A schoolgirl wanted to know how saintly the school’s priest was. When this schoolgirl wanted to know something, she didn’t stop wanting to know until she found out. It transpired that the priest wasn’t up to the standards of the martyrs he aspired to: when she set fire to his cassock, he stopped the catechism to put himself out.
It was the sort of bold but not entirely direct approach that would characterise the life of the woman who christened Krystyna Skarbek who, after two marriages, numerous cover names and a change of nationality, ended her days as Christine Granville.
I first heard of her when General Graeme Lamb, former Director Special Forces of the British Army, named her as the ‘great life’ he wanted to explore on a half hour podcast. Lamb shared the program with host Matthew Parris and historian Clare Mulley, author of the biography of the woman she called Christine Granville, in deference to the only of her names she chose for herself.
The Spy Who Loved must have been a monumental task, as so many of the details of Granville’s life remain unclear. She spent her most interesting years navigating conflicting loyalties to organisations that were allied to each other but not exactly aligned. At the same time, many of her exploits were mythologised and exaggerated, often by people whose lives she saved. Frustrating and confusing as it must have been at times, Mulley’s writing left me in no doubt that it was a labour of love.
Schoolgirls who set fire to priests rarely grow into women who fit their society, whatever society it happens to be. As the daughter of a Polish aristocrat and a Jew, born into a Poland that didn’t exist as a sovereign state for the first decade of her life, Granville was destined to be a misfit from birth. When she found she preferred horse-racing and ski-ing to more traditionally feminine pursuits, she decided society would simply have to find a place for her.
She gave marriage a try and she was in South Africa with her second husband when the Wehrmacht marched into Poland. For millions of people across Europe, it was the beginning of a time of privation and death. For Granville, it was the adventure she had been waiting for.
A few weeks later, she was trekking back and forth across the border between Poland and Hungary as an agent of both British intelligence’s Section D and a Polish underground organisation calling themselves ‘The Musketeers. Section D had the rather muddled idea that she should carry propaganda into a country that was already resisting vigorously. More important was the intelligence she brought out, and the escape line through which she and her one-legged lover, Andrezj Kowerski, smuggled thousands of Polish soldiers across Hungary on their way to join the quarter million Polish servicemen under British command.
By the early months of 1941, much of the intelligence she was bringing out referred to the German buildup in preparation for invading the Soviet Union. At the same time, Hungary was cracking down on British and Polish activities. Granville left Budapest in the boot of a car to join Kowerski down the escape route where they had sent so many others before them.
On arrival in British-held Cairo, their welcome wasn’t as warm as they hoped for. The Musketeers had been caught up in squabbling among the fragmented Polish factions and British intelligence found parts of her story so improbable that they suspected her of being a double agent. The British came around when they confirmed the intelligence they brought, but none of the Polish networks wanted any more to do with her.
She spent some time immersed in the hotbed of spying around the cafés of souks of Cairo but it was only through her links with Section D, now under military command as the Special Operations Executive, that she found a task more suited to her thirst for adventure: a night-time parachute drop into occupied France from 500 feet into the teeth of a gale.
By that time, the allies had the upper hand on the Western front. One allied army was fighting in Northern France, another was advancing through Italy toward the French border and a third was expected to land in the south of France. Granville arrived as France was turning from a German logistics base into a battlefield, and the resistance was abandoning its low profile for full scale guerrilla warfare.
Granville arrived to find Francis Cammaerts, her commanding officer and soon her next lover, caught up in the sort of factional dispute that had plagued the Polish resistance. Worse, the groups involved were untrained, under-equipped, outnumbered and so over-confident that they were seeking a pitched battle. The Battle of Vercours was as bloody a debacle as Cammaerts and Granville predicted, though they escaped and continued operating in the Alps. Once again, Granville was slipping back and forth across a mountainous border.
Perhaps her finest hour came when she found out about a German garrison manned by Polish conscripts. None spoke French so they were isolated from the local population, but the Germans hadn’t reckoned with a Polish negotiator in the resistance. Granville persuaded the Poles to destroy their heavy weapons and desert, leaving a large gap in the German front. Many of the Poles joined the resistance, turning their weapons on the army that had drafted them.
A few days later, Cammaerts was arrested along with two other SOE agents. The Gestapo had no idea they had captured one of the most wanted men in Europe, but decided to execute all three on the off-chance that their cover story was a lie. Armed with nothing but money supplied by SOE, Granville tracked down the Belgian interrogator. Never one to underplay her hand, she opened by saying she was the niece of General Montgomery. She followed up with a detailed explanation of what the resistance would like to do to a Gestapo collaborator. By the time she finished, the interrogator was more than happy to sneak the three men out of their cell in exchange for the money.
When the Wehrmacht withdrew to the German border, she joined the rest of SOE to celebrate liberation in Paris. She didn’t stay for long. While Cammaerts and the rest of SOE were celebrating the end of their missions, Granville returned to London to beg for a new mission to her beloved Poland. She ended up at an Italian airfield, waiting for a green light that never came. The Soviet army had over-run Poland and to her dismay, the British government agreed to Stalin’s demand for a de facto Soviet occupation of Poland.
Like so many veterans of the Free Polish forces, Granville ended up in a country racked by postwar austerity and resented by people who saw them as competition for the few jobs available. Granville still preferred freedom to comfort, and worked a succession of menial jobs rather than accept a marriage proposal from the solidly employed Kowerski. She ended up cleaning toilets and changing bedsheets on a cruise liner, which at least allowed her to sate her urge to travel. Unfortunately, a policy of having staff wear medal ribbons on their uniforms left her ostracised. The rest of the crew believed a woman who wore the George Medal, Order of the British Empire, Croix-de-Guerre and a row of campaign medals must be a fraud.
Isolation drove her into the arms of, Dennis Muldowney, a mentally unstable steward. Granville’s pattern had always been to move from lover to lover as her circumstances changed, and some found being left behind easier to accept than others. Muldowney was unable to accept it at all. He stalked her after they returned to London, and ultimately cornered her and stabbed her to death.
There is a bitter irony to her being murdered by a man so much less formidable than many she had faced.
In Budapest, Granville had been housebound with flu when she and Kowerski were arrested and spent the night being beaten by the police. Granville bit her tongue and, combined with her obviously being ill, the blood she coughed up persuaded the police she had tuberculosis. The police threw her out and, believing he would also be infected, they threw Kowerski out with her. On another occasion, she was stopped at a checkpoint manned by Italian conscripts. Before they could search her, she pulled out a pair of hand grenades, held them over her head and dared them to shoot her.
Faced with an obvious threat, she showed the courage and resource that led a special forces expert like Lamb select her, of all the possible candidates, as his great life. Faced with Muldowney, she saw a nuisance rather than a threat and dropped her guard for one fatal moment.