Krystyna Skarbek is one of the most famous World War II heroines and Britain’s first and longest-serving female spy at the time. Her impact and determination in fighting against Nazi-occupied Europe made her SOE’s most successful operative and Winston Churchill’s favourite spy.
Krystyna Skarbek: Early Life
Spy Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, was born in Warsaw, Poland on the 1st of May 1908. She was the second child of Count Jerzy Skarbek, a Polish aristocrat and Stephania Goldfeder, daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. Growing up in the upper-class, Skarbek enjoyed an easy childhood, learning horsemanship and shooting.
In 1930, at the age of 22, the “physically stunning” spy Krystyna Skarbek entered the Miss Poland beauty contest. However, when her father died and left the family confronted with debts. Skarbek worked as an office clerk in a Fiat garage, which she later left due to her illness caused by the exhaust fumes.
On the 21st of April 1930, Skarbek married businessman Karol Gettlich in Warsaw, a marriage that ended soon. On the 2nd of November 1938, she married Jerzy Gizycki, an author and later diplomat who saved her life on a Zakopane ski slope. When Gizycki became a diplomat, the couple moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to take up the local Polish consul. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Skarbek and her husband were still in Ethiopia until they went to London where she volunteered as a spy.
Skiing over Nazis
When the couple decided to go to London to defend their country, the spy Krystyna Skarbek did whatever she could to support her country. She met with George Taylor of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) who later recruited her as the organisation’s first female spy. Taylor claimed that “she is a flaming Polish patriot, an expert skier and great adventuress (…) I really believe we have a PRIZE”. Skarbek proposed traveling to Hungary and skiing over Polish mountains to gather volunteers and information. She was determined to get the Germans out of her country.
Krystyna Skarbek was not an obvious prospect for the British Secret Intelligence Services: she was neither British nor a man, but she proved Britons that she had the skills and determination to fight Nazis. Skarbek was trilingual, speaking Polish, English, and French, and she knew all the secret routes in and out Poland since – prior to the war – she smuggled cigarettes from the Tatra mountains into Poland.
Her linguistic skills along with her contacts in Poland, made Britain that wanted to know how Nazis occupied Poland, made her in demand in 1939. Her proposal to ski over Nazi-occupied Polish mountains and deliver British propaganda took actual shape during 1939-1940, with Skarbek smuggling money, arms, and explosives while bringing back escapees and vital intelligence.
During her first mission in Budapest, spy Krystyna Skarbek met her lover Andrzej Kowerski, an agent and Polish army officer, with whom she was arrested by Gestapo in January 1941. Two days after interrogation, Skarbek bit her own tongue to blood to fake tuberculosis. She won their release as likely tuberculosis sufferers and, to make their escape easier, she and Kowerski took British passports with new names. That is when she became Christine Granville, the name she later adopted as a British citizen in December 1946.
Special Operations Executive
Spy Krystyna Skarbek was “the longest-serving and most capable of all SOE’s women agents in World War II.” Skarbek was actually hired as a spy by MI6 months before SOE was founded in July 1940, and it is believed that her overall success influenced the British WWII secret organization’s decision to recruit more female spies.
She joined the SOE in 1944, and sent to SOE’s teams in France. Given her track record of successful courier work in occupied Europe, Skarbek only needed a little guidance on how to work in France. She was chosen to replace SOE agent Cecily Lefort, a lost courier who was about to meet the Allied landings when Gestapo captured, tortured, and imprisoned her.
Skarbek was working and being trained in Egypt and the Middle East providing intelligence to both. She studied “coding, wireless transmission, parachuting, weapons, explosives, and silent killing.” Following her training by the SOE in Cairo, Skarbek was parachuted in to Nazi-occupied southern France to act as a courier to the SOE officer for subversive activities east of the Rhône, Francis Cammaerts.
Soon, the spy Krystyna Skarbek became his second-in-command, traveling through enemy lines, delivering and collecting information, keeping the network motivated. Her most significant achievement was securing the release of Cammaerts and two other captured agents arrested by Gestapo. The men were about to be executed when Skarbek persuaded Gestapo that with a British invasion imminent, executing those prisoners would have terrible repercussions. For her overall success in the mission, the French awarded her the Croix and the British a George Medal and OBE.
Churchill’s Favourite Spy
Among her exploits, spy Krystyna Skarbek successfully organised the French resistance, not only serving as a courier for SOE, but also providing local and international communications during D-Day in Southern France. In fact, Skarbek established the first communications on opposite sides of the Alps, between French resistance units and the Italian partisans.
“Her achievements which included securing the defection of an entire German garrison in a strategic pass in the Alps, and saving the lives of many of her male colleagues” made her Winston Churchill’s most favourite spy. On the 23rd of September 2020, the remarkable woman got “overdue recognition” gaining a blue plaque on the Kensington hotel, which hosted her until her tragic death in 1952. An obsessed admirer, Dennis Muldowney, stabbed her to death on the return to her room at Shellbourne Hotel in Kensington on the 15th of June 1952.
Spy Krystyna Skarbek was Britain’s first and longest-serving female agent during World War II. Born in Warsaw, she soon expressed interest in becoming a spy. Her passion, determination, and courage to fight Nazi-occupied Europe, along with her top skills and polish contacts, made the SOE demand her to join the team and contribute to the French resistance in 1944. Skarbek became one of the most successful SOE operatives, gaining global recognition as one of the most significant WWII heroines and Churchill’s most favourite spy.
Image: English Heritage / Le Crestois (link)