Monday, 5 April 2021

Looking Out for Gothas

Gotha bomber (author's collection)

Perhaps less well-known than the Zeppelin raids on London during the First World War were the raids carried out by conventional aircraft, most notably by Gothas, large twin engine bombers that could carry a sizeable (for the time) bomb load of fourteen 25 kg bombs. The aircraft's range was also impressive for the time; at 840 kilometres, this meant the Gotha could easily reach London and return to their bases located around Ghent in German-occupied Belgium.

The threat posed by Zeppelin raids on London appeared to have been largely defeated, for the time being at least by the late autumn of 1916 and although raids continued sporadically until October 1917 and the threat of enemy air attack was still clear, the British took a remarkable decision to reduce London's anti-aircraft defences in order to redeploy the available manpower to the Western Front. Anti-aircraft gun defences were reduced in number and two fighter squadrons were redeployed to France. Furthermore and even more remarkably, anti-aircraft guns were ordered not to open fire - even if aircraft were confirmed as hostile - except for specified guns at coastal locations.

It was against this background of reduced British defences that the first Gotha raid on London was planned by the Luftstreitkrafte (Imperial German Air Service) for the 25 May 1917. Twenty three Gothas set off, led by Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg but thick cloud cover saved the capital on this occasion and the formation was forced to turn back for home, although some secondary targets in Kent were bombed instead. Folkestone and an Army camp at Shorncliffe were the main recipients of the bombs originally planned for London and some 95 people were killed, with a further 195 seriously injured.

Given the reductions in the anti-aircraft defences and the apparent complacency that the German aerial threat had been defeated,the British response to this first raid was predictably confused and ineffective. Only some of the specified coastal anti-aircraft guns had opened fire and although some seventy fighter aircraft had taken to the air, only one got close enough to engage the enemy - without success. Royal Navy aircraft based in the Dunkirk region did manage to intercept the raiders as they returned home and claimed one Gotha shot down into the sea, whilst another crashed on landing near to Bruges, with the loss of the crew.

The British public were outraged by this muddled response and makeshift arrangements were put in place to ensure that training squadrons and experimental units made aircraft available and anti-aircraft observers were placed on lightships in the Thames Estuary to give a measure of early warning. Discussions about introducing an air raid warning system took place but at this stage were inconclusive. During the Zeppelin raids, no warning system had been in place in London and during this period, humorous postcards had circulated, with place names altered to suit the localities concerned that showed members of the public on the look out for the raiders.

Looking for Zeppelins at WOOLWICH (Royal Arsenal History Group)

Updated versions of these now appeared, with the word "Zeppelin" substituted by "Gotha" but with the same message.

Looking for Gothas at PLUMSTEAD (Deborah O'Boyle)

A second raid was attempted on 5 June but was once again thwarted by the weather. The British response was largely similar to the first raid; fighters despatched to intercept struggled to reach the raiders in time, although the anti-aircraft guns around Shoeburyness and Sheerness did manage to bring down one Gotha, which crashed into the Thames Estuary, with the loss of all but one of the crew.

It was inevitable that a Gotha raid would succeed in reaching London sooner or later and on 13 June 1917, it was to happen. Twenty aircraft originally departed from the airfields around Ghent but two were to turn back with engine problems. The remainder continued, with one aircraft peeling off to bomb Margate, on which it dropped five bombs before returning to base, whilst a further two diverted to Shoeburyness where they dropped six bombs, before they too headed home. Yet another aircraft followed the Thames towards Greenwich on a photo reconnaissance mission, whilst the remaining fourteen continued towards London. 

Although the anti-aircraft batteries had by now been given permission to fire, locating the targets in the hazy morning skies proved difficult and shortly after 11:30, the first bomb fell harmlessly on an allotment in Barking. Further bombs fell in East Ham, with one in Alexandra Road damaging 42 properties and more importantly, killing four people and injuring a further eleven. Another bomb fell by the Royal Albert Dock, where eight dock workers were killed.

PC Alfred Smith remembered at Postman's Park (author's photo)

Bombs fell on Liverpool Street Station, where sixteen were killed and a further fifteen injured. Not far from here, in Central Street, PC Alfred Smith was able to save the lives of several female factory workers by preventing them from rushing into the street to witness the commotion. Sadly, at the moment he was urging the women to remain inside, a bomb exploded in the street and killed him instantly. PC Smith is today remembered on the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice at Postman's Park, in the City of London, as well as on a commemorative plaque in Central Street at the site of the original incident.

PC Alfred Smith plaque in Central Street (author's photo)

As the aircraft turned for home, those with bombs still onboard unloaded them over the East End and it was at this time that the most tragic incident from this raid occurred; a 50kg bomb fell on Upper North Street School in Poplar, killing eighteen children, most of whom were under six years of age.

Again, the British response had been ineffective; 94 aircraft had been launched to intercept the raiders, of which just eleven made contact, all without success. The anti-aircraft guns had opened fire but again without hitting anything. All of the Gothas returned safely to their bases, leaving behind them 162 dead and a further 426 seriously injured - the highest casualty total of any raid during this war.

The British public were once again outraged at the lack of response and there was also a clamour for reprisal raids on German cities. Major General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front, agreed to detach two front line squadrons to home defence but attempts by Lt. Colonel Simon, in command of London's anti-aircraft defences, to bolster his batteries by an additional 45 guns were rejected because neither the guns or the men to provide the crews were available!

The second daylight raid on London came on Saturday 7 July 1917 and consisted of 22 Gothas, commanded by Hauptmann Rudolph Kleine. Observers on board the Kentish Knock Light Vessel were able to transmit a warning, which enable fighter aircraft to be airborne in time to intercept the raiders but none were able to cause any serious problems to them. On the ground, observers likened the large enemy formation to a flock of birds, moving slowly across the skies.

The anti-aircraft guns opened fire at 10:21 but despite what appeared at least to onlookers on the ground as an impressive barrage, the Gothas emerged unscathed, although their previous tight formation was opened up as the bombers began to evade the gunfire. The first bomb fell on Chingford, without causing casualties, as was also the case in Edmonton and Tottenham. The first human casualties occurred in Stoke Newington, where ten people were killed, including a 12-year-old boy and ironically, a naturalised German baker and his wife, who died whilst working in their shop. More bombs fell on the City of London, most notably on the roof of the Central Telegraph Office in St Martin-le-Grand and also around Leadenhall Street, Fenchurch Street and Billingsgate Fish Market.

St Edmund King & Martyr (author's photo)

Evidence of this raid can still be seen in the Square Mile at the church of St Edmund, King & Martyr, which in its present incarnation dates from 1670-79 to the design of Sir Christopher Wren. The church today contains a peculiar square window in the roof which is out of square to the remainder of the building. This marks the entry point of a bomb from the raid of 7 July, which fell through the roof but which failed to explode fully. Fragments of the bomb are on display beneath the altar in what is probably the only place in London where remnants of a bomb can still be found in the building on which the bomb was originally dropped.

Entry point of the bomb, now an unusual window (author's photo)

Fragments of the bomb beneath the altar (author's photo)

Another bomb exploded at Tower Hill outside an office building, inside which some eighty people were sheltering. The blast from the bomb killed eight and injured fifteen of those inside as well as injuring three horses outside in the road. In what must have been horrific scenes, a fireman used his axe to put the horses out of their misery. The final bombs fell at 10:40 in Whitechapel and when the dust had settled, another 54 Londoners had died as well as another 190 injured. The raiders didn't have things all their own way on their way back to base though; one Gotha was brought down in the North Sea by an aircraft from 50 Squadron piloted by Lieut FAD Grace, whilst another was forced down on to the beach at Ostend. Three others were wrecked on their airfields due to a combination of battle damage from British fighter aircraft, lack of fuel and strong winds.

Reaction amongst the British public to the raid was strong, especially when it became apparent that the two squadrons that had been temporarily detached by Trenchard had in fact returned to the Western Front hours before the raid commenced and further frustration was expressed at the continued lack of effectiveness of the anti-aircraft guns, shells from which had fallen on the city, adding to the list of civilian casualties.

A committee was therefore formed to consider revised Home Defence arrangements under the chairmanship of Lieut. General Jan Christian Smuts, who effectively dominated the entire committee. Having interviewed all of the senior figures involved, he produced a report after only eight days which recommended that a single officer be placed in command of all facets of air defence for the London area, bringing the RFC, anti-aircraft guns and observers under a unified command. The question of providing an air raid warning was finally addressed, when it was decided that maroons would be fired to warn of incoming daylight raids, together with police alerts which would be provided at all times. The man chosen to command the new London Air Defence Area (LADA) was Major General Edward Ashmore, a former senior officer in the RFC.

Fortunately for Ashmore, the English weather provided an opportunity for him to reorganise London's defences; the remainder of July into August saw rain and high winds, which effectively ensured that enemy raiders could not reach the capital. A raid attempted against Chatham on 12 August ended with one Gotha shot down into the sea, another forced down near Zeebrugge and a further four wrecked in landing accidents. A further attempted raid on 18 August against coastal towns in southeast England resulted in nine aircraft being lost to a combination of Dutch anti-aircraft fire (when high winds drove them over that neutral country), shortage of fuel and crash landings. A further similar raid on 22 August by the remaining fifteen Gothas saw three of them shot down by the British coastal anti-aircraft guns, with the remainder driven back by a determined defence by Royal Naval aircraft.

As a result of these failures, it was decided to switch to night bombing and an attack on Margate, Sheerness and Chatham on the night of 3/4 September yielded spectacular results for the Gothas. Two bombs fell on a drill hill at the Chatham Royal Naval Barracks, killing 138 ratings. Eleven Gothas returned to London the following night and evidence of this raid can still be seen to this day. At around midnight, a 50 kg bomb exploded in the roadway at Victoria Embankment by Cleopatra's Needle, just as a late night tram was passing. The blast killed the tram driver, Alfred Buckle and two passengers, whilst throwing the conductor Joseph Carr from one end of the tramcar to the other.


Cleopatra's Needle showered with splinter damage and an explanatory plaque on the plinth (author's photos)

Again though, the Gothas hadn't had things their own way; of the eleven originally despatched, two had already returned with engine trouble, whilst another was shot down by an anti-aircraft gun near Rochester and crashed into the Thames Estuary. Of the eight survivors, it was thought that only five actually reached London to drop their bombs. Apart from the Victoria Embankment, other bombs fell in West Ham and Stratford, Greenwich and Woolwich as well as the Strand and near Oxford Circus.

The next raid came on the night of the 24 September when sixteen Gothas set out for London. As usual, the inevitable engine problems saw three of the bombers turn back but the remaining thirteen crossed the English coast between Orfordness and Dover. Some thirty RFC aircraft were sent up to intercept and although they did not succeed in bringing any raiders down, perhaps they acted as something of a deterrent as only three of the Gothas actually reached London, with the remainder dropping their bombs in Dover and other coastal targets in Kent and Essex. One Gotha dropped its bombs in Poplar, before crossing the Thames to drop four more on Deptford and Rotherhithe before heading for home. Onlookers on the ground were impressed by the intensity of the new anti-aircraft gun barrage and it was probably this that caused the raider to drop its bombs early. Of the two that reached Central London, we can again see evidence of their presence today.

Plaque outside the Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row (author's photo)

A bomb that fell by the Bedford Hotel in Southampton Row killed thirteen and injured a further 22. In total fourteen Londoners lost their lives in this raid and 49 were injured. One of the Gothas that reached London crashed on landing in Belgium and combined with those that had been driven back earlier, it was looking as if the improved defences were beginning to make a difference.

Fifteen Gothas returned the following night, 25 September and this time there was only one drop out due to technical issues. Most settled for targets along the coast, such as Folkestone and Margate, with only three reaching south east London. Bombs fell on Blackheath, Charlton, Deptford, New Cross and the Old Kent Road. Four people were killed and a further fifteen injured but once again, the improved defences had appeared to make the difference.

The raids would continue for the remainder of 1917 but from 29 December, a new type of aircraft - the RV1 "Giant" would enter the fray and we shall take a look at these next time.


Published Sources:

The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War - Ian Castle, Osprey, 2015
The Lost Treasures of London - William Kent, Phoenix, 1947

Unpublished Sources:

London Fire Brigade Reports 1915 - 1918













Saturday, 27 February 2021

The Last Rocket: The Tragedy of Hughes Mansions

One block of Hughes Mansions as built in 1929 (Evening News)

As we head into March and a new spring, perhaps we should cast our minds back to the early spring of 1945; Germany was in its death throes, assailed on all side by the Russians in the east and by the British, Americans and Canadians in the west. In Berlin, Hitler was already in the bunker where he would soon meet his end but lived in a fantasy world where he still spoke of some miraculous final victory.

In the capital of arguably the biggest thorn in Hitler's side, war-weary Londoners were still under fire from the most technically advanced of his so-called Vergeltungswaffen or  "Vengeance Weapons" which still fell upon their familiar streets, as well as on eastern England and across the North Sea in Antwerp with disheartening regularity.

The other day, I paid a visit to the site of where the very last of these missiles to hit central London impacted, on a now quiet estate in Whitechapel, in the inner eastern suburbs. 

The surviving original block of Hughes Mansions on Vallance Road (author's photo)

Hughes Mansions, on Vallance Road consisted at that time of three roughly similar apartment blocks which contained 93 flats spread over the three buildings. They had been completed in 1929 and were regarded as a welcome improvement on the old "back to back" slums that had once stood here. The blocks were named after Mary Hughes JP, a Quaker philanthropist and erstwhile member of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney's Housing Committee.

Born in Mayfair in 1860, Mary, or "May" as she was often known, was the daughter of Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays. She had left home in 1883 to become her uncle John Hughes's housekeeper in Newbury, where he was a vicar and had soon become involved on the Board of Guardians at the local workhouse, where she soon caused a stir by insisting on better conditions for the paupers who lived there. Upon her uncle's death in 1895, she moved to Whitechapel to live with her sister, who was married to the Rev. Ernest Carter and whilst there, continued her work as a Poor Law Guardian, as well as becoming a volunteer visitor to the local hospital and children's home. She had joined the Quakers in 1918 and in 1926, purchased a former pub in Vallance Road, which she renamed the Dewdrop Inn (a play on the words "Do Drop In"), which she turned into a community centre and refuge for the homeless.

Blue Plaque to Mary Hughes in Vallance Road (author's photo)

Mary was an indomitable character, who had once been run over by a tram. Before being taken to hospital, she had insisted on writing a note stating that the tram driver was not to be blamed for the accident and when she was in hospital and told that she was recovering faster than expected, she apparently sat up and shouted "Three cheers for vegetarianism and teetotalism!" 

She had died, aged 81 in 1941 but today is commemorated by a blue plaque on the former Dewdrop Inn building in Vallance Road, which stands opposite the blocks that bear her name. Mary would doubtless have been appalled at the terrible fate which would befall Hughes Mansions just four years after her passing.

Hughes Mansions on the bomb damage map, showing the two blocks marked in purple at the top, centre (author's photo)

On Tuesday 27 March 1945 at 07:12 GMT in the Haagse Bos area of Den Haag in The Netherlands, Battery 3/485 fired a V-2 rocket in the direction of London and just nine minutes later, reports came in to the Stepney Borough Civil Defence Control of a major incident at Hughes Mansions. The missile had scored a direct hit, on the very centre of the three blocks, making a crater some 30 feet by 10 feet and totally destroying the centre block in the process. The block immediately to the east was almost completely destroyed, whilst the rear of the western block, which faces on to Vallance Road was severely damaged. 

The impact crater and aftermath of the V-2 (UK National Archives)

Some victims were never found, vaporised by the blast whilst many others were trapped where the blocks had collapsed. Rescue work continued apace, with sixteen heavy rescue teams and five cranes on the scene, as well as eleven light rescue squads and over seventy National Fire Service personnel assisting in the work. The last survivor was extricated at around 22:00 that night, after which the squads concentrated on the grim task of recovering the victims. Many of the rescuers were veterans of the Blitz but found this particular job, especially at this eleventh hour of the war, the hardest they had ever encountered.

The Hughes Mansions site after clearance (Evening News)

Hughes Mansions, in common with much of the East End of London at this time, was home to a considerable Jewish population and so no doubt Hitler with his twisted mind, would have been extremely pleased had he known that what proved to be his penultimate missile fired at London had taken 120 Jewish victims out of the total of 134 people who perished in their own homes that morning.

Hughes Mansions was rebuilt after the war and ironically, some of those who survived the V-2 incident were rehoused here. Today, the demographic of the area has totally changed and the residents here are overwhelmingly from London's Asian community.

The replacement block at Hughes Mansions (author's photo)

There is a very modest memorial to those who died here in the garden area of the rebuilt portion of the estate; so modest in fact, many of the local residents appear to be unaware of what happened here. Whilst I was taking my photographs, I was challenged by a resident and asked what I was doing - when I pointed out the memorial, showed him some of the archive photos and told him what had happened here almost 76 years ago, he was visibly shocked and thanked me for informing him. Perhaps this will lead to the memorial being better cared for, or perhaps supplemented by something more fitting.

The memorial plaque at Hughes Mansions (author's photo)

At 16:48 the same Tuesday, one further rocket was fired which impacted a few minutes later at Kynaston Road in Orpington in suburban Kent, killing 34-year-old Ivy Millichamp in her own kitchen and seriously injuring twenty three other people. These proved to be the final civilian casualties in Great Britain of the war, some six weeks before the end of the war in Europe.


Published Sources:

Hitler Passed This Way: 170 pictures from the Evening News - Evening News, 1945
Hitler's Rockets - Norman Longmate, Front Line Books, 2009

Unpublished Sources:

HO 182/808, Ministry of Home Security, Air Raid Damage Region No. 5 London (Stepney) - UK National Archives, Kew



Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The tragedy of Krystyna Skarbek and the George Smiley connection

Christine Granville, aka Krystyna Skarbek blue plaque in Lexham Gardens (author's photo)

As all our readers will know, 2020 was a year that for most of us was like no other. Although I personally haven't lost any family or friends to COVID-19, the pandemic has had an impact upon us all to a greater or lesser degree. Apart from some groups at the start of the year before the restrictions reached the UK, my work this past year has been limited to online lectures and "virtual" walks plus a handful of small groups that I was able to guide during that brief window in the late summer and autumn when it looked as if we might be returning to some sort of normality. Alas, that was not to be and we now find ourselves back in lockdown and not able to venture outside for exercise unless it is strictly in our local area.

Before the latest restrictions kicked in, I have been able to take some very long walks exploring a potential new walk for later this year, which will be revealed in due course and also researching for a couple of other new projects which will also hopefully come to fruition later in the year. 

On my travels, I have also been busily taking photographs of anything vaguely related to London's wartime history and one such image that I captured was of a recently unveiled English Heritage blue plaque at 1 Lexham Gardens, which lays just off the busy Cromwell Road, to Christine Granville, born Krystyna Skarbek, an SOE agent whom Winston Churchill once described as his "favourite spy".

Krystyna Skarbek at about the time of her second recruitment into SOE (unknown photographer)

The world of SOE agents is a little outside my usual comfort zone but I wanted to find out more about this remarkable lady and what proved to be a tragic ending to her life in 1950s London.

Krystyna Skarbek was born on 1 May 1908 near to Warsaw, Poland to Count Jerzy Skarbek and his Jewish wife Stefania (nee Goldfeder), who came from a wealthy banking family. She had received a considerable dowry from her family and this went some way to ensuring Count Jerzy could continue to live in the style to which he was accustomed. Krystyna was a beautiful, graceful woman with brown eyes and dark hair and whose personality echoed that of her father, to whom she was very close. She became an accomplished horsewoman, as well as an expert skier and was something of a tomboy.

The depression of the late 1920s left the family's finances in ruins, with them having to sell the country estate and move to Warsaw. Her mother's family finances had similarly collapsed and when Count Jerzy died in 1930, the 22 year old Krystyna decided that she should strike out on her own so as not to be a financial burden on her now widowed mother. She took a job working at a car dealership in Warsaw but became unwell as a result of the exhaust fumes in the showroom and workshops. A chest x-ray taken at a medical examination revealed a shadow on her lung, which was initially diagnosed as tuberculosis, the disease which had killed her father. This turned out to be a misdiagnosis but before this became known, she received financial compensation from her former employer's insurance company and was advised by her doctor to lead an outdoor life, as much as possible.

Krystyna had married a young businessman Gustaw Gettlich in 1930 but they had proved incompatible and soon divorced, without any ill-feeling but it was the instruction to lead an outdoor life which led Krystyna to meet her second husband, Jerzy Giżycki.  One day, whilst skiing at Zakopane, Krystyna had lost control on the slopes but her descent had been stopped by Giżycki, a massive man who stepped into her path, thus probably saving her from a serious injury. 

They married in November 1938 in Warsaw and shortly afterwards, the couple departed for Ethiopia, where Giżycki had been appointed as Polish Consul-General. Following the German invasion of Poland, the couple managed to reach London, where they arrived in October 1939. She offered her services to the British SIS and although she was initially rejected, the British were convinced after one of her acquaintances, the journalist Frederick Voight, spoke up for her. Her personnel file in December 1939 mentions her as being "absolutely fearless" and "a flaming Polish patriot, expert skier and great adventuress."

She was taken on by Section D of the SIS (a precursor to the Special Operations Executive or SOE) and after training, was sent on her first mission, which was to Hungary, at that stage still a non-combatant nation but one with distinct sympathies towards Nazi Germany. As an accomplished skier, she persuaded Polish Olympic skier Jan Marusarz to escort her across the Tatra Mountains into occupied Poland and once back in Warsaw, worked with a former Polish Army officer, Andrzej Kowerski to exfiltrate Polish and Allied military personnel to Hungary. At the request of the SIS, they also organised surveillance of rail, road and river traffic on the borders with Romania and Germany, including intelligence on oil transport from the Romanian Ploiesti oilfields.

She spent 1940 travelling between Poland and Hungary, managing to remain undetected whilst doing so but in January 1941, she and Kowerski were arrested by the Hungarian Police and questioned by the Gestapo. Thinking quickly during the interrogation, she bit her tongue until it bled and a follow-up x-ray revealed the same scars on her lungs that had gained her compensation from her employers in pre-war Warsaw. A Hungarian doctor incorrectly diagnosed her with terminal tuberculosis and the couple were quickly released. They fled Hungary with help from the British Ambassador in Budapest, who issued them with British passports. Kowerski became “Andrew Kennedy” whilst Krystyna became “Christina Granville”, the name she would use for the remainder of her life.

After being smuggled out of Hungary into Yugoslavia in the boot of the Ambassador’s car, Skarbek/Granville reached Belgrade, whilst Kowerski/Kennedy made the same journey in his Opel car. Reunited, the pair then travelled together in the Opel to Sofia in Bulgaria, where they called at the British Legation, which they reached in February 1941. They passed rolls of microfilm which had been passed to them by a Polish intelligence organisation known as The Musketeers. The microfilm contained photographs of a massive German military build-up close to the borders with the Soviet Union, which indicated an impending invasion. When this information reached Churchill, he was initially dubious but the intelligence was later corroborated by other sources and of course, their intelligence was proved correct beyond all doubt when the Soviet Union was duly invaded in June 1941.

Despite this, when the couple eventually reached Cairo, via Istanbul, Syria and Lebanon in May 1941 having driven all the way in the trusty Opel, doubts were cast upon the couple’s loyalty. This was partially because Kowerski/Kennedy had not reported for duty with the Polish armed forces as he had been allegedly ordered but was also because of the seeming ease with which Skarbek/Granville had managed to obtain the required travel documents from Vichy French officials in order to transit Syria and Lebanon. As a result of this, the couple were formally dismissed from SOE in June 1941, although kept on a miniscule retainer. It was around this time that Skarbek informed her husband that she was in love with Kowerski, although they were not formally divorced until 1946.

Kowerski/Kennedy was quickly able to clear his name and resume intelligence work but for the remainder of 1941 and throughout 1942 and 1943, Skarbek/Granville was given only menial intelligence gathering tasks in Egypt and Syria. She was eventually recruited into the FANY to be reinstated with SOE and parachuted into France in July 1944. There, she worked with the “Jockey” network and operated with great daring and courage in southern France until she returned to London in September 1944. On her return, she transferred to the WAAF as a Flight Officer, where she served until the end of the European War, being demobbed in Cairo on 14 May 1945.

Christina was awarded the OBE and the George Medal for her services, as well as a Croix de Guerre in recognition of her services towards the liberation of France.

After the war, it must be said that Christina was poorly treated by her adopted country, whom she had served so fearlessly. Upon demob in Cairo, she was given a month's money and basically left to fend for herself, although she was able to apply for the protection of a British passport, confirming the arrangements which had been made in Hungary. This was essential, for following the betrayal of the Poles by the British and Americans at Yalta, Christina was unable to return to her now communist controlled homeland and without the protection of a British passport, would have essentially been stateless. 

George Smiley arrives in Lexham Gardens (author's screengrab)

Is this the same location? The railings have changed and the wall has been stuccoed but the pillars look right (author's photo)

A trip to Kenya to seek employment soon ended as the colonial government there refused to grant her a work permit and so she returned to England, where she had a succession of jobs as a telephonist, a waitress and a sales girl before finally gaining employment as a cabin steward in the Merchant Navy. She initially worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company on board their ship Ruahine and as such,  was required to wear her medal ribbons on her company uniform. Granville’s impressive array made her an immediate favourite with the passengers but sadly, a target of envy as well as sexist and racist abuse from some of her crewmates, who accused her of lying about her medal entitlement. At this time a male steward, Dennis Muldowney came to her defence and the two became lovers.

Extract from Daily Express report of Muldowney's trial (screengrab from British Newspaper Archive)

It was a doomed relationship, however and Christina soon broke off with him as she found him “Obstinate and terrifying”. In May 1952, she changed jobs and joined the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company which operated services to destinations in Africa. On 14 June 1952, after competing a voyage on board the Winchester Castle, Christina checked into the Shelbourne Hotel in Lexham Gardens, which was Polish-owned and offered cheaper accommodation for those in London's sizeable Polish community.

However, the following day, she was brutally attacked in the hotel and stabbed to death by Dennis Muldowney, the man who had become obsessed with her on the Ruahine and who was now working as a porter at the Reform Club. After being convicted of her murder, Muldowney was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 30 September 1952. It was a tragic end to the life of an incredibly brave woman.

Christina is buried at St Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery at Kensal Green with Andrzej Kowerski, her partner, briefly in life and in wartime SOE service.

Krystyna Skarbek's grave at Kensal Green (Dobry77 via wikimedia)

There is an interesting aside to this story, as some years later Lexham Gardens features in John Le Carre's classic 1974 spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In the novel and the subsequent BBC adaptation starring Sir Alec Guinness, the central character George Smiley arranges a meeting at a safe house with Toby Esterhase (played in the TV version by Bernard Hepton), who at the time is one of those suspected of being the "mole" giving away secrets to the Russians. The location of the safe house is in Lexham Gardens, which features clearly in the location shoot.

Under his real name David Cornwell, John Le Carre had served with SIS in the 1950s and early 1960s and so must have known the connection between Lexham Gardens and the former employment of Christine Granville. I did try and match the exact location where George Smiley heads for his rendezvous but the passing of over forty years since the series was shot has meant that many of the buildings have seen subtle changes, as have most of the street signs in the area.


Printed Sources:


The Heroines of SOE: Britain's Secret Women in France - Squadron Leader Beryl Escott, The History Press - 2010

They Fought Alone - Maurice Buckmaster, Odhams 1958