It was the summer of 1944, and Skarbek was a highly-trained British special agent, recently parachuted into occupied France to help prepare for the arrival of Allied liberationary forces.
A Polish-born Countess with a Jewish-born mother, Skarbek (AKA Christine Granville) had found herself stranded in Southampton in September 1939. Unable to volunteer for her country, she made her way to the London headquarters of the British secret services and demanded to be taken on. Both Polish and female, she was doubly disqualified. London was desperate to make contact with the fledgling Polish resistance however, and to learn how the enemy was organising in the first occupied country in Europe. Skarbek spoke all the right languages, had impressive contacts, and knew some covert routes in and out of Poland – as a rather bored Countess skiing in the mountains, she had often smuggled cigarettes across the border, just for the thrill of it. She did not even smoke. Unable to turn down such an opportunity, she was quickly signed up, becoming the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent in the Second World War.
While on the run in Belgrade she also collected a microfilm that had the potential to change the course of the war.
By the time she was hiking into the Alps in the summer of ’44, Skarbek had already served in two different theatres of the war. First came four undercover trips into occupied Poland. Skiing across borders, sometimes in temperatures of minus forty degrees, she took in money and propaganda for use by the resistance, and brought back troop observations, radio codes and coding books. While on the run in Belgrade she also collected a microfilm that had the potential to change the course of the war. Filmed by the Polish resistance, it showed the massing of tanks and troops on the German side of the then German-Soviet border; early evidence of preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of their erstwhile ally. Skarbek smuggled the film to the British legation in Sofia, Bulgaria, from where it was sent straight to Churchill. At that moment, the British war-time PM reportedly later told his daughter, Krystyna Skarbek was his favourite spy.
After her work in Eastern Europe, and some years in serving Egypt and the Middle East, in July 1944 Krystyna was dropped into occupied southern France to serve as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) circuit courier.
Christine Granville (Countess Krystyna Skarbek) seated by a water duct near the blown-up bridge at Embrun, Hautes-Alpes, August 1944.
@Imperial War Museum
Having participated in the tragic Battle of Vercors about a week after arrival, she decided to continue her work in the mountains alone. Legend has it that at one point she scared away some over-inquisitive border guards by holding up her grenades, before disappearing back into the relative safety of the trees. Within a few days she had made the first contact between the French resistance on one side of the Alps and the Italian partisans on the other. Before returning to base, she also secured the defection of an entire German garrison on the strategic Col-de-Larche pass in the Alps. Arriving back at her safe-house, she learnt that her British circuit leader and two fellow-officers had been arrested at a roadblock and were scheduled for imminent execution. When her resistance colleagues sensibly refused to risk the men, arms and ammunition required to stage a rescue attempt, Skarbek simply cycled over to the prison where the men were being held and, using a series of threats and bribes, single-handedly managed to save the lives of all three men.
It was a privilege, and a great adventure, to research Krystyna Skarbek’s life, from the secrets surrounding her birth to the appalling tragedy of her premature death. The real story, of course, was all the self-determined action she took in between. All too often, female special agents and women in the resistance more generally, tend to be remembered for their beauty and their bravery rather than for their achievements. Skarbek was indeed beautiful; she was a runner up for Miss Poland 1930. Occasionally such looks could be an asset, but they were often also a liability, making a face more memorable.
Yet it is surprisingly little-mentioned that female agents could be brave, effective, and plain. The assets they needed were the same as those of the men alongside whom they trained and served: a deep commitment to the Allied cause, a sharp mind, physical fitness, languages, courage and determination. The advantage provided by their gender was that they were so often overlooked and underestimated.
Seventy-five women from thirteen different nations volunteered for active service behind enemy lines as SOE agents during the war, where they worked as couriers and wireless transmitters, undertook sabotage, ran escape lines, provided safe-houses and led armies. Most were British or French, but they also came from Poland, Russia, Belgium, The Netherlands, Ireland, the USA, Switzerland, India, Australia, Chile and even Germany.
Skarbek survived six years in the field
They were all ages. Some were married, some mothers, one was a grandmother, and there were two sets of siblings. One had a prosthetic leg. Most were effective, at least for while. Skarbek survived six years in the field, making her not only the first female special agent, but also the longest-serving, female or male.
The huge contribution of this diverse group of women came at a high price. Sixteen of the seventy-five would never return. Krystyna Skarbek was among those who made it back to Britain in 1945, but she would not live to see her homeland free again. She was murdered in south London in 1952. English Heritage has just approved a Blue Plaque for her last home address, and she is also remembered with a bronze bust at the Polish Hearth Club in South Kensington, just down the road. Her remarkable story not only continues to inspire individuals, but reminds us collectively about the contribution made by Poland and so many nations to the final Allied victory, and also helps to rebalance the view of the effectiveness, as well as the courage, of the female special agents.