Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was born into a wealthy Polish Jewish family in Warsaw. The economic collapse of the 1920s and 1930s saw the family fortunes decline and Krystyna, not wishing to be a financial burden, took a job with a local Fiat dealership. There she met her first husband but before she was 21 years old, Krystyna was on her second marriage and, with her new husband, sailed to Britain in 1939.
Krystyna joined the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and went back to Poland, crossing the snow-clad Tara Mountains from Hungary, in the first of her many hair-raising adventures. Krystana helped organize a system of couriers to take information from Warsaw to Budapest. She was captured, along with a Polish Army officer, Andrzej Kowerski, by the Gestapo in January 1941, but managed to secure their release by feigning symptoms of TB by biting her tongue until it bled and then coughing up the blood.
The couple escaped to Cairo and went to the SOE headquarters which had taken over the SIS activities in the region. She returned to the UK but was not employed by SOE until the summer of 1944, when the Allied invasion of France was underway. By this time she had already declared her love for Kowerski, her rejected second husband having emigrated to Canada. Krystyna had also changed her name to Christine Granville.
As a trained SOE wireless operator and fluent in French, Christine was parachuted into Vassieux in southern France in the early hours of 7 July 1944. She joined Francis Cammaerts’ JOCKEY circuit which shortly took to the Vercors plateau to join the marquis. Here, amid the vast expanse of forests, gorges and caves, the marquis openly defied the Germans for many weeks. When the Germans eventually overran the area, Christine managed to escape from the massacre that followed.
Clare Mulley’s detailed biography describes all of Christine’s daring exploits, and in particular, the event for which she was justifiably awarded the George Medal. On 13 August Francis Cammaerts, his assistant Xan Fielding and a French officer were arrested by the Germans. Though the Allied invasion of southern France was imminent the marquis were reluctant to try and spring the three captives. Christine was made of sterner stuff.
She strode straight into the Gestapo offices at the prison where the men were being held and told a member of the French gendarmerie, an Albert Schenck, that she was the niece of Field Marshal Montgomery. She said that she, therefore, knew the Allied landings in the south were imminent and that Schenck, a collaborator, was to be “handed over to the mob” when the prison was liberated.
It was, as Christine later admitted, a “shot in the dark”, but under the promise made by her that Schenck would be safeguarded if he helped her, a meeting was arranged with another man who would be able to secure the release of the prisoners. By this time the Allied landings actually had begun, which clearly gave the impression that Christine really was well-informed and highly influential.
The three men had been sentenced to be shot and, on the designated day, they were marched out of the prison gates. But instead of being taken towards the football ground where the executions took place, they were bundled into a car. They were whisked away to an isolated farm where a solitary figure stood waiting for them – Christine Granville.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.