The Spy Who Loved - A Talk by Clare Mulley

Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to finally welcome Clare to the Parish Room, after two postponements due to Covid and Lockdown, to share her intimate knowledge of possibly Britain’s greatest ever female spy, Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, commonly known as Krystyna Skarbek or Christine Granville.

Krystyna Skarbeck

Clare began by describing Krystyna as someone who was fiercely independent, twice married and with many lovers, a Polish Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) agent during World War II, who had at least three recorded dates of birth, but actually in 1908. She was the daughter of a charming but dissolute Polish aristocrat and a Jewish banking heiress, and further described in 1939 as "a flaming Polish patriot, expert skier and great adventuress".

She became celebrated for daring exploits in intelligence and irregular-warfare missions in Nazi-occupied Poland and France. Journalist Alistair Horne, who described himself in 2012 as one of the few people still alive who had known Krystyna, called her the "bravest of the brave". SOE spymaster Vera Atkins (who headed F section) described her as a woman with tremendous guts, who valued freedom above all else, and who would do anything to fight for it, for herself and for others. She was, said Atkins, “very brave, very attractive, utterly loyal and dedicated to the Allies, but at the same time, a loner and a law unto herself”. Another MI6 colleague was Ian Fleming, who it is rumoured had an affair with her, though sadly without evidence; her persona and daring must have made a deep impression on him, because she was the inspiration for his first glamorous spy, Vesper Lynd, the double agent in Casino Royale (Vesper was also allegedly her father’s nickname for Krystyna).

And so begins her incredible story.

Krystyna's parents lived the high life in Jazz Age Warsaw and their daughter had the best of everything. She grew up with deportment, French and piano lessons, and additionally learnt to ride horses and ski, both very well. Encouraged by her indulgent father, she became something of a tomboy, albeit a rather glamorous one, as at nineteen she was runner up in the Polish national beauty contest. Her greatest passion however, was risk-taking, including dangerous ski trails and fast cars. When the Depression hit, her playboy father had largely exhausted his wife's fortune and Krystyna was forced to take a job as a secretary in an auto dealership. Soon after, in April 1930, she married a young businessman, Gustaw Gettlich, at the Spiritual Seminary Church in Warsaw. The marriage proved incompatible and soon ended without rancour; the divorce settlement gave her an income steady enough to enjoy life on her own terms.

She then met her second husband Jerzy Giżycki, who was a globetrotter, lifelong adventurer and traveller, and a diplomat 20 years her senior; he was probably one of very few high-born men whose status and detachment from Polish society was great enough to let him marry Krystyna, despite her being an impoverished half-Jewish countess and divorcée.

Soon after the marriage, in November 1938, Jerzy was offered the position of Polish Consul in Kenya. It took weeks to reach Africa at that time, and they arrived in Johannesburg in late August 1939. Before they managed to make the journey to Kenya, news of the outbreak of World War II struck. Having no instructions from the Polish government, and being heavily distressed by Hitler’s invasion of Poland, they turned their car back to the coast to catch the first ship back to Europe - a very slow cargo steamship heading to Southampton. By the time they reached Britain, there was no Poland and no Polish government (the Gov’t in excel would take some time to form). The Polish Army was at the very beginning of gathering and regrouping in France, after being completely destroyed by Hitler’s invasion, and additionally also attacked by the Soviet Union from the east.

With no possibility of getting involved in the war on the Polish side, Krystyna decided to join with Britain and they both went to London, where she volunteered to help the British secret service; this was most unusual, as women were usually recruited from other branches of the services when they were discovered to have valuable skills.

At this very early stage of the war, Britain didn’t plan any actual counter-offensive on Nazi Germany, but Krystyna was strongly interested in fostering Polish resistance movements, as well as infiltrating German troops behind their line. Speaking Polish, French, English and German, she proposed a fantastical scheme of travelling to still neutral Hungary, and then skiing over the Carpathian Mountains to Poland, to bring out information and Polish volunteers to fight in the West. For reasons that remain unclear, but perhaps related to Jerzy's pre-war connections to British intelligence, the scheme was approved. By December she was in Budapest, which was to serve as her base of operations in occupied Poland. There she met Andrzej Kowerski, a one-legged, dashing and much decorated Polish tank officer who was already operating an escape route for Polish soldiers. Although increasingly tied to Germany, Hungary's traditional friendship with Poland caused Hungarian officials to turn a blind eye to such activities, so Krystyna began working with Andrzej and, perhaps inevitably, the two became lovers.

In February 1940 she made her first of 4 trips over the Tatra Mountains (part of the Carpathian chain in eastern Europe and a natural border between Slovakia & Poland) on skis, during one of the worst winters on record, with temperatures down to minus 40, carrying documents for the Polish resistance; she returned after 3 months with information on German activities, code books and microfilm.

At the request of MI6, Krystyna and Andrzej organised surveillance of all the rail, road and river traffic on the borders with Romania and German, and she is credited with providing intelligence on oil transports to Germany from Romania's Ploiesti oilfield. Krystyna spent 1940 travelling back and forth between Poland and Hungary.

On her final trip out of Poland she carried microfilmed documents that detailed German preparations to invade the Soviet Union. In Budapest, in January 1941, she showed her penchant for stratagem when she and Andrzej were arrested by the Hungarian police, imprisoned and questioned by the Gestapo. She feigned symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis by biting her tongue until it bled, filling her mouth with blood; the Germans suspected TB and a doctor (incorrectly) diagnosed terminal tuberculosis. Scars on her lungs from her job at an auto shop confirmed the lie when German doctors took X-rays. The Germans threw them out, as they were worried about spreading the highly infectious disease, but police did follow the couple afterwards; rather than trying to escape, they first went to a bar and then to Andrzej’s flat, where they met with members of their group.

Sir Owen St Clair O'Malley, the head of the British Legation in Budapest, and who could allegedly do pretty much anything “apart from eating dynamite”, was quite keen on Krystyna and gave them both temporary British passports. Krystyna Skarbek now became Christine Granville, a name she adopted and maintained for the rest of her life, and Andrzej Kowerski became Andrew Kennedy. They decided to flee Hungary, which was now a German ally, while Christine also shaved seven years off her age, her new passport showing this as 1915.

A British Embassy driver smuggled Christine out of Hungary into Yugoslavia. in the boot of Sir Owen’s Chrysler, and Kowerski followed behind in his Opel. He was not allowed to cross the border, so claimed that he had sold the car and was simply delivering it, but that he just had run out of petrol, so could they push him across? Unbelievably the border guards agreed, and when he was over, he simply started the engine and drove away!

The couple reunited in Yugoslavia with Sir Owen joining them later in Belgrade, where they enjoyed a few days of drinking champagne in Belgrade's nightclubs and belly-dancing bars in late February; Christine and Andrew continued their journey in the Opel, first to Sofia in Bulgaria. Sofia's best hotel was full of Nazis, so they called at the British Legation, meeting with air attaché Aidan Crawley.

The couple gave Crawley rolls of microfilm (sewn into the lining of her gloves or embedded in blocks of shaving soap) received from a Polish intelligence organisation called the Musketeers, which contained photos of a German military build-up near the border with the Soviet Union. This indicated that a German invasion of the Soviet Union was being planned, so it was sent to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who could scarcely believe it. By March, and with information from other sources including Ultra (*), Churchill was persuaded the intelligence was accurate and he telephoned Stalin; as we all know Stalin didn’t believe it, at least not until Operation Barbarossa began in June 1941.

(*)         Ultra was the designation adopted by British military intelligence in June 1941 for wartime signals intelligence, obtained by breaking high level encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park.

Leaving Bulgaria, Andrew and Christine continued on to Turkey, and in Istanbul the couple met with exiled Poles, where Christine tried to ensure the courier routes from Istanbul to Poland remained functional. Her husband, the intimidating Jerzy Giżycki, then met them on 17 March 1941; apparently no fireworks ensued when Jerzy met Andrew Kennedy, and together they persuaded Jerzy to go to Budapest to take over Christine's previous role as contact point for the British with the Polish resistance.

The couple's next destinations in the Opel were Syria and Lebanon, which were under the control of Vichy France (who of course collaborated with the Germans). Christine obtained visas from reluctant Vichy officials and they continued their journey, entered Mandatory Palestine (the land of Israel), and proceeded onward to Cairo, arriving in May 1941. Together Andrew and Christine had driven fairly blithely across hundreds of miles of Nazi sympathizing territory, often carrying incriminating letters and sometimes microfilm, and just weeks or at just times days ahead of the Nazi advance.

In Egypt Christine was unable to continue working as an intelligence agent for many months, due to Polish suspicions that she was a double agent; her Musketeer contacts had compromised her ability to work with the Poles, so she would henceforth work exclusively with the British. In June 1941, Peter Wilkinson of SOE came out to Cairo to officially dismiss Andrew and Christie, though keeping them on the SOE payroll with just a small retainer that forced them to live in near poverty. Andrew, under less suspicion than Christine, eventually cleared up any misunderstandings with General Kopański (who between 1943 & 1946 was Chief of Staff of the Commander in Chief of the Polish Armed Forces in the West), and was able to resume intelligence work. When Christine's husband Jerzy was informed their services were being dispensed with, he took umbrage and bowed out of his own career as a British intelligence agent. When Christine later told Jerzy that she loved Andrew, he left for London, eventually emigrating to Canada; they were formally divorced at the Polish consulate in Berlin on 1 August 1946.

A week after the dismissal of Christine and Andrzej, on 22 June 1941 Germany began Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union, as predicted by intelligence the couple had passed along to the British from the Musketeers. During the remainder of 1941, 1942 and 1943, Christine was given several small tasks by SOE: intelligence gathering in Syria and Cairo, passing on information to the British on Polish intelligence and resistance agencies. She turned down offers of office work and continued to be side-lined from the kind of dangerous and difficult work she desired. Both she and Andrew continued to be under suspicion by the British, and resented by the Polish government in exile because they worked for Britain.

Her route back to active service with SOE began with her joining the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), an all-woman charity organization with military-style uniforms, used as a cover for many women in the SOE. The SOE officer who recruited her, Patrick Howarth, would later say jokingly that the most useful thing I did in World War II was to reinstate Christine Granville. Despite Christine's experience in clandestine work, she was given SOE training for prospective agents, though proving less than an apt student at wireless transmitting (hopeless) and firearms (which she hated), but she loved parachuting.

SOE's original plan to parachute her into Hungary was cancelled, because the mission was deemed little short of homicide. The continued suspicions about her by the Polish government in exile precluded her return to Poland, so SOE decided to infiltrate her into southern France. Her French was good and she took a course to improve her English. She moved to Algeria in preparation for a mission to France, but was not immediately dispatched because SOE believed she was too flamboyant to work undercover effectively.

Christine Granville Algiers portrait 1944 – IWM

With the two invasions in Normandy and southern France in the summer of 1944, almost all of the SOE Sections in France were united, with the Maquis, into the Forces Francaises de l'Interieur (FFI). Christine parachuted into France on the night of 6/7 July 1944 to join SOE operations supporting French resistance forces.

German troops along the French Italian border were often second or third-line forces, and a number of garrisons consisted of Poles, or Russians, conscripted from labour camps or supposed Volksdeutsch (persons whose language & culture had German origins but who didn’t hold German citizenship). As Allied forces pushed into France the reliability of these forces came into ever greater question. In August, Christine made contact with a group of such troops manning a border post at Col de Larche, convincing them to desert to the French partisans. The unit's German officers found themselves nearly devoid of soldiers, and on August 13 agreed to surrender.

She became part of the ’Jockey Network’ headed by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Cammaerts, SOE's regional commander. The job of Francis and his team was to organize the French resistance fighters, the Maquis, in south eastern France, to weaken the German occupiers prior to the Allied invasion of southern France - Operation Dragoon - which would take place on 15 August. Christine was Cammaerts’s courier, to replace an agent who had been captured and killed by the Germans; she had also been given the task of attempting to subvert Polish conscripts in the German army who were stationed along the Franco-Italian border.

On August 13 Christine learned that Francis (her sometime lover) and two of his associates had been arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death as spies. Despite his meticulous care for security, Cammaerts, Xan Fielding, an SOE agent who had previously operated in Crete, and a French officer, Christian Sorensen, were arrested at a roadblock by the Gestapo at Digne les Bains. Cammaerts had received a large amount of money for operations which he had divided between the three of them, an action that would prove to be a mistake. Entering Digne by automobile, they came upon a German checkpoint; under questioning, Fielding denied knowing the other two, but a young German civilian examining their forged identity papers noticed the serial numbers of the money each carried was from the same series, indicating a connection among them. All were taken to Digne prison and roughly interrogated. To account for the money, they claimed that they were involved in black marketing. The Germans apparently didn’t know they had captured Cammaerts, who was the most important SOE agent in south eastern France, but decided to execute all three anyway, suspecting they were associated with the French resistance.

Infiltrating the area where the prisoners were held on August 17, Christine went about whistling the American song, Frankie and Johnny until she heard Cammaerts pick up the tune. His presence confirmed, she then brazenly approached the Gestapo commanders, identified herself as General Montgomery’s niece, and demanded the prisoners’ release - with a promise of a generous ransom. For three hours she argued and bargained and, having turned on the full force of her magnetic personality, said the Allies would be arriving at any moment and that she, a British parachutist, was in constant wireless contact with British forces. To make her point, she produced some broken and useless W/T crystals and said that 'If I were you' I should give careful thought to the proposition I have made to you. As I told Capitaine Schenck (*), if anything should happen to my husband or to his friends, the reprisals would be swift and terrible, for ‘I don't have to tell you that both you 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, Schenck introduced her to a Gestapo officer, Max Waem, a Belgian with authority to order the release of the SOE agents, who 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? Once she had their agreement, she got word to MI6, who parachuted the required 2 million Francs.

(*)         Captain Albert Schenck, an Alsatian who acted as liaison officer between the local French prefecture and the Gestapo.

When Cammaerts and the two other prisoners were ordered out of their cells, they were convinced they were going to their execution; instead, they were escorted to a waiting car where they saw a smiling Christine at the wheel - they could just as easily have been shot, and Christine with them.

She got into the automobile without a nod of recognition so they thought that she too was a prisoner. They drove to the bank of a river where Fielding helped Waem to bury his SS tunic; and it was only then that he realized that they were being released, not executed.

After Cammaerts and the other two were released, Schenck was advised to leave Digne. He didn‘t, and was subsequently murdered. His wife kept the bribe money, and after the war attempted to exchange it for new francs. She was arrested, but released after the authorities investigated her story. She was able to exchange the money, but for only a tiny portion of its value; Cammaerts and Christine helped her return to her home. She had also promised Waem that he would not be arrested by the British, and battled with SOE leaders with some success to protect him; he survived the war and returned to Belgium.

Cammmerts was based in the hamlet of Sain Julien en Vercors, on the remote Vercors Plateau. Christine arrived in the midst of a large operation supplying the local maquis with arms and supplies by parachute. She was out every night when the moon was bright, organizing a reception committee to collect the canisters dropped by Allied airplanes. On the morning of 14 July came a daylight drop of light arms and supplies from 72 American B-17s, the largest single-day airdrop to the maquis during World War II. Encouraged by a speech from the head of the provisional government, Charles de Gaulle, though discouraged by Cammaerts (who opposed large-scale guerrilla operations and pleaded unsuccessfully for artillery and anti-tank weapons), a full-scale rebellion against the German occupiers broke out. Sadly premature, the rebellion was quickly crushed by German troops; on 22 July and under fire, Cammaerts and Christine escaped from the plateau, setting up a new base at Seyne le Alpes.

After the flight from the Vercors, Christine embarked on a journey of three weeks through the Alps, mostly by foot, carrying a rucksack filled with food and hand grenades. She made contact with two prominent leaders of the French Resistance and greeted the arrival of an "Operation Toplink" team, which included her friends John Roper, Paddy O'Regan, and Harvard Gunn. Their job was to organize and supply both the French and Italian resistance along the border, and on 13 August, she subverted some of the Polish soldiers among the German units in the Alps.

With the maquis in France – IWM

After a two-day hike to the Col de Larche, a prominent mountain pass on the Franco Italian border, she approached a formidable fortress at the head of the pass, manned by 150 soldiers. Speaking in Polish and revealing her identity, she talked to the 63 Polish Volksdeutsche soldiers (see definition above) among the defenders. She told them to desert and to destroy the fortress when the order was given by resistance forces, and gave them specific instructions on how this was to be done. Six days later a small force of maquis and two Operation Toplink officers, John Roper and John Halsey, approached the garrison and the German commander surrendered the fortress and his mutinous soldiers. The Poles in the garrison joined the French resistance as Christine had told them to do.

Digne was liberated by the American army two days after Christine rescued Cammaerts, Fielding, and Sorensen. The maquis had cleared the way for the Americans and there was little opposition. Cammaerts and Christine met the American commander, Brigadier General Frederic B Butler, at Sisteron on 20 August, offering their help, but were dismissed as "bandits". No respecter of rank, Christine was furious and had to be calmed down by an aide to the general. Leaving the American army behind, the two proceeded to Gap, where the maquis had captured the German garrison. Several hundred Poles, conscripted soldiers in the German army, were among the captured Germans. Christine addressed the Poles with a megaphone, securing their agreement to join the Allied forces provide they shed their German uniform - the Poles stripped off their uniforms. General Butler arrived and disapproved of the proceedings, threatening Christine and Cammaerts with arrest and court martial if they did not leave. Later, they had a better reception from Butler's superior officer, General Alexander Patch, who appointed them as the liaison for the Americans with the maquis. The couple continued northward to Lyon and Paris, and in September Christine took a military flight to London.

When the SOE teams returned from France (or in some cases, were given 24 hours to depart by Gen de Gaulle) in autumn 1944, some of the British women sought new missions in the Pacific War, where the war with Japan continued, but Christine, as a Pole, was ideally placed to serve as a courier for missions to her homeland. 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. Andrzej and Christine were now fully reconciled with the Polish forces, and were preparing to be dropped into Poland in early 1945. However, the mission was cancelled, 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, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), officially part of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), though a very elite and autonomous part, or the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). In preparation for her service in France, Christine had been a member of the FANY. On her return, she transferred to the WAAF, as a flight officer, until the end of the war in Europe.

1945, in FANY uniform

For her exploits, Christine would be awarded the George Medal and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an award normally associated with officers of the equivalent military rank of lieutenant colonel and a level above the most usual award of Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) given to other female agents of SOE. Despite her problems with the Poles during the war, when Christine visited Polish military headquarters in her British WAAF uniform in 1945, she was treated by the Polish military chiefs with the highest respect. France would award her with the Croix de Guerre. When the war ended, however, she was unable to return to Poland. The love of risk and danger that fuelled her exploits during the war had little place in the post-war world, and British authorities found exiled Poles like Christine a bother.

Christines medal ribbons

Christine Granville after the war – note the parachute insignia


Clare didn’t talk about what happened to Christine after cessation of all SOE/MI6 activities, because time simply did not permit this; to fill this void, what follows next is my own short summary as gleaned on line; it is a sad read and not at all the ending that Christine fought for or deserved.

Although granted British citizenship, Christine drifted between jobs and relationships, including working aboard a cruise ship, and while working at sea, she struck up a relationship with a handsome but troubled steward, Dennis Muldowney (*). After a short while she quit her job and broke off the relationship with an increasingly obsessive Muldowney. Sadly, on June 15 1952, he confronted her at her rented London apartment (at the Sherbourne Hotel), and after a brief exchange of words fatally stabbed her. She was just 44, and died just as she and Andrzej Kowerski were making plans to finally meet again. Buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in London, the ceremony was attended by quite a few of the people who had so neglected her after the war; someone made the symbolic gesture of tossing a handful of Polish soil onto her coffin. When Andrzej died, from cancer in 1988, in Munich his ashes were flown to London and interred at the foot of her grave.

(*)         Muldowney didn’t appeal his death sentence and was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Harry Smith and Robert Leslie Stewart, at 8.00 a.m. on Tuesday 30th of September 1952.

Krystyna Skarbek-Granville Grave


As "Jacqueline Armand", code-name "Pauline", Christine was issued a rubber-lined crash-helmet, loaded revolver, razor-edged commando knife, torch, and a round, brown, rubber-coated cyanide tablet sewn into the hem of her skirt. She had French papers forged near Harlow by the cream of British and Polish professionals, and a money-belt stuffed with gold sovereigns. In some accounts she was given a square of silk printed with a local map, a compass hidden behind her hairclip, and a magnifying glass placed in the end of a cigarette - James Bond himself would be impressed! Oh, one other thing, she was also said to have been Churchill’s favourite spy, which says a lot in itself.

Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife with scabbard IWM. Krystyna always had this strapped to her thigh

Lastly, I should leave you with the words Clare Mulley said, after leading the six year campaign for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Christine, as reported in the Evening Standard at the time:

I am so thrilled, I proposed the plaque with English Heritage about six years ago and there were all sorts of other issues and hurdles. So yes, it is absolutely wonderful that Christine finally has this honour. Granville was Britain’s first female special agent and the nation’s longest-serving wartime special agent, male or female, and she was also one of the most effective; so impressive that Ian Fleming almost certainly took inspiration from her for his character Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.

I have to say that Christine is much more than a Bond girl, she’s more Bond, and she’s more than that because she is real. All too often, women in the resistance tend to get remembered for their beauty or their courage or their final sacrifice. We are less good at celebrating the achievements of the women. All too often women in the resistance are remembered for the beauty and courage, while their achievements are overlooked. Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, was one of the most effective special agents to serve Britain during the Second World War, male or female.”

Clare’s superb talk was incredibly detailed, unbelievably interesting and hugely enjoyed by everyone present - the time simply flew by.


Our next event will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on 7th December, when Anne Grimshaw will present a slide show entitled “The name on the bag”. It’s about how meticulous research, based on information found on a flight bag bought from eBay, led to the story of how a young USAAF airman came to be in Sudbury during the closing stages of WW2 in 1945. Who was he? What happened to him?

On January 18th we will be holding our free Annual Members Only event, when Susan Tibbetts will tell us how Sudbury Ephemera Archive received a donation of papers from the last survivor of a family named Mole. The extensive record provoked further interest and resulted in Susan tracing the family through more than three centuries. With ancestors from Bures, Sudbury, Chilton and Great Waldingfield, we will hear about brewers, vintners and postmen; an ordinary family, but following research, we will discover about life in our area at the time for the “man in the street”.


We very much look forward to welcoming guests to the Parish Room Little Waldingfield on both of these dates.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                           26th November 2022