Krystyna Skarbek, also known by the alias Christine Granville, was a Polish woman-turned-British spy who had a remarkable espionage career. Not only do some say that Winston Churchill dubbed her his favorite spy, but it’s also believed that Ian Fleming based Casino Royale‘s Bond Girl, millionaire spy, Vesper Lynd, on Skarbek.
Skarbek, born in Poland in 1908 – but later taking advantage of one of her many name changes to knock five years off her age – was awarded the George Medal, the OBE and the Croix de Guerre for her wartime exploits.
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 Told to put her hands in the air she did so, revealing a grenade under each arm, pin withdrawn.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.
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.
|Daily Express newspaper reporting murder of SOE agent Christine Granville by Dennis George Muldowney.|
She was twice married and divorced, but was long outlived by her friend, colleague and former lover Andrzej Kowerski-Kennedy, whose ashes were buried in her grave in 1988.
There is no evidence that Ian Fleming ever met her, but she is said to have inspired his duplicitous characters Tatiana Romanova in From Russia with Love, and Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.