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The Fascinating Life and Tragic End of the Polish Countess Who Became a Heroic British Spy

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Krystyna Skarbek was said to be “Winston Churchill’s favorite spy;” she led an extraordinary life that peaked with clandestine acts of heroism during World War II—and ended tragically just a few years later. Six decades after her death, a biopic is said to be in the works. It’s about time.

Skarbek, who was said to have inspired James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s Vesper Lynd character, was born in Warsaw, though her exact age was always something of a mystery:

Her birth year has been widely reported as 1915, but researcher Ron Nowicki has described Polish and British documents that list the earlier date [of 1908]. 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.


Skarbek left Poland with her second husband in 1938; she got involved with the war effort in London after her home country was invaded. Her confidence and good looks helped land her first mission, to Hungary, in 1939. And her plan read like something out of a spy novel:

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.


Her scheme worked, though one unexpected drawback was that the Polish agent who’d been assigned to assist her fell in love with her. She wasn’t into him—though she was still married, she’d soon meet the man who’d become her most significant life companion, fellow operative Andrzej Kowerski—but the mission launched her career in espionage.

Often going by the name “Christine Granville,” the creativity she applied to her work became the stuff of legend. There was the time she bit her tongue while being interrogated, enabling her to cough out blood and convince her German captors she had tuberculosis. (Fearing the disease, they let her go.) And that famous, much-reported story isn’t even her most daring:

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 ... 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.

Not only did she track down Cammaerts, she also somehow able to convincingly bend the truth enough to spring him from prison, and save his life.

There are many more incredible stories from the life of “Christine Granville.” She was “Britain’s longest-serving female agent,” as Women’s History Network points out, and she received a number of honors for it (“the OBE, the George Medal and the French Croix de Guerre as well as an array of service ribbons that would have made any General proud”) but was ultimately not eligible for military honors ... because she was a woman.


If that depressing fact enrages you, prepare to turn even redder, because as the Guardian reports, it got worse. Way, way worse:

After the war she was paid off with £100, and ended her working life as a cleaner on cruise ships. In 1952 she was stabbed to death in the cheap London hotel where she was living by an Irish ship’s steward, Dennis Muldowney, who had become obsessed with her.


By then, she had become a British citizen, but her wartime heroism didn’t earn her more than a cursory burial. (Longtime love Kowerski died in Munich in 1988; among his last wishes were to have his ashes interred beside hers—though he had said over the years that Skarbek’s true love was her beloved Poland.)

In 2013, the BBC reported that she was finally getting some long-overdue public recognition:

Her extraordinary courage on dozens of clandestine missions during World War II was celebrated during a a memorial service at St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, north-west London.

The ceremony marked the renovation of her grave by the Polish Heritage Society.

And now, it seems, a movie may be in the works; according to a Polish news outlet report just last month, US-based Bluegrass Films hopes to adapt her incredible life story from Clare Mulley’s acclaimed 2012 biography—alluringly titled The Spy Who Loved.


Top image: AP Photo