If you were to read only one story of a wartime hero in your life, you should seriously consider this one – the story of a Polish-Jewish countess, a woman way ahead of her time, Winston Churchill’s favourite, and one of the most successful spies in the history of espionage.
Stories of war heroes are often black and white. There are good guys fighting bad guys. The good guys are courageous and so they win, go on victory parades, earn medals, go back to their families, and live happily ever after. Even though Krystyna Skarbek (aka, Christine Skarbek, Christine Granville, and Jacqueline ‘Pauline’ Armand) was one of the greatest heroines of World War II, there was no happy ending to her story, no victory parade, and easy choices were a true rarity. This is exactly why this story tells us much more about war and politics than hundreds of those more conventional ones.
Krystyna Skarbek was born to a noble but troubled family. The Skarbeks were old Polish gentry but Krystyna's father's (Jerzy Skarbek) lifestyle put them on the verge of bankruptcy. Looking for money, he decided to marry an outstandingly rich heiress of the Jewish Goldfeder banker family. This move saved his finances but deteriorated his reputation as, at that time, noble Poles were to marry other noble Poles only. Despite the marriage, Jerzy spent little time with his wife, continuing his swashbuckling life of adventures, travel, womanising, horse riding, gambling, and parties. If he was ever joined in any of his escapades it wasn’t by his wife but by Krystyna, his first child. Soon, she grew a similar sense of independence, learned to ride a horse, fell in love with adventure, sports, and the social life of the nobility. That's not to say that her relationship with her father was in any sense idyllic. Above all, Jerzy Skarbek was wasteful and profligate, and when he died in 1930 his family was left on their own with no money and considerable debts.
By that time, Krystyna had already learnt that she didn’t fit the social role she had been predestined for. Being half-Jewish she was treated reluctantly by a part of the Polish gentry. Having inherited a lack of discipline she didn’t manage to graduate from the school for upper-class girls she was sent to.
On the other hand she had a combination of personal features that no other woman around had. She was brilliant, edgy, beautiful, seductive, self-sufficient, sporty, and so charming that she quickly became recognizable in Warsaw’s aristocratic and artistic society. This led her to marry a young and wealthy businessman, Gustav Gettlich. The marriage didn’t last a year as the chasm between Gustav’s expectations of turning Krystyna into a housewife and her independent, unpredictable character was far too big. Right after the divorce, to treat her ever-ailing lungs, as well as to escape the Warsaw gossip, Krystyna went to Zakopane – the best-known Polish health resort, in the Tatra Mountains. There, she won the Miss Ski beauty contest, and made close acquaintances with mountain guides, smugglers, and local society. Eventually, she met her second husband – Jerzy Giżycki. He was a globetrotter and diplomat twenty years her senior, and probably one of a very few high-born gentleman whose status and detachment from Polish society was large enough to let him marry Krystyna, despite her being an impoverished half-Jewish countess and divorcee.
Soon after their marriage, Jerzy Giżycki was offered the position of consul in Kenya. It took weeks to reach Africa at that time and they reached Johannesburg in late August 1939. Before they managed to make the journey to Kenya the horrific news of the outbreak of World War II struck. Having no instructions from the Polish government and being heavily distressed by Hitler’s invasion of Poland, they turned their car back to the coast and caught the first ship that went to Europe. Unfortunately it turned out to be a very slow cargo steamship heading to Southampton. By the time they reached Britain there was no Poland, no Polish government (the government-in-exile had yet to be formed), and the Polish Army was at the very beginning of gathering and regrouping in France after being completely destroyed by Hitler’s invasion and backstabbed by the Soviet Union from the east.
With no possibility of getting involved in the war on the Polish side, Krystyna decided to join Britain and thanks to her facility in making friends she managed to get in touch with Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officers, who recruited her as a British agent. At that stage of the war, Britain didn’t plan any actual counter-offensive on Nazi Germany but was strongly interested in fostering any Polish resistance movements as well as infiltrating German troops behind their lines. This is why Krystyna was sent to Hungary, which was to serve as her base of operations in occupied Poland.
Budapest and Poland
Krystyna’s mission in Budapest was to gather intelligence on the situation in Poland and report it to Special Operations Executive, the wartime British secret service organisation. She did it quite successfully thanks to her cooperation with Andrzej Kowerski (aka Andrew Kennedy), who was smuggling Polish soldiers and officials from Poland to Hungary in an Opel that he had stolen from the German army. Krystyna, however, was eager to go to Poland on her own, to get some first-hand data and to get in touch with Polish underground resistance movements. The only way to get through the well-guarded border was to cross the Tatra Mountains on foot and skis, using smugglers’ tracks. Skarbek’s biographers are not sure how many times she managed to sneak through but what we know is that she managed to establish close relationships and get a lot of quality intelligence from a highly controversial secret group called the Musketeers. Among valuable evidence on Nazi German crimes against Jewish and Polish people, she managed to smuggle back a microfilm with data on the deployment of German troops, clearly indicating that they might be preparing to invade the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill, upon being presented this data, reportedly said:
That Germany should at this stage, before clearing the Balkan scene, open another major war with Russia seemed too good to be true
And so they did! On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, aimed at conquering the Soviet Union’s entire territory. Krystyna was one of the first agents to deliver the portents of it to the Western Allied Forces.
On her fourth attempt of crossing the border, Slovakian guards caught her and even though she managed to escape, her documents and photos were passed to the Gestapo. Not surprisingly, a few days later she was arrested in Budapest. Thanks to brilliantly faking the symptoms of tuberculosis at its final stage she managed to escape the Gestapo’s clutches and was immediately smuggled, alongside Kowerski, out of Hungary to Romania, in the boot of a diplomatic car. They were given new identities and documents, with Krystyna becoming Christine Granville and Andrzej turning into Andrew Kennedy. Reunited, they headed south and went through Turkey, Syria, and Palestine to Egypt and Cairo, Eastern Europe’s ‘clearinghouse’ of the time.
Even though Christine and Andrew were far from being boastful, their record was already overwhelmingly impressive – the bigger their shock when, upon their arrival in Cairo, they were greeted with indirect accusations of being double agents and their profiles were mothballed. There were multiple reasons for the distrust they faced. First of all, the main Polish resistance group didn’t trust them because of their cooperation with the controversial Musketeers. Unfortunately, its members managed to spread mistrust among SOE generals. Furthermore, the circumstances of their escape from the Gestapo and their cross-continental journey were suspicious. It was believed to have been absolutely impossible for a spy to survive interrogation by the Gestapo and to simply have been let out of prison, in addition to the fact that hardly anybody could believe that they had smoothly passed through Turkey and Vichy-controlled Syria.
For Christine, it was a huge blow. From the moment the war had started the only thing she wanted was to be at the front-line of the action, to contribute to re-establishing her country as quickly as possible. Instead, she was prevented from getting involved in any of SIS's new missions and was paid a retainer to stay idle. The relaxed and holiday-like atmosphere of Cairo made her sick and, as her biographer, Clare Mulley, wrote:
[sometimes] … it took the whole of the unit to keep her pacified and occupied.
Christine and Andrew were stuck in Cairo for almost three years. They would both describe this stint as the most difficult of their service, having been left idle or occasionally taking part in second-rate missions of limited local importance. If it hadn’t been for their applying for every mission and taking part in all additional training possible, and finally changes in SOE headquarters, they would have probably spent the reminder of the war safely and unproductively in Cairo. Thanks to a new SOE commander, Christine was finally assigned to her dreamt-of mission in 1943. She was to replace a courier of a resistance leader in southern France – Francis Cammaerts.
Jacqueline ‘Pauline’ Armand
For the purposes of her new assignment, Christine got a brand new identity – she became Jacqueline Armand, nicknamed Pauline. She went through specialised training including parachuting, use of melee weapons, explosives handling, and Morse. In July 1944, she was dropped on the Vercors plateau and immediately became one of the closest and most trusted of Francis’ associates. Her ability to blend into the area and society and to move quickly and invisibly in the higher parts of mountains earned great appreciation and respect. The time for her biggest achievements, however, was yet to come.
In late 1944, on the eve of the Allied Forces’ invasion of southern France, Francis Cammaerts was arrested alongside two other SOE officers during a round-up. The German army's morale was very low and they acted hastily. Losing on almost every front, they knew that war was soon to be over. The interrogating Gestapo officer didn’t exactly know who Francis and his friends were but just because each of them had banknotes from the same series he ordered them to be executed within 48 hours.
Upon learning this, Christine immediately used all her influence and resources to get them out of prison. After failing to form a commando unit willing to attack the prison by force she came up with another plan. Even though she knew there was a price on her head and was in every Gestapo office’s register, she went to the Gestapo prison in Digne and strode into the office of Albert Schenck, Gestapo liaison officer. She presented herself as Francis’ wife and General Montgomery’s niece. As such, she informed him of the imminent invasion of Allied forces and of his fate being already decided (he ‘was to be’ given to French guerillas, who would surely execute him in the worst way possible) unless he helped to get her ‘husband’ and two other officers out of custody. She was so perfectly convincing that Schenck believed her and teamed up with the Belgian gendarme who was in charge of the condemned prisoners. For a bribe of 2 million Francs and guarantees of Schencks’ and the Belgian gendarme’s safety after the Allied Forces’ invasion, they took the three SOE officers out of their cell, packed them into a prison van, and rushed out of the Digne prison gates just a few hours before the planned execution! That evening, the BBC broadcast a short message:
Félicitations à Pauline
Only a few weeks later she managed to convince around 2,000 Polish men, forcefully enlisted into the German army to, literally, throw off their uniforms and revolt against their commanders.
Soon, the fast-advancing Allied Forces liberated France and Christine’s mission was over. She was called back to London for debriefing.
The last chapter
Even before returning to London, Christine had received news of the Warsaw Uprising and instantly became desperate to take part in it. She was initially assigned to a few operations but none of them ever came to life, as the political situation was more than difficult. The Soviet Army stopped its offensive a few kilometres outside Warsaw and not only refused to help the Poles but didn’t even allow the Allied Forces to use their airports to help insurgents with ammunition and weapon drops. Churchill couldn’t risk upsetting Stalin too much as Soviet help was still indispensable for the war to be finally ended. By this means, the Warsaw Uprising was left almost on its own and bled out over two months and one day, leaving Warsaw burned to ground and its population decimated. Christine was again ordered to go to Cairo, where she had to wait, idle, frustrated, and full of despair.
In fact, her worst fears for the future soon became a reality. After the German capitulation, Poland wasn’t invited to peace conferences and its fate was to be decided by the Allied Forces’ dealings with Stalin. Because the Red Army finished its offensive on Berlin, in May 1945, on the eve of the Axis’ surrender, the entirety of Poland’s territory was de facto occupied by the Soviet Union and thus, the country ended up on the communist side of the Iron Curtain. It meant no chance of returning home safely for the 200,000 soldiers who fought alongside the Allied Forces on the Western fronts. Unlike the other victors of World War II, Poles got no reward for their merits. Clare Mulley wrote of it:
(…) the Polish contribution to the War had been outstanding. Poland had produced the fourth-largest armed force in Europe, after the Soviet Union, the United States and the combined troops of the British Empire. Polish pilots had formed the largest group of non-British personnel in the Battle of Britain, and Polish troops had fought under British command in decisive battles in Italy, France, the Netherlands and Libya.
Christine joined the army of homeless and jobless war heroes, with no place to go, forced to settle in a country where they were relegated to the role of second-class citizens. Her biographer wrote:
The popularity that the Poles had enjoyed during the war quickly fell away when tens of thousands of Polish ex-serviceman contributed to flood the British job market, which was already struggling to cope with the five million Britons being demobilized.
Despite her desperate letters to SOE commanders, the ‘firm’ never employed her again. With her family being entirely wiped out during the war, she had virtually no one and nothing to go back to. She was too British to return to Soviet-ruled Poland, and she was too Polish to become a British war hero. British unwillingness to reward her efforts went as far as initially denying her the right to obtain a British passport, which she did after a few-months of struggling and only thanks to SOE commanders’ personal intervention.
Eventually, she started to look for civilian jobs such as stewardess, shop assistant, and even housekeeper but she couldn’t stand such a mundane life, with no adrenaline and far from her home. Her life became pointless, she'd received little recognition for what she'd achieved and became desolated and depressed.
Around 1951 she got entangled in an uneasy relationship with Dennis George Mulldowney, an Irish worker she had met on a ship. He ultimately became obsessed with her and even though she finished with him many times, he became more and more intrusive. His actions became so distressing that Christine wrote to Andrzej Kowerski (Andy Kennedy), with whom she'd remained friends, that she was growing terrified and asked him to take her out of London. He eagerly agreed but didn’t arrive on time…
Dennis Muldowney stabbed Christine to death on the stairs of the Hotel Shelbourne in London on 15 June 1952 in reaction to her plans of leaving England for good. He stayed beside her corpse until the police arrived, admitted murdering her and asked to be executed as soon as possible. According to his quasi-Catholic beliefs he wanted to be reunited with his love after death. In fact, he was sentenced to death and hung three months later.
Christine’s life could serve as an image of World War II's complexity and injustice. Even though she risked her life for Poland, Great Britain, and France she found no shelter and reward for her outstanding service. Her personal achievements were overshadowed by politics and prejudice. She never belonged anywhere; she was never possessed by anyone:
[Mulldowney] was obsessed with Christine to the end, his last statement as he left his cell was ‘to kill is the final possession’. But Mulldowney was wrong. He had never possessed Christine, the resistance burning within her was too great. No one ever really possessed her. Not her parents. Not her two husbands, though Giżycki had a good shot at it. Not her many lovers. Nor even her closest ally in life, Andrzej Kowerski. If anything, she was possessed with her drive to free Poland. Christine’s defining passion was for liberty: in love, in politics, and in life in its widest sense.