Krystyna Skarbek

Krystyna Skarbek
Krystyna Skarbek
Born May 1, 1908(1908-05-01)
Died June 15, 1952(1952-06-15) (aged 44)
London, England
Occupation Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent

Krystyna Skarbek, GM, OBE, Croix de guerre (Polish pronunciation: [krɨˈstɨna ˈskarbɛk]; Warsaw, 1 May 1908[1] – 15 June 1952, London) was a Polish Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent. She became celebrated especially for her daring exploits in intelligence and irregular-warfare missions in Nazi-occupied Poland and France.

She became a British agent months before the SOE was founded in July 1940 and was one of the longest-serving of all Britain's wartime women agents. Her resourcefulness and success have been credited with influencing the sabotage organization's policy of recruiting increasing numbers of women.[2]

In 1941 she began using the nom de guerre Christine Granville, which she legally adopted after the World War II.

Although there is no reliable evidence that she was a friend of Ian Fleming, Skarbek is said, by some, to have been the inspiration for Bond girls, Tatiana Romanova and Vesper Lynd.[3]


Early life

Skarbek coat-of-arms (Habdank)

Krystyna Skarbek was born in Warsaw[4] to Count[5] Jerzy Skarbek, a Catholic, and Stefania née Goldfeder,[6] the daughter of a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker. Marrying Stefania in late December 1899, Jerzy Skarbek used her dowry to pay his debts and continue his lavish life-style.[7]

Notable relations included the composer Fryderyk Chopin, Chopin's godfather and prison reformer Fryderyk Skarbek, and United States Union General Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski.[8][9]

The couple's first child, Andrzej (Andrew), took after the mother's side of the family. Krystyna, their second child, took after her father and his liking for riding horses, which she sat astride rather than side-saddle. She also became an expert skier during visits to Zakopane in the Tatra mountains of southern Poland. From the start, there was a complete rapport between father and daughter, who needed little encouragement to become a tomboy.[10]

It was at the family stables that Krystyna first met Andrzej Kowerski, whose father had brought him over to play with ten-year-old Krystyna while he and her father, the Count, discussed agricultural matters.[11]

The 1920s left the family in straitened financial circumstances, and they had to give up their country estate and move to Warsaw.[12] In 1930, when Krystyna was 22, Count Jerzy died. The Goldfeder financial empire had almost completely collapsed, and there was barely enough money to support the widowed Countess Stefania. Krystyna, not wishing to be a burden to her mother, took a job at a Fiat dealership but soon became ill from automobile fumes and had to give up the job. At first, she was thought, on the basis of shadows on her chest x-rays, to be suffering from tuberculosis, which had killed her father. She received compensation from her employer's insurance company and took her physicians' advice to lead as much of an open-air life as she could. She began spending a great deal of time hiking and skiing the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland.[13]

Krystyna married a young businessman, Karol Getlich; but they were incompatible, and the marriage soon ended without rancour.[14] A subsequent love affair came to naught when the young man's mother refused to consider the penniless divorcée as a potential daughter-in-law.[15]

One day, on a Zakopane ski slope, Krystyna lost control and was saved by a giant of a man who stepped into her path and stopped her descent. Her rescuer was Jerzy (in English, George) Giżycki, a brilliant, moody, irascible eccentric, who came from a wealthy family in Ukraine. At fourteen, he had quarrelled with his father, run away from home, and worked in the United States as a cowboy and gold prospector. He eventually became an author and travelled the world in search of material for his books and articles. He knew Africa well and hoped one day to return there.[16]

On 2 November 1938, Krystyna and Jerzy Giżycki married at the Evangelical Reformed Church in Warsaw.[16] Soon after, he accepted a diplomatic posting to Ethiopia, where he served as Poland’s consul general until September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.[17] Skarbek would later refer to Giżycki as having been "my Svengali for so many years that he would never believe that I could ever leave him for good."[18]


Journalist Frederick Voigt introduced Skarbek to SIS

Upon the outbreak of World War II, the couple sailed for London, England, where Skarbek sought to offer her services in the struggle against the common enemy. The British authorities showed little interest but were eventually convinced by Skarbek's acquaintances, including journalist Frederick Augustus Voigt, who introduced her to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).[19]


Skarbek went to Hungary; and, in December 1939, she persuaded Polish Olympic skier Jan Marusarz, brother of Stanisław Marusarz, to escort her across the snow-covered Tatra Mountains into Poland. Arriving in Warsaw, she vainly pleaded with her mother to leave Nazi-occupied Poland.[20] Stefania Skarbek refused and died at the hands of the occupying Germans in Warsaw's Pawiak prison. Ironically, the prison had been designed in the mid-19th century by Krystyna Skarbek's great-great-uncle Fryderyk Florian Skarbek, a prison reformer and Frédéric Chopin's godfather, who had been tutored in French language by Chopin's father.[21]

An incident that probably dates to Skarbek's first visit to Poland, in February 1940, illustrates the hazards she faced while working in her occupied homeland. At a Warsaw café, she was hailed by a woman acquaintance: "Krystyna! Krystyna Skarbek! What are you doing here? We heard that you'd gone abroad!" When Skarbek denied that her name was Krystyna Skarbek, the lady answered that she would have sworn she was Krystyna Skarbek; the resemblance was positively uncanny! After the woman left, Skarbek, to minimize suspicion, tarried a while before leaving the café.[22]

Krystyna Skarbek helped organize a system of Polish couriers who brought intelligence reports from Warsaw to Budapest. Her cousin Ludwik Popiel managed to smuggle out the unique Polish anti-tank rifle, model 35, with the stock and barrel sawed off for easier transport. Skarbek, for a time, concealed it in her Budapest apartment. However, it never saw wartime service with the Allies, as the designs and specifications had deliberately been destroyed upon the outbreak of war and there was no time for reverse engineering. Captured stocks of the rifle were, however, used by the Germans and the Italians.[23]

In Hungary, Skarbek met a Polish army officer, Andrzej Kowerski (1912–88), who would later use the British nom de guerre "Andrew Kennedy". Skarbek had first met him as a child and briefly encountered him again before the war at Zakopane. Kowerski, who had lost part of his leg in a pre-war hunting accident, was now exfiltrating Polish and other Allied military personnel and collecting intelligence.

Skarbek showed her penchant for stratagem when she and Kowerski were arrested by the Gestapo in January 1941; she won their release, feigning symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis by biting her tongue until it bled. Skarbek was distantly related to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, since a cousin from the Lwów side of the family had married a relative of Horthy.[24] The pair made good their escape from Hungary via the Balkans and Turkey.


Upon their arrival at SOE offices in Cairo, Egypt, they were shocked to learn they were under suspicion because of Skarbek's contacts with a Polish intelligence organization called the "Musketeers". This group had been formed in October 1939 by engineer-inventor Stefan Witkowski, who would be assassinated by parties unknown in October 1942.[25] Another source of suspicion was the ease with which she had obtained transit visas through French-mandated Syria and Lebanon from the pro-Vichy French consul in Istanbul. Only German spies, some Polish intelligence officers believed, could have obtained the visas.[26]

Gen. Gubbins, executive head of SOE from 1943

There were also specific suspicions about Kowerski. These were addressed in London by General Colin Gubbins—to be, from September 1943, head of SOE—in a letter of 17 June 1941 to Polish Commander-in-Chief and Premier Władysław Sikorski:

Last year […] a Polish citizen named Kowerski was working with our officials in Budapest on Polish affairs. He is now in Palestine […]. I understand from Major [Peter] Wilkinson [of SOE] that General [Stanisław] Kopański [Kowerski's former commander in Poland] is doubtful about Kowerski's loyalty to the Polish cause [because] Kowerski has not reported to General Kopański for duty with the [Polish Independent Carpathian] Brigade. Major Wilkinson informs me that Kowerski had had instructions from our officials not to report to General Kopański, as he was engaged […] on work of a secret nature which necessitated his remaining apart. It seems therefore that Kowerski's loyalty has only been called into question because of these instructions.[27]

Kowerski eventually cleared up any misunderstandings with General Kopański and was able to resume intelligence work. Similarly, when Skarbek visited Polish military headquarters in her British Royal Air Force uniform, she was treated by the Polish military chiefs with the highest respect.[28]

It could not but have helped that, in the meantime, Germany had started Operation Barbarossa, an invasion of the Soviet Union (22 June 1941), as her intelligence obtained from the Musketeers had predicted.[29] It is now known that advance information about Operation Barbarossa had also been provided by a number of other sources, including Ultra.[30]

When Skarbek's husband, Jerzy Giżycki, was informed that Skarbek and Kowerski's services were being dispensed with, he took umbrage and abruptly bowed out of his own career as a British intelligence agent. When Skarbek told her husband that she loved Kowerski, Giżycki left for London, eventually emigrating to Canada.[31] They would be formally divorced at the Polish consulate in Berlin on 1 August 1946.[32]

Krystyna Skarbek was sidelined from mainstream action. Vera Atkins, assistant to the head of F Section, would later describe Skarbek as a very brave woman, but a law unto herself and a loner.[33]


Skarbek's situation changed greatly in 1944, with a turn of events that would lead to some of her most famous exploits. Fluent in French, she was offered to SOE's teams in France, under the nom de guerre "Madame Pauline". The offer was timely: SOE was running short of trained operatives to cover the increased demands being placed on it in the run-up to the invasion of France. New operatives were already in training, but the work took time. If inserted into occupied Europe before they had absorbed the numerous physical and intellectual skills required for survival, the operatives could compromise not only themselves but their SOE colleagues already in place and French Resistance workers. Skarbek had a track record of successful courier work in occupied Europe and would need only a little "refresher" work and some guidance about working in France. There was one particular need that required urgent attention: the replacement of a lost courier on a busy circuit that would be among the first to meet the proposed Allied landings. Skarbek was, therefore, chosen to replace SOE agent Cecily Lefort, who had been captured, tortured, and imprisoned by the Gestapo.

The SOE had several branches working in France; and, though most of the women in France answered to F Section in London, Skarbek's mission was launched from Algiers, the base of the AMF Section. This factor, combined with Skarbek's absence from the usual SOE training program, sometimes intrigues researchers. AMF Section was only set up in the wake of the Allied landings in North Africa, 'Operation Torch', partly with staff from London (F Section) and partly with staff from Cairo (MO.4).[citation needed] AMF Section served three purposes: (1) it was simpler and safer to run the resupply operations from Allied North Africa than from London, across German-occupied France; (2) since the South of France would be liberated by separate Allied landings there ("Operation Dragoon"), SOE units in the area needed to be transferred to have links with those headquarters, not with forces for Normandy; (3) AMF Section tapped into the skills of the French in North Africa, who did not generally support Charles de Gaulle and who had been linked with opposition in the former "Unoccupied Zone".

After the two invasions, the distinctions became irrelevant, and almost all the SOE Sections in France would be united with the Maquis into the Forces Francaises de l'Interieur (FFI). (There was one exception: The EU/P Section, which was formed by Poles in France and remained part of the trans-European Polish Resistance movement, under Polish command.) Skarbek, as "Pauline Armand", parachuted into southeastern France on 6 July 1944 and became part of the "Jockey" network directed by a Belgian-British lapsed pacifist, Francis Cammaerts. She assisted Cammaerts by linking Italian partisans and French Maquis for joint operations against the Germans in the Alps and by inducing non-Germans, especially conscripted Poles, in the German occupation forces to defect to the Allies.

On 13 August 1944, at Digne, two days before the Allied Operation Dragoon landings in southern France, Cammaerts, Xan Fielding—another SOE agent, who had previously operated in Crete—and a French officer, Christian Sorensen, were arrested at a roadblock by the Gestapo. Skarbek, learning that they were to be executed, managed to meet with Capt. Albert Schenck, an Alsatian who acted as liaison officer between the local French prefecture and the Gestapo. She introduced herself as a niece of British General Bernard Montgomery and threatened Schenck with terrible retribution if harm came to the prisoners. She reinforced the threat with a mercenary appeal—an offer of two million francs for the men's release. Schenck in turn introduced her to a Gestapo officer, a Belgian named Max Waem.[34]

For three hours Christine argued and bargained with him and, having turned the full force of her magnetic personality on him... told him that the Allies would be arriving at any moment and that she, a British parachutist, was in constant wireless contact with the British forces. To make her point, she produced some broken... useless W/T crystals....

'If I were you,' said Christine, 'I should give careful thought to the proposition I have made you. As I told Capitaine Schenck, if anything should happen to my husband [as she falsely described Cammaerts] or to his friends, the reprisals would be swift and terrible, for I don't have to tell you that both you and the Capitaine have an infamous reputation among the locals.'

Increasingly alarmed by the thought of what might befall him when the Allies and the Resistance decided to avenge the many murders he had committed, Waem struck the butt end of his revolver on the table and said, 'If I do get them out of prison, what will you do to protect me?'[35]

After Cammaerts and the other two men were released, Captain Schenck was advised to leave Digne. He did not and was subsequently murdered by a person or persons unknown. His wife kept the bribe money and, after the war, attempted to exchange it for new francs. She was arrested but was released after the authorities investigated her story. She was able to exchange the money for only a tiny portion of its value.[36]


Skarbek's service in France restored her political reputation and greatly enhanced her military reputation. When the SOE teams returned from France (or in some cases, were given 24 hours to depart by de Gaulle), some of the British women sought new missions in the Pacific War, since the Empire of Japan still held on; but Skarbek, as a Pole, was ideally placed to serve as a courier for missions to her homeland in the final missions of SOE. As the Red Army advanced across Poland, the British government and Polish government-in-exile worked together to leave a network in place that would report on events in the People's Republic of Poland. Kowerski and Skarbek were now fully reconciled with the Polish forces and were preparing to be dropped into Poland in early 1945. In the event, the mission, called Operation Freston, was canceled because the first party to enter Poland were captured by the Red Army (they were released in February 1945).

The women of SOE were all given military rank, with honorary commissions in either the Women's Transport Service (FANY), officially part of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) though a very elite and autonomous part, or the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Skarbek appears to have been a member of both.

In preparation for her service in France, she appears to have been with FANY. On her return, she seems to have transferred to the WAAF as an officer until the end of the war in Europe: 21 November 1944 to 14 May 1945.

Skarbek was one of the few SOE female field agents promoted beyond subaltern rank to Captain, or Air Force equivalent: Flight Officer, the WAAF counterpart of the Flight Lieutenant rank for male officers. Skarbek, like Pearl Witherington, the courier who had taken command of a group when the designated commander was captured, and Yvonne Cormeau, the most successful wireless operator[citation needed], ended the war as Honorary Flight Officers.


Skarbek's exploits at Digne were recognized with the award of the George Medal.

Several years after the Digne incident, in London, she told another Pole and fellow World War II veteran that, during her negotiations with the Gestapo, she had been unaware of any danger to herself. Only after she and her comrades had made good their escape did it hit home: "What have I done! They could have shot me as well."[37]

For her work in conjunction with the British authorities, in May 1947 she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE),[38] an award normally associated with officers about the rank of colonel, and a rank above the "standard" award of Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) given to other women of SOE.[citation needed]

French recognition of Skarbek's contribution to the liberation of France came with the award of the Croix de Guerre.[39]


After the war, Skarbek was left without financial reserves or a native country to return to. Xan Fielding, whom she had saved at Digne, wrote in his 1954 book, Hide and Seek, and dedicated "To the memory of Christine Granville":

After the physical hardship and mental strain she had suffered for six years in our service, she needed, probably more than any other agent we had employed, security for life. […] Yet a few weeks after the armistice she was dismissed with a month's salary and left in Cairo to fend for herself ... [Alt]hough she was too proud to ask for any other assistance, she did apply for […] a British passport; for ever since the Anglo-American betrayal of her country at Yalta she had been virtually stateless. But the naturalization papers […] were delayed in the normal bureaucratic manner. Meanwhile, abandoning all hope of security, she deliberately embarked on a life of uncertain travel, as though anxious to reproduce in peace time the hazards she had known during the war; until, finally, in June 1952, in the lobby of a cheap London hotel, the menial existence to which she had been reduced by penury was ended by an assassin's knife.[40]

In that latter period of her life, she met Ian Fleming, with whom she allegedly had a year-long affair,[41] although there is no proof that this occurred. The man who made the allegation, Donald McCormick, relied on the word of a woman named "Olga Bialoguski"; McCormick always refused to identify her, and she is not included in his list of acknowledgments.


Christine Granville was stabbed to death in a Kensington hotel on 15 June 1952; she was 44. Her assailant was Dennis Muldowney, an obsessed merchant marine steward, and former colleague, whose advances she had rejected. After being tried and convicted of her murder, Muldowney was hanged on the gallows at HMP Pentonville on 30 September 1952.[42]

Krystyna Skarbek was interred in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery at Kensal Green, in northwest London.

Following his death in 1988, the ashes of Skarbek's comrade-in-arms and partner, Andrzej Kowerski (aka Andrew Kennedy) were interred at the foot of her grave.

Popular culture

Skarbek became a legend in her lifetime. Soon after her death, she entered the realm of popular culture. It has been said that Ian Fleming, in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), modeled Vesper Lynd on her. According to William F. Nolan, Fleming also based Tatiana Romanova, in his 1957 novel From Russia, with Love, on Skarbek.[43]

Four decades later, in 1999, Polish writer Maria Nurowska published a novel, Miłośnica (The Lover)—an account of a fictional female journalist's attempt to probe Skarbek's story.

A Polish television series was announced by that country's public broadcasting corporation, Telewizja Polska (Polish Television).

The 5 February 2009 Krakow Post reported that Agnieszka Holland was to direct a big-budget film about Skarbek—Christine: War My Love.[44]

See also


  1. ^ Jan Larecki, Krystyna Skarbek: agentka o wielu twarzach (Krystyna Skarbek: Agent with Many Faces), p. 31.
  2. ^ Marcus Binney, The Women Who Lived for Danger, pp. 4–5.
  3. ^ McCormick, Donald (1993). The Life of Ian Fleming. Peter Owen Publishers. pp. 151. 
  4. ^ Four different places have been cited as her birthplace. According to Larecki, her true birthplace was the home of her Goldfeder grandparents at ulica Zielna 45 in Warsaw. Larecki, Krystyna Skarbek, pp. 32–34.
  5. ^ It has been alleged that her father's branch of the Skarbek family had not obtained confirmation of the title of count in the 19th century from the Russian Imperial court. Ronald Nowicki, "Krystyna Skarbek: a Letter", The Polish Review, vol. L, no. 1 (2005), p. 100.
  6. ^ The name "Goldfeder" is of German origin and translates into English as "Goldfeather."
  7. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 3.
  8. ^ Michael Robert Patterson. "Wladimir B. Krzyzanowski". Retrieved 14 February 2010. 
  9. ^ Jarosław Krawczyk, "Wielkie odkrycia ludzkości. Nr 17," Rzeczpospolita, June 12, 2008.
  10. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 7.
  11. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 12.
  12. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 17.
  13. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, pp. 20–21.
  14. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 22.
  15. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 23.
  16. ^ a b Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 24.
  17. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 32.
  18. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 104.
  19. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, pp. 39–40.
  20. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 68.
  21. ^ (Polish) Piotr Mysłakowski; Andrzej Sikorski (April 2007). "Fryderyk Skarbek" (in Polish). Fryderyk Chopin Information Centre. Warsaw: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute. Retrieved 11 October 2011. "W trosce o stan więzień zwrócił uwagę rządu na fatalne warunki istniejącego więzienia śledczego, tzw. Prochowni, i następnie zaprojektował i doprowadził do wystawienia nowego aresztu, znanego później jako Pawiak. ("Concerned about the condition of the prisons, he brought to the government's attention the dreadful state of the existing jail, the Prochownia, and designed and helped build a new jail, later known as the Pawiak.")" 
  22. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Krystyna Skarbek: Re-viewing Britain's Legendary Polish Agent", The Polish Review, vol. XLIX, no. 3 (2004), p. 950.
  23. ^ WW II German Infantry Anti-Tank Weapons
  24. ^ Ronald Nowicki, "Krystyna Skarbek: a Letter", The Polish Review, vol. L, no. 1 (2005), p. 99. Christopher Kasparek, letter to the editor, The Polish Review, vol. L, no. 2 (2005), pp. 253–55.
  25. ^ Marcus Binney, The Women Who Lived for Danger, p. 325.
  26. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 116.
  27. ^ Quoted in Marcus Binney, The Women Who Lived for Danger, pp. 71–72.
  28. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Krystyna Skarbek: Re-viewing Britain's Legendary Polish Agent", The Polish Review, vol. XLIX, no. 3 (2004), p. 949.
  29. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 131.
  30. ^ Read, Anthony, and David Fisher, Operation Lucy: Most Secret Spy Ring of the Second World War, New York, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1981, ISBN 069811079X.
  31. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 127.
  32. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. xxx.
  33. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. xxvii.
  34. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, p. 205.
  35. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, pp. 205–6.
  36. ^ Francis Cammaerts, who after the war kept in touch with Max Waem, in Belgium, gave his account to the sound archives of the Imperial War Museum.[citation needed]
  37. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Krystyna Skarbek: Re-viewing Britain's Legendary Polish Agent", The Polish Review, vol. XLIX, no. 3 (2004), p. 947
  38. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37959. p. 2249. 20 May 1947. Retrieved 3 April 2010.
  39. ^ Madeleine Masson, Christine, facing p. 219.
  40. ^ Xan Fielding, Hide and Seek, pp. 254–55.
  41. ^ Purported affair with Ian Fleming
  42. ^
  43. ^ FILMFAX Magazine, October 2003 – January 2004.
  44. ^ Krakow Post re film to be made of Krystyna Skarbek / Christine Granville's life by Agnieszka Holland


  • Xan Fielding, Hide and Seek: the Story of a War-Time Agent, London, Secker & Warburg, 1954. (Dedicated to Krystyna Skarbek; includes the Digne incident.)
  • Madeleine Masson, Christine: a Search for Christine Granville, G.M., O.B.E., Croix de Guerre, with a Foreword by Francis Cammaerts, D.S.O., Légion d'Honneur, Croix de Guerre, U.S. Medal of Freedom, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975. (Republished by Virago, 2005.)
  • Marcus Binney, The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 2002. (A fifth of the book is devoted to Krystyna Skarbek; includes a few more recently available documents, but largely draws on Madeleine Masson's work.)
  • Christopher Kasparek, "Krystyna Skarbek: Re-viewing Britain's Legendary Polish Agent", The Polish Review, vol. XLIX, no. 3 (2004), pp. 945–53.
  • Ronald Nowicki, "Krystyna Skarbek: a Letter", The Polish Review, vol. L, no. 1 (2005), pp. 93–101.
  • Christopher Kasparek, letter to the editor (corrigenda to Kasparek's article in vol. XLIX, no. 3, 2004, and response to Ronald Nowicki's letter in vol. L, no. 1, 2005), The Polish Review, vol. L, no. 2 (2005), pp. 253–55.
  • Jan Larecki, Krystyna Skarbek: agentka o wielu twarzach (Krystyna Skarbek: Agent with Many Faces), Warsaw, Książka i Wiedza, 2008, ISBN 978-83-05-13533-7.

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