“Bewitching, beautiful with brilliant, brown, arresting eyes, and crackling vitality”, had “a positive nostalgie for danger” and “was miserable without a chance to meet it.” Under the nom de guerre “Madame Pauline”, Krystyna Skarbek parachuted into France carrying a map printed on silk and cyanide pills; her fearless bombast, resourcefulness and undeniable charm would be legendary. She became Winston Churchhill’s favorite spy and is rumored to be model for Vesper Lynd, Ian Fleming’s first Bond girl. She was said to be deadly with her pistol but preferred silent killing with her ever-present knife, or even her bare hands. That impish grin belied a woman capable of anything.
Born Maria Krystyna Janina on May 1, in Warsaw to Count Jerzy Skarbek, and Stefania (Goldfeder) as their second child. Called Vesper (star) by her father and taking after her father’s side of the family, the Skarbeks had saved Poland from medieval invaders and served its royal courts, she inherited the self‐assuredness, patriotism and fearlessness of her ancestors, she could be extremely persuasive, selfless and fiercely loyal, but was equally capable of cold ruthlessness. Krystyna’s love for the outdoors, skiing and horses would serve her well later in life. A “tom-boy”, she rode astride rather than side-saddle and was an expert skier with regular visits to Zakopane in the Tatra mountains of southern Poland. Another trait that put her in good stead for her future clandestine work was her ability to keep secrets; throughout her life she was careful what she divulged, even to her closest friends. Physically stunning from the very start, in 1930, Krystyna Skarbek competed in the Miss Polonia contest, placing sixth; her father died the same year. She married and divorced Karol Getlich when she was young, and married Jerzy Gizycki, an adventurer and diplomat, at the Evangelical Reformed Church in Warsaw on November 2, 1938. After marriage the couple left for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Jerzy took up the post of Polish consul.They were in Ethiopia when German forces invaded Poland the following September. Krystyna and her husband went to London, where she volunteered to work for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS); she had a plan: she would go to Budapest, print propaganda leaflets, and ski across the Tatra mountains into Poland to undertake intelligence missions and assist Polish resistance fighters. Reluctantly, MI6 approved the plan. Given the name Christine Granville, she departed for Budapest on December 21, 1939. She met the one-legged Polish war hero Andrzej Kowerski, and the two fell in love; he became Andrew Kennedy. With the help of a member of Poland’s Olympic ski team, she was able to cross the mountains into her native country. The Nazis considering the Tatra mountains too treacherous to cross did not guard that part of the frontier. In Warsaw, Krystyna located her mother but was unable to convince her to give up her work in the underground; she was later taken away by Gestapo and she died at Warsaw’s Pawiak prison. Helping organize a system of Polish couriers to smuggle intelligence from Warsaw to Budapest, Krystyna Skarbek’s intelligence activities were so successful that large posters with a reward for her capture were put up in every railroad station in Poland. She procured photos of German troops massing on the borders of the Soviet Union, alerting England of Germany’s upcoming invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa. (Her prediction that Germany would invade the Soviet Union came true on June 22, 1941. British prime minister Winston Churchill,who had heard Soviet leader Josef Stalin dismiss the possibility, dubbed Skarbek his favorite spy.) SOE was founded in July 1940 and Granville, her official name upon naturalization as a British subject, began her career as one of the longest serving of all Britain’s wartime women agents. She and her husband were arrested early in 1941 by the Gestapo. During her interrogation, Christine bit her own tongue hard enough to draw blood, coughed hard, and succeeded in convincing a Hungarian doctor that she was suffering from tuberculosis.
Kowerski (Kennedy) and Christine, as a result of her “illness”, were released. She was then smuggled out of Hungary in the trunk of a car belonging to British ambassador Sir Owen O’Malley, crossing successfully into Yugoslavia. O’Malley, called her”the bravest person I ever knew. She could do anything with dynamite—except eat it.” Her husband followed in an Opel he claimed to have sold to someone across the border, and the two made their way through hundreds of miles of Nazi-occupied territory to SOE headquarters in Cairo.
On July 6, 1944, she parachuted into southern France under the code-name “Pauline Armand”. Her mission was to aid the French resistance in advance of the Allied ground advance in France.
Described by the legendary intelligence officer Vera Atkins as a “beautiful animal with a great appetite for love and laughter,” her daring exploits are stuff of legend. She masterminded the escape of senior SOE agent Francis Cammaerts. Gaining the agent’s release by threatening to turn a mob loose, after the Allies liberated the region, an officer of the French collaborationist Milice, handed Cammaerts over to Granville; Cammaerts had been due to be executed on the morning of his escape. In early August 1944, after a two-day hike through the mountains she persuaded Polish conscripts in the German garrison at Col de Larche, to desert and then managed to convince the resident German troops to surrender also. Arrested and detained by enemy authorities on numerous occasions, lies, threats, bribery and even sexual coercion were all tools of the trade craft for Agent Pauline; once she and Kennedy were stopped near the Italian border by two German soldiers. Told to put her hands in the air she did so, revealing a grenade under each arm, pin withdrawn. When she threatened to drop them, killing all the group, the German soldiers fled.
After the war Christine discovered that her mother had died in prison. She returned to Cairo where she took a job at Middle East headquarters, SOE agreed to continue paying her until December 1945, Christine also gained her parachute “wings” at the RAF base in Haifa and she became a British citizen in December 1946. In May 1947 she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). French recognition of Christine’s contribution to the liberation of France came with the award of the Croix de Guerre.
On June 15, 1952. Christine Granville was stabbed to death in the Shelbourne Hotel, in London, by Dennis George Muldowney, whose advances Christine had spurned; Muldowney was hanged at HMP Pentonville on September 30, 1952. Following Andrzej Kowerski (Andrew Kennedy)’s death in December 1988, his ashes were interred at the foot of Christine’s grave.
Her Fairbairn Sykes dagger, medals and some of her papers are now in the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum Kensington, London. In May 2017, a bronze bust, by Ian Wolter, was unveiled at the Polish Hearth Club in Kensington, London.
“Great energy and very quick thinking and very helpful and very kind, a true, real person.” Iza Muszkowska, 94 at the funeral.