(#Fembruary2021) SOE Sisters III: Krystyna Skarbek

Very brave, very attractive, but a loner and a law unto herself

Vera Atkins on Krystyna Skarbek

Krystyna Skarbek

  • Born: Warsaw, Poland, 1908.
  • SOE Rank: Captain.
  • AKA: ‘Christine Granville’, ‘Pauline Armand’, ‘Krystyna Gettlich’, ‘Krystyna Giżycka’.
  • Died: London, England, 1952.

The third of my SOE FEMbruary female figures is a Polish agent by the name of Krystyna Skarbek. Krystyna Skarbek was said to be Churchill’s favourite spy and to have inspired an Ian (James Bond) Fleming character. My first two SOE figures in this Fembruary challenge was Nancy Wake and Annie Norman.

Krystyna, a Polish Countess, arrived in Britain in 1939 from Poland where, after being initially overlooked, she was eventually accepted as an agent into the SOE. After being sent to occupied Poland, she soon organised a system of couriers between Poland and Hungary, skiing into her Nazi-occupied homeland across the Carpathian Mountains in winter. A report from this time described her as “absolutely fearless”. Though shot at, chased, captured and escaped she succeeded in creating an escape line across the mountains through which she aided the passage of several hundred Polish pilots who would later go on to play a decisive role in the Battle of Britain.

Krystyna Skarbek (Christine Granville) in FANY uniform by Anonymous, Scan of identity paper dated 11 mai 1945.

She was eventually arrested by the Gestapo in Budapest, but by faking tuberculosis (by biting her tongue to simulate coughing up blood) she escaped and was taken to Romania in the boot of a diplomatic car, later to serve in Cairo, Egypt. 

In 1944, she was dropped in France under the name Pauline Armand to be a courier for the Southern France resistance. She then made her way to the Italian border where groups of Poles reluctantly pressed into German service were garrisoned at frontier posts overlooking the winding Alpine passes. Her job was to persuade them to change sides and hand over their arms. In late 1944, she personally negotiated the release of three SOE officers with the Gestapo, even though there was a price on her head too. A clever mixture of bribery and threats of post-war retribution secured their release hours before their execution was due.

Skarbek, living in London, was in reduced circumstances after the war despite her wartime achievements. She had to scrape a living as a shop assistant, a hat-check girl in Harrods, a waitress and a toilet cleaner on passenger ships. Tragically, in 1952 she was stabbed to death at the hands of a jealous man whose attentions she had spurned. The murderer confessed and was hanged later that year.

The idea of the figure of Krystyna appearing in skiing gear is an appropriate choice by Bad Squiddo, given her exploits in the Carpathian mountains! Keeping things appropriately low key for someone avoiding attention and detection, I’ve given her a simple blue scarf and plain white pullover.

POSTSCRIPT: With great timing, Mark at Man of Tin blog found a BBC Radio programme about her life (first broadcast in 2016) being broadcast again tomorrow, 20th February 2021. The programme is part of the “Great Lives” series – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b078y4tv

The fabulous first Man of Tin submission for FEMbruary 2021 can be found here – https://manoftinblog.wordpress.com/2021/02/15/fembruary-2021-figure-1-rosie-the-riveter/

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