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