Polish-born secret agent Krystyna Skarbek (1908–1952) was a heroine of World War II. Using the name Christine Granville, she risked death on multiple occasions in support of Britain's military campaign.
Skarbek, in the words of Murray Davies of London's Mirror newspaper, "was the very first Bond girl," serving as the model for Vesper Lynd in the first of novelist Ian Fleming's James Bond books, Casino Royale . However, Skarbek's feats, which included scaring off a team of German captors by raising her arms to disclose a live grenade under each one, were real, not fictional. The last chapters of her life, in which a wartime hero floundered during peacetime civilian life, were tragic ones.
Krystyna Skarbek was born in or near Warsaw, Poland, on May 1, 1908. Her birth year has been widely reported as 1915, but researcher Ron Nowicki has described Polish and British documents that list the earlier date. She enjoyed an upper-class childhood as the daughter of bank official Jerzy Skarbek, who claimed the noble rank of Count, and his wife, Jewish-born Stephanie Goldfelder. Described as physically stunning from the very start, Skarbek entered the Miss Polonia contest, an early beauty pageant, in 1930 (a date that also supports the earlier birth year) and placed sixth.
After a first marriage to Karol Getlich when she was young, Skarbek married Jerzy Gizycki in Warsaw on November 2, 1938. In Gizycki, she found a husband whose taste for adventure matched her own; he had come to the United States earlier in life and panned for gold in the West. Later he became a diplomat, and after the marriage the couple departed for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, so that Gizycki could take up the post of Polish consul there. They were in Ethiopia when German forces invaded Poland in September of 1939. Although the battle between Polish troops and the numerically superior Germans was short, underground resistance began along with the official campaign. Skarbek and her husband went to London, where Skarbek volunteered to work as a spy. She had already prepared a plan: she would go to Budapest, Hungary (initially peaceful because Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany), print propaganda leaflets, and ski into Poland across the Tatra mountain range. An experienced skier, Skarbek had friends in the area who could serve as guides. She would then undertake intelligence missions and assist Polish resistance fighters in escaping from the country.
After some initial skepticism, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) approved the plan, and Skarbek departed for Budapest on December 21, 1939. In Budapest she met the one-legged Polish war hero Andrzej Kowerski, and the two fell in love. Her marriage to Gizycki ended, but she and Kowerski never married. As their work for the SOE expanded, she was given the name Christine Granville (by which she was generally known in Britain after the war), and he became Andrew Kennedy. Skarbek's initial plan succeeded, as she barely managed, with the help of a member of Poland's Olympic ski team, to cross the mountains into her native country.
In Warsaw Skarbek located her mother, who as an aristocrat with Jewish blood was already in grave danger but refused to give up her work teaching in an underground school. She was later seized by police wearing swastikas, and was taken away, never to be seen again. Skarbek's intelligence activities in Warsaw were successful enough that posters advertising a large reward for her capture were put up in every railroad station in Poland. Working with spies for the Polish resistance, she assembled a dossier with photos of German troops massing on the borders of the Soviet Union, even though the two countries had signed a nonaggression pact.
Pressure on Skarbek and Kowerski increased in Hungary as well, and they were arrested early in 1941 and interrogated by the Gestapo, the German secret police. During her questioning, Skarbek 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, as a result of her supposed illness, was temporarily released as well. Skarbek was then smuggled out of Hungary in the trunk of a Chrysler car belonging to British ambassador Sir Owen O'Malley, crossing successfully into Yugoslavia. O'Malley, according to Davies, remarked that Skarbek was "the bravest person I ever knew. She could do anything with dynamite—except eat it." Kowerski, who had been working in Hungary under the cover occupation of used car dealer, 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, Egypt.
At first they were greeted with suspicion, for Syria, through which they had passed, was at the time under the control of the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government in France, and the British assumed that they could not have made the trip successfully unless they were double agents. After a considerable period of investigation in London, Skarbek was once again in the SOE's good graces, partly because 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.
The British considered sending Skarbek back to Hungary or to Poland itself, missions that were rejected because they were considered too likely to result in her death, although she herself was willing to undertake them. Finally, in July of 1944, she parachuted into southern France. Her mission was to assist French resistance fighters in advance of the American ground invasion of southern France at the end of the summer. The sangfroid of the new agent, code-named Pauline Armand, quickly became legendary among British intelligence agents. One day she was 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 three of the group, the German soldiers fled. On another occasion she dived into a thicket to evade a German patrol, only to find herself face to face with a large Alsatian hound. She managed to quiet the dog while making noises suggesting to the Germans that they themselves were about to be ambushed, and she took advantage of the confusion to escape another close call.
Skarbek's most celebrated exploit was her rescue of her chief, Resistance leader Francis Cammaerts, who had been imprisoned by the Gestapo along with agent Xan Fielding. Skarbek first located Cammaerts by walking around the prison walls singing the American blues ballad "Frankie and Johnny," which they both knew; after some time, she heard Cammaerts singing along with her quietly. Then she convinced the police holding Cammaerts that she was his wife and managed to make contact with him in the prison. Finally, she identified herself as a British agent and said that she was the niece of a British General Montgomery, who was on his way to participate in the Allied invasion. She threatened Cammaerts's captors with reprisals if he and his agent were harmed, and demanded that she be allowed to negotiate the release of the British agents. Through a Belgian liaison, she secured an agreement that they would be freed in exchange for a ransom of two million francs, dropped by the SOE within 24 hours by parachute. Cammaerts and two other British prisoners were awakened the next morning and herded toward a car, convinced that they were about to be executed. But Skarbek, who could at any point during this process have been taken to a concentration camp like many other SOE agents, was waiting inside the car.
Skarbek was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the British George Medal, both high military honors, and she was appointed to the Order of the British Empire (OBE). After the war ended and her five months' of severance half-salary from the SOE ran out, however, Skarbek found it difficult to adapt to civilian life. She applied for British citizenship, but because of her murky past the processing of her application was slow. She worked as a hotel housekeeper, switchboard operator, and shopgirl at Harrods department store. She applied for a job at the British United Nations mission in Geneva, Switzerland, only to be turned down because she was not British.
Well known for her sexual conquests during the time she spent in the field, Skarbek did not slow down after the war even as she remained emotionally faithful to Kowerski. Among the men to whom she was romantically linked was the novelist, former British spy, and future James Bond creator Ian Fleming. The two dated for a year, and Fleming, according to Davies, told a friend that Skarbek "literally shines with all the qualities and splendours of a fictitious character." Fleming gave the name Vesper Lynd to the double-agent "Bond girl" of his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953). Vesper had been a nickname given to Skarbek by her father when she was a child.
Fleming finally married another woman, however, and for Skarbek things went from bad to worse. She suffered from depression and from injuries sustained when she was hit by a car. In desperation, she took a job in 1951 as a stewardess on the ocean liner Rauhine . The ship's captain ordered the crew to wear their wartime decorations, and Skarbek's splendid George Medal inspired resentment from her English-born crewmates. A bathroom attendant named George Muldowney took her side but misinterpreted Skarbek's gratefulness as a sign of romantic interest. Back in London he became obsessed with her and began to monitor her movements and communications. Skarbek prepared to leave her small hotel room on June 15, 1952, for a trip with Kowerski, their first contact in some years. Muldowney confronted her as she loaded a trunk and demanded to know how long she would be away. When she answered that it would be at least two years, he stabbed her in the chest and killed her. He pleaded guilty, telling an Old Bailey courtroom that to kill was the final possession. Kowerski lived on until 1988, never marrying, and his ashes were buried next to Skarbek's at London's St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery.
Binney, Marcus, The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War , Hodder and Stoughton, 2002.
Fielding, Xan, Hide and Seek: The Story of a War-Time Agent , Secker & Warburg, 1954.
Masson, Madeleine, Christine: A Search for Christine Granville, G.M., O.B.E., Croix de Guerre , Virago, 2005.
Daily Mail (London, England), October 26, 2005.
Mirror (London, England), January 13, 2007.
Times (London, England), August 8, 2000.
Christine: A Search for Christine Granville, G.M., O.B.E., Croix de Guerre , Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com (February 20, 2007).
"The Other Agents—Krystyna Skarbek (Christine Granville)—Biography," 64 Baker Street London W1: Special Operations Executive, http://www.64-baker-street.org/agents/agent_others/christine_granville_01.html (February 20, 2007).