Many women worked undercover during the world wars, but we know the names of only a few. Like men in the secret intelligence services, many went to their graves never revealing their roles. This blog series highlights a few that inspired me while writing At the Table of Wolves.
Krystyna Skarbek, alias Christine Granville, was a Polish countess and the first–and longest serving–British female spy. Her exploits were many, and yet her story, her name, and her achievements are hardly known. As just one example of an exploit which should be celebrated, she skied out of Nazi-occupied Poland with the first evidence of Operation Barbarosa, the German plan to invade Russia.
Destined to become Churchill’s “favorite spy,” she initially was turned down for service because she was a woman. The secret service changed their minds when she proposed skiing into occupied Poland to deliver British propaganda to people who desperately needed to believe that the outside world had not forgotten them.
Skarbek was doubly at risk from the Nazis because she was Jewish. But she refused to be intimidated, almost craving risk. Over and over again, she succeeded in smuggling intelligence from the resistance out of Poland, once biting her tongue bloody in an effort to simulate tuberculosis. In 1944 she parachuted into occupied France as part of a Special Operations Executive mission to prepare the way with the French resistance for the allied invasion.
She was extraordinarily persuasive and charming, and used these qualities to free lovers from German prisons, and once, acting completely alone, persuaded an entire garrison of German soldiers to abandon their post in an important Alpine pass just before the liberation of France.
Her life and missions are recounted by Clare Mulley, who wrote Skarbek’s biography, The Spy Who Loved (2013). Mulley found it ludicrous that Skarbek had not received the honor she deserved for her contributions to the war effort, and was in fact treated abominably by British authorities after the war, denying her petition for citizenship, even though she could not return to Soviet-controlled Poland. Eventually the British relented, but this former wealthy countess was reduced to cleaning bathrooms on passenger liners. This occupation was all she could secure, although she had earned an OBE, the George Medal and the French Croix de Guerre.
Tragically, she was murdered by a rejected lover in 1952. Her legacy is remembered with a bust of Skarbek displayed at the Polish Hearth Club in London, sculpted by her husband using soil from her beloved Polish homeland.