the day before she was to leave on a trip with Andrezj Kowerski.
Mulley, Clare. The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.
Masson, Madeleine, and Francis Charles Albert Cammaerts. Christine: a search for Christine Granville. London: H. Hamilton, 1975.