SOE Agent Profiles
Recruited: 1941 (Recruited by Section D in 1939)
Role: Courier (F/AMF Section)
Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was born in Warsaw in 1908, the second child of Count Jerzy Skarbek and Stephania Goldfeder, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. The Skarbeks had influenced Polish history for a thousand years, saving the country from medieval invaders and serving its royal courts, and Krystyna inherited the self‐assuredness, patriotism and fearlessness of her ancestors. She also displayed her father’s vivacity and drive: although fragile‐looking and slender, she had a tomboyish nature and spent much of her time riding horses on the family’s country estate. She could be extremely persuasive, selfless and fiercely loyal, but was equally capable of cold calculation and even ruthlessness, especially when her or others’ freedom was threatened. One other trait put her in good stead for clandestine work: she was good at keeping secrets. Throughout her life she was careful what she divulged, even to her closest friends.
After leaving convent school Krystyna could have expected to become a society girl, living a life of leisure frequenting Warsaw’s salons. But her father’s death in 1930 left her future uncertain as Jerzy’s extravagant lifestyle had exhausted the family’s coffers. To support herself she took an office job above a Fiat garage, but she was soon taken ill and diagnosed with lung scarring caused by the rising exhaust fumes. Perhaps this accounted for her later dread of secretarial work, but bizarrely this incident would later save her life.
Illness also led her to discover another of her great passions. The family doctor suggested mountain air to improve her condition, and she took to skiing at the popular winter resort of Zakopane, high in the Tatra Mountains and just a few miles from the Slovakian border. For all her aristocratic breeding, Krystyna was no snob: she preferred simple living with unpretentious people, and soon endeared herself to Zakopane’s close‐knit community. The change of scenery did wonders for her health and the common sight of her slim and graceful figure on the ski slopes turned the heads of the town’s young men, but none was allowed to get too close: anyone trying to restrict her freedom would simply be left in her wake.
At eighteen she married a businessman, Karol Getlich, but it was short‐lived and they divorced soon after. Her next husband was a much more romantic figure, and introduced himself by manfully grabbing her waist as she hurtled down one of Zakopane’s more dangerous slopes. Jerzy Gizycki was impressive and worldly character: physically imposing, moody and short‐tempered, he’d lived as a gold prospector and cowboy in the US before becoming a Polish diplomat and a writer with a passion for Africa. Although he could be dark and difficult to live with, Krystyna found him irresistible. They married in November 1938 in Warsaw and left Europe for a new life in colonial Kenya.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 the Gizyckis were in Ethiopia, Jerzy having taken a posting to Addis Ababa. Determined to defend their country they immediately left for London, where Krystyna immediately began pulling whatever strings she could. She first looked up Frederick Voigt, a well‐connected political journalist and BBC commentator who she’d met several years earlier, which led to an introduction to Foreign Office adviser Sir Robert Vansittart. He then suggested her to George Taylor, a formidable Australian businessman who now headed the Balkan section of Section D, an offshoot of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6). First impressions were very favourable and a memo to Taylor gushed: “She is a very smart looking girl, simply dressed and aristocratic. She is a flaming Polish patriot. She made an excellent impression and I really believe we have a PRIZE”.
Section D was set up to find novel ways of sabotaging Germany’s war efforts. These included spreading anti‐Nazi propaganda across occupied Europe, using agents in neutral countries to distribute it. Lines of communication between Hungary and Poland were now badly needed as German propaganda now controlled all news, effectively cutting Poland off from the outside world.
Taylor could be an impatient man, but it didn’t take long for him to see Krystyna’s potential. She had already considered every detail of her plan: posing as a journalist based in Budapest, she would cross Slovakia and ski over the Polish border to Zakopane, where she could rely on help from her friends there. Once she’d opened a courier channel, she could begin to deliver propaganda material for the Polish networks to distribute, and bring out whatever intelligence they had for London. All she asked for was the chance to prove herself.
Taylor endorsed her proposal and she flew out on 21 December 1939. For all Christine’s enthusiasm and determination to succeed, this would be a difficult and dangerous mission. Hungary was a neutral country, but its government had recently accepted Slovakian territory offered by the Nazis and was more likely to cooperate with Germany than the Allies. Moreover Sir Owen O’ Malley, the British minister in Budapest, took a dim view of Section D’s cloak and dagger work and refused to have anything to do with it.
On arrival in Budapest Krystyna was met by Hubert Harrison, who handled Section D’s Polish contacts while posing as Balkan correspondent for the News Chronicle; and Jozef Radziminski, a former Polish intelligence agent who would act as her assistant. Using the cover name of “Madame Marchand”, she quickly found a flat and immediately began making plans for first trip to Poland. Stubbornly ignoring all advice she left in February, when temperatures had dropped to ‐30°C and snow in the mountains was several metres deep, but she managed to persuade Olympic skier Jan Marusarz, now working for the Polish consulate, to act as her guide. Enlisting the help of some old friends in Zakopane Krystyna then set off to begin her real work, criss‐crossing the country by train, horse or on foot, gathering information and making new resistance contacts.
Witnessing the daily hardships her countrymen faced under the new German occupation was shocking, but Krystyna was also encouraged to meet those willing to fight back. Underground newspapers and intelligence networks were springing up everywhere, including one known as the Witkowski organisation or “the Musketeers”, which would prove to be an invaluable source.
After returning to Budapest she submitted a long report to London, and was then faced with an unexpected problem. Radziminski had become infatuated with Krystyna, and after she refused his proposal of marriage he set out to make a grand romantic gesture. First he jumped off the city’s Elizabeth Bridge but hadn’t realised the Danube was frozen. Next he attempted to shoot himself, but lost his nerve at the last moment and only injured his leg. Unimpressed, Section D requested he hobble back to London immediately.
Thankfully there were more stable contacts to be made, and none more important than Andrzej Kowerski. A fellow Pole, Kowerski was also from landowning stock and had joined the Polish motorised division in 1939. Tall and broad‐shouldered, he’d lost a leg in a shooting accident before the war, but that wasn’t stopping him from smuggling dozens of Polish soldiers and Allied prisoners of war over the Hungarian border. With Harrison about to leave for England, Kowerski and Krystyna began working more closely together and soon made a formidable team.
She crossed into Poland again in June and visited members of her family in Warsaw, including her Jewish mother. Afraid for her safety, Krystyna begged her leave the country but she was determined to stay and carry on her work teaching French to young children. With her courier obligations growing she made another journey a week later, but this time her usual good luck failed. After crossing the Polish border she and her companion were caught by Slovakian guards, who threatened to hand them over to the Gestapo. Unflustered, Krystyna refused to disclose anything during several hours of interrogation, and eventually persuaded her captors to take the money she was carrying and let both of them go. A cool head and quick thinking had saved them but they were now known to the Slovak police, making any further trips very dangerous.
Along with carrying out odd propaganda jobs for Section D’s news agency, Krystyna and Kowerski began gathering intelligence on river and train traffic travelling between Germany and Romania, and tracking the movements of frontier guards on the Yugoslav and Slovakian borders. Their love affair only seemed to strengthen their dedication to their work, but things were becoming difficult. Krystyna was running out of money, communications with London were difficult and their work was becoming more dangerous every day.
Kowerski hardly had time to sleep, but steeled himself to drive thousands of kilometres in his trusty Opel saloon to smuggle Polish airmen – now desperately needed to replace pilots lost during the Battle of Britain – into Yugoslavia. He had also become well known to the Hungarian police and their Gestapo counterparts, who stepped up surveillance of his movements. Krystyna continued to push herself hard as well, and after a fourth trip into Poland in mid‐November she became seriously ill with flu. Despite their devotion to the cause and each other, they could not hope to carry on for much longer.
The inevitable police raid came in the early hours of 24 January 1941. After several fruitless hours of interrogation the Gestapo were anxious to use more brutal methods of questioning, but Krystyna was able to interrupt the investigation by playing on her recent illness. Biting her tongue hard, she gave the impression that she was coughing up blood and might be suffering from TB. At a prison hospital she underwent a chest X‐ray, which horrified her doctor: with no idea about her previous lung scarring from exhaust fumes, he concluded that she was seriously ill and arranged for her and Kowerski’s release.
Although still under surveillance, both of them were able to slip away and sneak into the British embassy to ask for O’Malley’s help in leaving Hungary (Krystyna already knew the minister and his family, having already discussed plans to bring out British prisoners of war from Poland). He obliged and issued them with new passports, but they first would need British names to go with them. O’Malley’s daughter Kate suggested Krystyna become “Christine Granville” and Kowerski decided on “Andrew Kennedy”: although made up on the spur of the moment, both would keep these names for the rest of their lives. Christine was hidden in the boot of the embassy’s Chrysler as it crossed over the Yugoslav border, then she joined Andrew in his battered Opel to continue their journey to Belgrade. Over the coming days they had to endure horrendous driving conditions and suspicious border guards but they eventually reached Istanbul in neutral Turkey, where the British consulate welcomed them.
Christine made an unusual proposal to keep their work going in Budapest. After she had left London, her husband had taken a Polish posting to the Gambia (he’d been too old to join up) and was now desperate to see her again. Christine asked London to consider sending him over, and he arrived in Istanbul in March. She had no doubt that Gizycki was the right man to take their place, and although she knew their marriage was dead she mentioned nothing of her relationship with Andrew. Unfortunately by the time he reached Budapest he barely had time to do anything: under pressure from Hitler, Hungarian troops were about to support the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia and British diplomatic relations were broken off. Gizycki had no choice but to evacuate the city with O’ Malley’s staff just a few days later.
After leaving Turkey, Christine and Andrew endured a long and dusty excursion through Syria and Jerusalem to report to SOE’s Cairo headquarters in May 1941 (Section D’s work had been overtaken by SOE in 1940). They hadn’t expected a heroes’ welcome, but they were mystified by the icy reception they received. There was a simple reason for it: the Polish government‐in‐exile in London had just ordered all ties with “amateur” networks like the Musketeers to be cut, claiming they had been penetrated by German intelligence.
This meant that SOE could not send either Christine or Andrew back to the Balkans, and Polish section officer Peter Wilkinson had the unenviable job of breaking the news. Having just arrived himself after a difficult journey from Crete, Wilkinson was blunt to the point of rudeness (something he later regretted) then took the precaution of putting both of them under surveillance, which Andrew soon found out about. Christine handed over microfilms she’d brought from Hungary as evidence of the importance of her sources, which clearly showed the build up of German forces in advance of the imminent invasion of Russia, but they too were ignored. Having put their lives on the line for their country, they were now suspected of being Gestapo spies.
Gizycki, now back in Cairo after an exhausting journey via Russia and Iran, was furious at their treatment. Taylor and SOE’s Balkan staff felt uncomfortable about the situation but they were committed to working with the Polish government, and it would not budge from its ruling. Gizycki was even more distraught after Christine reluctantly broke more bad news, telling him that she wanted a separation. Bruised and embittered, he accepted a gratuity from the British government and later emigrated to Canada.
Christine was at a loose end in Cairo. She and Andrew were kept on the SOE payroll but she soon found herself with little to do apart from lounging in the sun at the Gezira Sporting Club and socialising with her new friends at SOE’s HQ. She turned down the offer to become a cipher clerk – it seemed too much like office work – but took a wireless operator course, thinking it would be useful skill if another mission came her way. Meanwhile Andrew parted company and became a parachute instructor for SOE recruits (despite his wooden leg he insisted on jumping with every group). After completing her wireless training Christine also gained her parachute “wings” at the RAF base in Haifa.
By 1944, Cairo had become a gilded cage. As O’ Malley later put it, Christine had “a positive nostalgie for danger” and was miserable without a chance to meet it. At the end of March 1944 Patrick Howarth, one of her closer friends in SOE’s Polish section, proposed that she be sent back to Hungary as a wireless operator. However, Christine's charm and powers of persuasion were easily spotted by Howarth's commanding officer, who surmised that she had “obviously worked overtime on MP50 [Howarth’s codename]”; by April the plan had been scrapped.
In fact it was only after D‐Day that a vacancy arose, this time in SOE’s AMF section, which sent agents into southern France from Algiers: courier Cecily Lefort had been arrested some months earlier in Montélimar, and her chief needed a replacement urgently. Like many of her class in Poland Christine spoke near perfect French and having wireless skills too made her a natural choice. She was briefed at AMF's “Massingham” base and given false identity papers in the name of Jacqueline Armand. Her codename would be Pauline.
She parachuted near Vassieux in the Vercors region in the early hours of 7 July. The landing left her bruised and had smashed of the butt of her revolver, but that was no great loss. She hated loud bangs, and Andrew’s attempts at pistol instruction in Algiers had failed miserably (she would shut her eyes before pulling the trigger). Four days later she met her new boss, Francis Cammaerts, a 28 year‐old schoolmaster and former conscientious objector. Tall, authoritative and security‐minded, he had become one of the best SOE operators in the country, his JOCKEY circuit coordinating resistance groups from the Rhône valley to the Riviera and as far north as Grenoble.
After a tour meeting hundreds of Cammaerts’ supporters, they moved to the Vercors plateau, a vast expanse of forests, gorges and caves surrounded by huge mountains and limestone cliffs, where French guerrillas – known as “maquis” – were suffering relentless bombing attacks from German aircraft. Weeks before the people of the Vercors had defied the Nazi occupiers and proudly declared their territory a new French republic, but more than 10,000 well equipped enemy troops were about to sweep into the area and reclaim it. Despite desperate pleas for help London failed to come to their aid, and Christine and Francis narrowly escaped the terrible massacre that followed by hiking their way out, covering 70 miles in just 24 hours.
A day later Christine was off to the Italian border. Groups of Poles reluctantly pressed into German service were garrisoned at frontier posts overlooking the winding Alpine passes, and her job would be to persuade them to change sides and hand over their arms. One of her victories was the fort at Col de Larche, a 2000 foot high stronghold surrounded by dense larch forests. Although bloodied and bruised after a day’s climb to reach the garrison, she convinced its 200 Poles to disable their mountain guns and desert their posts. She also enabled several newly arrived special forces teams make contact with Italian partisans and prevent German advances by blowing up the roads and bridges around Briançon.
Such episodes soon gained “Miss Pauline” respect among her male counterparts, but the next would make her a legend. After bringing over another Polish group to the maquis, news arrived that Francis, his lieutenant Xan Fielding and a French officer had been arrested at a roadblock at Digne, on the Route Napoléon between Cannes and Grenoble. With maquis commanders reluctant to attempt a rescue, she immediately cycled 40 kilometres to the Gestapo HQ and presented herself to Albert Schenck, a French liaison officer working with the Germans. She had nothing to bargain with, so began a bluff: declaring herself a British agent and the niece of Field Marshal Montgomery, she warned that an Allied invasion from the south was imminent, and the likes of Schenck would be “handed over to the mob” unless they cooperated with her.
It was a desperate gamble, but amazingly it paid off. French and US troops landed on the Riviera as predicted, and Schenck hurriedly arranged a meeting with Max Waem, a Belgian interpreter working for the Gestapo. After three hours of negotiations they accepted Christine’s offer of two million francs and a guarantee of protection in return for the three prisoners’ lives. The money was dropped by air and the next day Waem drove Francis and his bewildered companions out of the prison, just hours ahead of their scheduled execution. After passing a roadblock they recognised Christine waiting for them by the roadside, and Waem was allowed to make his escape as agreed.
Thanks to efforts of the JOCKEY network General Patch’s US forces liberated Digne, Gap and Grenoble by the end of August, and SOE’s job in the region was done. But the war was not yet over for Christine. In September Churchill’s cabinet finally agreed for SOE to send several political missions to Poland, in the hope that their reports might provide a more objective view of the situation and alleged Soviet atrocities. Christine was given an honorary WAAF commission and sent to SOE’s base at Bari on the heel of Italy, from where she would be flown in as a courier. The first team, codenamed Freston, arrived on 27 December but it was overrun by Soviet forces in January, and all other missions were cancelled.
In his memoir Hide and Seek Xan Fielding recalled how Christine often half‐jokingly talked of the “horrors of peace” and she clearly dreaded the prospect of life without the adventure, camaraderie and sense of purpose that war had given her. Returning to Cairo she took a job at Middle East headquarters, and after some discussion SOE agreed to continue paying her until December 1945, just before it was due to disband itself. Alone and with no work prospects, she now faced an uncertain future.
Christine discovered that her mother had died in prison after being arrested by the Nazis, and with Poland under Russian occupation she knew she could not return home. Now stateless, she had no trouble finding referees to support her application for naturalisation but the Home Office ignored her extraordinary service record and she only became a British citizen in December 1946. Some of her émigré friends were worried about Christine’s precarious situation and encouraged her to join Andrew, now living in Germany, but despite their unique and unbreakable bond she never pursued the idea of marrying him.
Sometimes her pride and independence seemed to sabotage any chance of finding financial security: she gave no reason for refusing to accept a house left to her in a friend’s will, and turned down the chance of a government post because it was offered in respect of her SOE career. Instead she drifted through a string of menial jobs, including switchboard operator and Harrods shop assistant, but in 1947 her new British passport enabled her to escape the miseries of London for Kenya, where she met an old friend from Cairo days. The sun and open spaces did her good, and it was in Nairobi that she received the George Medal and OBE (she had already been awarded the French Croix de Guerre). Even Africa had its ghosts, though, and Kenya could sometimes remind her of pre‐war life with Gizycki.
Christine has been suggested as the inspiration for the Vesper Lynd character in Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953. However, her connections with Fleming are questionable: one of Christine’s friends, a former SOE officer named Ted Howe, was cited by Fleming biographer Donald McCormick as the one who brought them together, but there is no evidence for his claim. In his book 17F: The Life of Ian Fleming McCormick stated that Fleming and Christine met at Bertorelli’s restaurant in London's Charlotte Street, and quoted from a letter that Fleming supposedly wrote to Howe afterwards, which included the lines: “I see exactly what you mean about Christine, she literally shines with all the qualities and splendours of a fictitious character. How rarely one finds such types.”
In a revised edition of her biography of Christine, Madeleine Masson noted that as a girl Christine’s father used to call her “Vesperale”, but the source of this claim may well have been McCormick, who also claimed that Fleming carried on a discreet, year‐long affair with her. It’s easy to see how Christine's hypnotic charm and spirit of adventure would have spurred any novelist’s imagination; unfortunately there's little if anything to actually link her to Fleming, or the character of Lynd.
Determined to travel and break out of her rut in London, Christine took a job as a stewardess on the New Zealand cruise liner MV Ruahine in May 1951 and joined its maiden voyage from Southampton to Wellington. One of the staff rules demanded that staff wear their wartime decorations, which made Christine an object of curiosity and caused a certain amount of jealousy, but one crew member was willing to stand by her. A diminutive forty three‐year‐old, Dennis Muldowney was a pathetic and lonely figure who had joined the Merchant Navy in 1948 after his wife had divorced him on the grounds of cruelty. Soon became clear that Muldowney wanted to be at the centre of Christine's life, whatever the cost.
For someone who hated domestic chores – she would always stay in hotels to avoid housework and having to cook – Christine must have found life onboard trying. As Muldowney's obsessiveness grew she did her best to put some distance between them, but in April 1952 he responded by taking a job as a porter at the Reform Club, just a short ride from her Kensington hotel. At Andrew’s invitation Christine planned to fly to Belgium on Monday 16 June: it would give her a break before her next hostess job and hopefully shake Muldowney off. On Sunday night she came home after meeting friends, and moments later her stalker followed her through the front door and up to the landing. One of the hotel workers in the lounge heard Christine and Muldowney talking and return downstairs, then there was a sudden scream. With no warning Muldowney had suddenly produced a dagger and stabbed her in the chest. The staff immediately overpowered him but she was dead moments later.
The medical report written before Muldowney’s trial concluded that he was a fantasist but showed no signs of serious mental disturbance, and he refused any defence at the Old Bailey on 11 September. In a rambling and unrepentant final letter to his family he elevated his relationship with Christine to that of Antony and Cleopatra, but still coldly asserted that she had “asked for what she got”. He was hanged at Pentonville prison on 30 September 1952.
Although other women agents such as Violette Szabo and Odette Sansom grabbed post‐war headlines and became the subjects of biographies and films, Christine’s story had remained largely unknown to the public. Consequently she attracted far more respect and acknowledgement in death than she ever experienced during her lifetime; inevitably, some conspiracy theorists preferred to believe that she had been assassinated for political reasons. Her story featured in Life magazine and she was daubed a “George Medal Heroine” on the pages of numerous dailies, but Andrew, Cammaerts and her closest friends made a point of keeping their silence, a laudable but forlorn effort to combat the sensationalist junk being reported in the press. Knowing a biography would eventually appear with or without their help, they put their faith in author Madeleine Masson, and Christine: a search for Christine Granville was published in 1975, with Cammaerts writing the foreword. A second, The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley, was published in 2012.
Christine’s burial at St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green was attended by two hundred mourners, including Andrew, Francis Cammaerts and former SOE head Colin Gubbins. The grave is unremarkable except for the shield of the Black Virgin of Czestochowa above the headstone (Christine often carried a medallion of the Madonna with her) and a smaller plaque bearing Andrew’s name, laid after his death in 1988. He never married. Respecting his wishes, his ashes were laid to rest at the foot of her grave.
The Spy Who Loved: The secrets and lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley (Pan, 2013).
Christine: SOE Agent and Churchill's Favourite Spy: A Search for Christine Granville by Madeleine Masson (Virago, 2005).Back to SOE Agent Profiles