Award-winning author Clare Mulley tells the extraordinary story of Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville) - the first, and the longest serving, female special agent working for Britain in the Second World War.
Well, it's wonderful to have such a large and, hopefully, enthusiastic audience at the National Army Museum. And it's wonderful for me to talk today. Yesterday would have been my subject, Krystyna's, birthday. She would have been 105, but I don't think she would have admitted to it. So, it's nice to have an event to mark that, really, as well.
I am here to tell you the remarkable story of this amazing war heroine, Krystyna Skarbek, better known, in this country at least, as Christine Granville. And the book is called 'The Spy Who Loved' because Christine was a very passionate woman. She loved life in its wider sense. She loved adventure and adrenaline, and she loved men - she had two husbands and numerous lovers - and most of all she loved freedom and independence: freedom for her country, Poland, and also freedom for herself. And those things were very intertwined for her.
She was born a very well connected Polish countess. And she was a beauty queen before the war, and she was brought up used to adoration and a sense of personal freedom. But because her mother was born Jewish she was never really fully accepted in the higher echelons of Polish society and I think she also grew up used to fighting her corner as well. Actually, these were all skills that became very useful for her in her later life and career.
I think Christine really always yearned to be centre stage even when she was a child, which was rather denied her. And, actually, I mentioned that to my mother and my mum said, 'Centre stage - isn't that appropriate, darling!' and I said, 'Yes mum, it is. Why is that, mum?' And she said, 'It's an anagram darling: secret agent, centre stage.' And I said, 'Oh, so it is!' So that's for you crossword lovers. And, of course, it was the Second World War that finally gave her what she wanted and put her centre stage when she became Britain's first female special agent of the Second World War.
Now, in 45 minutes it's impossible for me to cover all of Christine's adventures and active service, and it's all, of course, in the book. But I want to explain a few things. I want to say why Christine was so important. I want to show some of her courage and her audacity in the three different theatres of the war in which she volunteered and served. And I'm going to mention a little bit about some of my own adventures - much more modest ones - during my research for the book as well.
So, perhaps it is appropriate for a secret agent that the stories, the deceptions, the confusions that surround Christine's life started with her birth. This is her baptism certificate, which I found in this beautiful leather-bound volume in the parish archive near where she was born, or at least where she grew up as a child. And somehow it survived despite a hundred years of wars and regime changes. And I thought, 'This is marvellous! I've got it in black and white from the start and I'm going to get all my facts in a row, that's what we want.' But it's not like that at all, unfortunately.
It's dated 1913 - in fact it's got two different dates on it - but I know that Christine was born on 1 May 1908 and neither of those dates are right for her birth year. And it's written in Russian, not Polish, although she was born in Warsaw. But that's more easy to understand because, of course, Warsaw in 1908 was part of the greater Russian Empire as it was at the time.
So, I just thought it was quite ironic: Christine was born on Labour Day - the traditional socialist or communist holiday - into this family of aristocratic patriots, belonging to a country that wouldn't even exist again until she was 10 years old.
So, this is her death certificate - we're fast-forwarding here. As you can see it's a much less romantic document, part typed and part closely penned into the little boxes of a Borough of Kensington Council form. And here, again, you can see how unreliable apparently factual forms can be. Her name is now Christine Granville. In fact, very little on here is true.
The one I like best is occupation. It's got down there 'former wife', but I can think of many words to describe Christine Granville but they're not the two that spring to mind first. And her age is given as 37, although this document is correctly dated 1952, so I know she should have been 44 years old. In fact, the only thing that's really strictly accurate on here is her cause of death and date of death, and we're going to come to that later on.
But somewhere between Warsaw and London, between 1908 and 1952, between life and death really, she has changed her name and her nationality. She has left two husbands and numerous lovers behind. She has won international honours at the highest level, but she has completely buried her career and she has cut seven years from her life altogether. Well, I can't tell all the stories, but I'm going to tell you the story of how she lost those seven years.
So, when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Christine wasn't at home. She was actually in southern Africa with her second husband who was a diplomat and they were out on his service. And when they heard, they turned around and decided to come back to fight for their country or offer their services. But it was a terrible story. They took the first passenger ship they could from southern Africa and sailed to England. And, apparently, there was a noticeboard on that ship - this is her husband's unpublished memoirs tell this story - and it was from the captain and it advised passengers of news. And one morning it said on that noticeboard it said, 'Lost: One ladies pair of panties.' And underneath it said, 'Lost: Warsaw.' And he said, 'This is perhaps satirical English humour.' But this is how they found out about the loss of their capital - appalling.
Anyhow, by the time they arrived back in Europe, Poland had fallen. So, they went on and disembarked in Southampton and within a couple of weeks Christine has found and marched into the apparently secret headquarters of the British Secret Services and basically demanded to be taken on. I mean this on its own is quite extraordinary. Here she was - she was a foreigner, she was part-Jewish and, perhaps most shockingly of all, she was a woman.
Most people, of course, were recruited... I mean this is before SOE [Special Operations Executive], two years before SOE was set up. It was Section D - D for destruction - and most people were recruited through the old boy's network. So, it was extraordinary for her. And she had thought up a plan and they thought it was brilliant and they took her on.
In fact, I found the first British memo that related to her in the archives in Kew and it describes her as 'a flaming Polish patriot, an expert skier and a great adventuress' and it finishes that she is 'absolutely fearless'. Well, that's rather wonderful, but I think it is also pretty accurate.
And so, here she is. She is now in Budapest. This is taken, we believe, around January 1941 and she's tickling a cat, very happy. It looks like a holiday snap really, but she's actually been working undercover as Britain's first special agent in Budapest for over a year when this photograph was taken and she has undertaken four perilous missions into Warsaw, skiing over the High Tatra mountains. The first trip is in winter and conditions are -20C. And the first time she went in she actually skied past the bodies of people who were trying to get out who had frozen to death, huddled together under the pines above Zakopane. So, incredibly courageous. And what she was doing was taking in information and money for the fledgling Polish resistance that was starting up - and she was there from January 1940, so very early on - and bringing out again, mostly hidden inside her gloves, microfilm and also radio codes and that sort of thing. And she established the first contact between the British and one of the biggest independent Polish resistance groups.
So, when she skied back, she would go into Budapest. And she had a big network of British agent contacts out there, many of whom were journalists - she was posing as a journalist as well - but she quickly made contact as well with some of the Poles, including this rather handsome man whose name is Andrzej Kowerski.
Now, when the Nazis had invaded Poland, Andrzej had volunteered in what was known as the Black Brigade, which was Poland's only mechanised division. And they were called the Black Brigade because they wore these black leather jackets - I should imagine he looked quite nice in a black leather jacket officer's uniform. But he joined the motorised division as a boy. He had always loved horses and he had wanted to be in the cavalry, but unfortunately a couple of years before the war a friend of his at the family estate had accidentally shot Andrzej's foot off and it had to be amputated to the knee. So, this gentleman only had one leg, so he couldn't ride a horse, so he joined the mechanised division. It didn't seem to hold him back at all.
Paddy Leigh Fermor, just before he died sadly, related this story that apparently the Germans were moving forward, their Panzer divisions, and Andrzej was leading the Black Brigade - or a unit of them - and trying to hold them back. And there was a big explosion, and dust and dirt blew up in the air. And, when it all cleared, the Panzers had fallen back and Andrzej was pinned underneath an overturned vehicle. And one of his unit came running down screaming for help, 'Get a doctor! Get a medic! Andrzej is down!' I can't do the accents sadly or... I can't even do Paddy doing the accent. But Andrzej said, 'I don't need a doctor, you blithering idiot. I need a blacksmith,' because he was just pinned down by the metal bit of his false leg and he just needed to get it off and get the other one - he had a spare which he used to carry on his back.
So, he was quite remarkable. But eventually he was pushed back across the border and eventually he was interned in an internment camp in Hungary under the Geneva Convention.
Now, he knew a lot about cars and one day in the camp he spotted an Opel Olympia, which was the car of choice for discerning Wehrmacht officers. And so, he got in and somehow he hotwired it - how you do - and he drove himself out of the camp. But, just as he was nearing the gates, he decided to turn back. He went and collected the rest of his unit and drove out again. And he was actually awarded the Virtuti Militari for his great work in Poland, which is Poland's highest award for valour. So, an extraordinary gentleman.
And there is a wonderful story that when Christine first arrived in Budapest and she met Andrzej, he was telling stories of his adventures to this adoring audience in the smoky basement of a Budapest bar, when he later said, 'The door opened and a girl walked in. She was slim and sunburnt with brown hair and eyes, and a kind of crackling vitality seemed to emanate from her.' Well, that girl of course was Christine and before the night was out she had invited him out for dinner. And so it went on. They were lovers, but they were also colleagues in arms and they did some amazing work together.
And Christine helped run Andrzej's escape routes. When he got his unit out into Budapest, most of them went on to rejoin their forces in Northern Africa and his unit leader told him to stay because he obviously had a bit of a gift for moving people out of the camps and he was down to do exfiltration. So, that was anything... it was basically an early escape line route. And Christine had various papers and so on, so she would help him with that.
The British estimate that they helped to bring out several thousand Polish prisoners of war, including many pilots. And - as you are probably aware, being here today - the two squadrons in the Battle of Britain that had the highest number of kills were the two Polish squadrons. So, that in itself was work of huge importance.
And Andrzej would help Christine with her work as well, smuggling information around. Apparently, he whittled a hole in the wooden part of his false leg and hid information in that. So, rather marvellous.
But Andrzej's wooden leg meant he couldn't do everything Christine could. He couldn't ride, of course, and also he couldn't ski. So, for her first trip across the mountains into Poland he arranged for an old friend of his to guide her, and that happened to be - rather handily - the pre-war Polish Olympic skiing champion. So, that was good.
So, in she went. But she came back with someone else and here he is. A rather wonderful looking character, this is Count Wladimir Ledóchowski - I'm sorry for the pronunciation - and he was an intelligence courier for the Polish government in exile, which had now been established in Paris. He was also soon thrown together with her in occupied Poland - they made the most of their time in every way. And the next trip they took out together.
Well, actually Christine had heard… she had come out with Wladimir and then Andrzej was waiting for her, so that was fairly complicated. And then she heard from the British that her husband had also joined the British Special Services and was going to be posted to Budapest. So, then she said, 'I'm sure there's another mission for me to go back into Poland.' She wanted to get away.
And she went back again with Wladimir here. And they crossed the border under fire, but managed to go inland. And it was now spring and very rainy and the rivers were all swollen with floodwater and they were absolutely drenched. And eventually that evening they decided to follow a branch line and take shelter under an overhang on a platform, which was a mistake because the stationmaster saw them and came out and said, 'What's going on here?' So, they said they were going the other way and escaping, and they had got a story but he didn't really believe them. And he said, 'I'm going to take you down to the police station.' And he called a couple of guards to go with them.
So, now they thought, 'Well, we're going to be searched.' And they were carrying some very incriminating documents - incriminating for them, but also for the people that they were going to connect to - so they had to get rid of them. So, as they crossed a high bridge, between them they managed to throw this package of documents into the river and it was washed away. So, that was good. But clearly, now, they were up to something and so the guard said, 'Right, you stay here with the policeman. I'm going to get the SS [Schutzstaffel] and, you dogs, they're going to get the story out of you.'
So, they were left there waiting under guard and Wladimir at this point was… I mean they were under no illusions of what was going to happen. They had had to hand over all their bags and he was fingering some cyanide powder in his pocket and his great concern was how he could share that with Christine before taking some himself.
But Christine's thoughts were working along a different direction. She had seen that the guards were going through everything in the bags and laying stuff out on the wet grass, except every time they came to a different package or a different bundle of money in a different denomination they would distribute it between them and pocket it. So, she thought, 'They've got another motive here: it's not just politics, it's money involved.'
So, she was wearing underneath her shirt a beautiful cut-glass necklace that Wladimir had given her as a love token. And she leant forward, as if nervously and distracted, and started saying, 'Oh, my diamonds, my diamonds!' and pulling this necklace about. And the guards thought, 'Oh, gosh!' and flipped up the torch to look at them. And as they did so she broke the string so the diamonds tumbled into the wet grass. And they swung the torch down to catch where these beads had gone. And Wladimir took the opportunity to knock the torch out of their hand and they legged it for the trees. And they managed to get into the pine forest, apparently, just before the bullets came whizzing over their heads. And, amazingly, they did get away. Wladimir always said that Christine saved his life at that moment, and I think they probably saved themselves. And they made their way back to Budapest.
Unfortunately, of course, their papers had been taken, including photographs of Christine. And, apparently, her face was up in all the Polish train stations soon afterwards. So, their cover had been broken. And when they got back to Budapest, Andrzej - here he is, still waiting for Christine... and there they are together. And Wladimir went on and fought in North Africa, where he was awarded the Virtuti Militari as well, and Christine went back to Andrzej.
Now, Andrzej hadn't been idle whilst Christine had been away. He had actually been arrested three times in that period by the Hungarian police. And he had good contacts and they let him go. But the last time they said, 'You have to leave the country. They're onto you, we can't let you go again.' But he insisted on waiting for Christine. And, when she came back, she was very disheartened, but also she had contracted a terrible flu from the conditions and was coughing and sneezing, and she hadn't picked up the microfilm she was meant to collect. So, she said, 'Let's just stay one day, maybe one night, maybe a courier can come out, I'll feel stronger and we can go on then.' And Andrzej agreed.
Again, I'm afraid, another mistake, because that night, at 4 o'clock in the morning, the preferred calling hour for the Gestapo, there was a banging on the door and they looked at each other. Apparently, in one of the stories as it is told, apparently, Christine reached for her negligee, Andrzej grabbed his leg and as they put them both on the door broke open and these four officers entered the room and arrested them. Now, Andrzej looked at Christine thinking, 'Gosh, the girl is already ill.' They knew what was going to happen - interrogation, probably quite brutal - and he was very surprised because apparently he said later, 'She thrived on danger and she looked as merry as if she was going to a cocktail party, like now the fun is going to begin.'
So, they were taken away and they were interrogated in different rooms in the police station. Andrzej was beaten around the face and in the kidneys and he was shown the bloodied body of a man in the next cell they had been working on, and he was terrified about Christine. They had a well rehearsed story. Christine was in the next room, again being interrogated, and again it was her that got them out.
The British files... there's a memo and it says that Christine showed great presence of mind at this point. Well, I'll say she did. What she did was… she was coughing quite badly from her flu and she decided to make a strength of this apparent weakness. So, she bit her tongue so hard and so repeatedly that it bled, and not just a little bit, but quite copiously. So, as she coughed it looked as though she was coughing up blood, which is of course a symptom of TB (tuberculosis) - and in 1941 there was no cure for TB. I don't know if you know but it is carried by waterborne droplets. So, basically, interrogation and TB don't mix very well. So, the Germans decided to throw her out. And believing that Andrzej was probably infected already as her lover, although not showing the symptoms, they threw him out as well. They did put a tail on them, but they were out and Christine certainly saved their lives at that point.
Now, they went back to their flat and, luckily, there was a friend of theirs waiting for them who realised, obviously, they had been arrested and said, 'Right, what can we do to get you out of this?'. There was a car waiting for them outside. And so, what they decided was that this friend would drive Andrzej's big old Chevrolet, that he had been moving men around in, and he did. And the guys in the car followed him. And then Christine and Andrzej got into the old Opel Olympia, which was hidden in a dirty greenhouse around the back of the flat, and made a break for it having shaken off their tail. And they went round to the first place they thought they could get some help, which was the British Ministry.
This is a beautiful portrait, I think, of Sir Owen O'Malley who was the British minster at the time of the legation. And he had a bit of a soft spot for Christine, anyhow. And he said in his memoirs, 'Christine could do anything with dynamite... Oh, except eat it.' So, he was quite fond of her. And later I found some beautiful letters he wrote to her. I think they were quite paternalistic letters about his loving regard for her which flew 'like the wings of a swan across mountains and meadows' to her. So, he was very fond of her, and he saw the state they were in and said immediately, 'Yes, I will help get you out.' 'Perhaps,' he said, 'we can fold Christine up like a penknife in the back of the Embassy Chrysler. We will put the pennants on and my chauffer can drive her across the border.' And then, apparently, he looked at Andrzej and said, 'Well, you can take your chances in the Opel behind.' He was less concerned about Andrzej, I think.
Anyhow, the first job they had to do was to provide them with temporary British passports. So, Sir Owen is pressing them for all the details and the first thing they needed was new names, so they chose names with their own initials. Now, at this point Andrzej had only two words of English and they were 'double whiskey', which I quite like, so he chose an Irish name, the name Andrew Kennedy that he was known under a lot of the time after the war. And Christine chose the more aristocratic sounding Christine Granville, which is a Channel Islands name and it also suited her because she spoke French fluently having been educated in a convent school, but her English was very heavily accented, so that kind of explained that away.
Now, Sir Owen was getting very nervous. He knew that outside there were people searching for his guests. So, he was pressing them for their eye colour, their height and so on, and he asked for their date of birth. So, Andrzej reeled his date of birth off and then he looked at Christine and Christine just paused and looked at him and took a moment and slightly took the opportunity to knock seven years off her date of birth. I think, perhaps, it is partly identity disguise but I think it is also one of the perks of being a female special agent, a little bit of female vanity as well.
So, that's how the legendary Christine Granville was created. But I'm just going to finish that last story. Why had Christine risked both their lives to wait for that last microfilm? Well, she soon had that film hidden inside her gloves and was taking it off across more borders. Andrzej had driven the Opel and Christine had been driven across the border into free Yugoslavia and they came out and toasted their freedom with Hungarian brandy and then they went onto Belgrade where a couple of days later Sir Owen joined them. Apparently, they went out to a Serbian belly dancing bar - as you do, to celebrate - and then they went on.
And Christine at some point - I think probably in Sofia - picked up that microfilm and she took it on across the border. They went on in the car and arrived in… Oh no, she probably picked it up out there in Belgrade and gave it over in Yugoslavia, probably to this gentleman. We're not quite sure, but I think that may be Sir Aidan Crawley - or Aidan Crawley as he was then, later an MP - but we don't know, his eyes have been blacked out. And that's Christine and Andrew with, of course, their Opel.
That film that she took really had the potential to change the course of the war, because what it showed was the massing of troops and tanks on the German side of the German/Soviet border, but also the creation of a series of fuel and ammunition dumps, clearly there to support an invasion of the Soviet Union. And this was the first film evidence of Operation BARBAROSSA to arrived on Churchill's desk, via Aidan Crawley.
Churchill did, actually… once it was confirmed by other secure sources, he did get in contact with Stalin who didn't take action, thinking the British wanted to drive a wedge between the Germans and the Russians at the time - with appalling consequences, of course. But it does show the level of the information that Christine was smuggling around at this point.
And then they took the car on this incredible journey. This is the spring of 1941 and they're going through countries, sometimes just weeks, sometimes days before they fell to the Germans. They stopped for a while in Turkey where Christine re-established contact with her smuggling network and the escape route network, and they had to replace themselves as agents on that network. And the person that Christine chose was her husband, which quite conveniently tied her up in that part of Europe.
And then she and Andrzej went on. They went through Palestine - here she is. Apparently, she insisted on taking some hours just to walk barefoot on the beaches. Again, it looks like another lovely holiday snap really. And finally they arrived at the safety of the British base in Cairo.
Now, I'm not sure what sort of reception they expected, but certainly a pat on the back. But they were given an appalling reception and put on ice completely. It turned out that this was because the British were investigating insinuations or claims that Christine was a German double agent - and the British felt it seemed to be the only explanation for why she was still alive, so they were taking it quite seriously. And it was only when Germany did invade Russia that her name was effectively cleared and she was re-employed out in Cairo.
So, that is just one story from one of the theatres of war in which she operated. She did go on… she worked in the Middle East and Egypt for a couple of years and then she was parachuted into occupied France, and that's where her most famous exploits and adventures took place. And we will touch on that just briefly later.
Now, I like to think that biography is the art of finding out about people. It's a brilliant job for me, because I'm naturally a very nosey person and it gives me full licence. But researching the life of a special agent contained inherent difficulties. A number of the files were destroyed or burnt, either by accident or on purpose, and others are still unreleased. And agents were taught to cover their tracks and not to leave a paper trail. Certainly Christine didn't write many letters.
When I started researching this book there were only three known letters in her hand and this is one of them. And it was written in the summer of 1944. It's squared paper - it's either coding paper or French child's maths book paper - and it was written from Christine to the leader of the Italian partisans, who she had connected with... made the first connection with. And it notes his urgent request, you can probably see, for ammunition, shoes and packed meat - apparently that's what they needed to operate a resistance army. And it's signed Pauline, as you can see. Pauline Armand was Christine's nom de guerre in France.
This one is slightly clearer from the National Archives. This survives from 1945 and it's from Christine to Harold Perkins. She says 'Perks kochany', which is sort of an endearment, a Polish term of endearment. He was her SOE boss and quite a character, too. He was known to be able to bend an iron poker with just his arms and his knee.
Anyhow, here she is volunteering desperately for a final mission and she writes, 'For God's sake, do not strike my name from the firm,' - which is SOE or SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] - 'Remember that I am always too pleased to go and do anything for it. Maybe you find out I could be useful getting people out of camps and prisons in Germany just before they get shot. I should love to do it, and I like to jump out of a plane, even every day.' Quite extraordinary.
I kind of laughed and later I found out she did get people out of a prison just before they were due to be shot and she was absolutely sincere in this. And at this point no female agents were sent into Germany though, so that wasn't a mission she got. But it does give an insight into her character and the context of her times.
I like to think that letters hold this residue of… they're kind of the fossils of emotion. Emotion evaporates and how can historians trace it? And this is the only way. And I later found a further 12 letters in Christine's hand from various different family members and friends of family. And I found that while often the facts didn't add up - there were secret hidden agendas and so on - something did and that was her character.
And Christine loved to embellish a story. Stories had always been a very important part of her life. Her father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, had brought her up with stories of the Skarbek family and their links to Polish history. And this is a cutting that illustrates one of those stories.
Now, this gentleman here, sitting down, is the German Emperor. And he is talking to the first Skarbek forebear. And he is suggesting that he join his forces with the Imperial Forces to defeat Poland territory for the Germans. And Skarbek takes his family signet ring off and throws it into the German coffers saying, 'Let gold eat gold. We Poles prefer iron.' So, he's saying, 'You can keep your mercenary army. We're going to fight you with our swords.' And he was involved in the first battles and Poles defeated Germans in that instance. So, a great story of family pride. And Christine recognised the propaganda value of a good story early on. And she was soon applying it to her own activities in the war.
So, there's an example... there's a wonderful story that was told to me by two different ladies who had known Christine after the war, who she had told them this story. And I've seen it written down in a third place, and I believe it is true.
Christine... this is when she is in occupied Poland. And she's on a train and she's carrying a big folder of important documents that's tied up in brown paper and string. And then she realises that the guards are moving down the carriages doing very systematic searches. They're not just checking travel papers, they're going through everyone's bag. It's just one of those unfortunate moments. So, Christine thinks, 'Right, what are my options? I could throw the package out of the window,' but the compartment is very full and someone might tell on her. She thinks, 'Maybe I could jump from the train,' but this is before she's had her parachute training, and jumping and rolling and so on. So, that's a bit scary.
And then the carriage door opens and in comes a senior German officer who sits opposite her in the carriage - at which point I would be complete jelly on the floor. But Christine just thinks, 'Oh, that's another option, isn't it.' And apparently she gives him that little look - I can't do that little look - but she gives him that little look and they're chatting away soon. And she says, 'Oh dear, I've been a bit naughty. I've got this packet of black market tea which I'm bringing to my mother. I don't suppose you could hold onto it for a while for me.' And he puts it in his bag until they're through the checks and then brings it out and gives it back to her on the other side - just brilliant. What a brilliant agent she was.
So, I think, 'That all makes sense. I can believe that.' But then I noticed that every time this story is told it's different stations that she's going to and from. So, that's quite interesting. But I believe what she was doing was just trying to cover her tracks. This is good agent practice: not letting people know exactly where she had gone just after the war. So, that's fine.
But there are other stories. There's one that she told - she liked to tell quite often - about how she was parachuted into France. And I know that it was very stormy when she was dropped and she was blown slightly off course and she said that she saw a parish church coming up and she worried that the spire of the church might pierce her as she came down to land. But, luckily, she steered aside and avoided having her head battered by the tombstones. And then I looked at her own report to the British, which is in the files here, and it simply says, 'Christine landed in a corn field as expected.'
So, I think sometimes she just liked to tell a good story, and there's nothing wrong with that, although it does make my life as her biographer rather tricky. In fact, one of her colleagues, Patrick Howarth, wrote in his memoir that Christine sometimes indulged in the most outrageous fantasies when talking to people to whom she was not disposed to take seriously. So, it was quite hard sometimes to distinguish between fact and fiction. And I decided the way to do it was to go out on some research - doing what Antonia Frazer calls optical research - and try and pin down the facts in country.
So here I am, I went out with a Polish friend who translated for me, and our first stop was Treknika, which is the house behind me - you can see there - which is Christine's childhood home where she was brought up. And it was absolutely wonderful - she loved that house. And it was wonderful to go there. Maciek, my friend, got the key and we explored inside. I got very excited. I was taking photographs of everything. I took a photograph of a blue plaque on the wall and Maciek said, 'Why are you taking that?' I said, 'You don't know - everything could be a clue.' He said, 'It says "Don't play football against this house."' OK, so sometimes you get over excited.
And I got very upset that it was covered in creepers and wasn't really being looked after. And then I found this photograph showing that it was always covered in creepers, so I didn't need to worry about that.
And I wanted to use this one in the book, but we don't know who the rider is. It could be her father or it could just be the groom, so we didn't use it.
And that was in the parish archive where I found her birth certificate. And the priest there spent ages talking to me about the family history, which was wonderful. But then at the end he said, 'You don't want to write about Krystyna Skarbek.' I said 'Why not?' And he said, 'Oh, she was much too racy.' I thought, 'OK, we're going to do it!'
We moved then onto Warsaw and I stayed in the flat belonging to Count Jan Ledóchowski, who is the son of Wladimir as in the diamond necklace story. And he very kindly allowed me to stay in his flat, which is in the old town which had been completely razed of course in '44 but has been rebuilt using the old plans. And one day I came out of the flat to meet Maciek who was staying with an aunt and go to the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland, in Warsaw, and as I came out of the flat - I kid you not - a Wehrmacht officer came storming up to me, shouting at me, and he pushed the perforated barrel of his machine gun into my face. I was virtually in tears, it was absolutely terrifying. I thought, 'I've just been arrested by the Wehrmacht.' And then I thought, 'No, I've obviously got so obsessed I've gone completely mad and lost my marbles.'
And, just to prove it is true, it was that chap on the bike who came shouting at me. He was very cross. And then Maciek said, 'Oh gosh! I am sorry.' And there was a note pinned on the door and it said, 'Please do not come out of these flats between 9 and 10 in the morning because we're filming for a World War II drama.' So, there you go, the excitement. Even that was interesting because I thought, 'Gosh!' You know, I knew it must be something like that, but Christine was arrested several times and she was part-Jewish and she never lost her cool like I had. And she always managed to talk her way out of it. So, it really shows her sang-froid, or showed me that.
Now, as well as his flat, Jan very kindly also lent me the unpublished memoir his father had written about Christine, which is a very lyrical rather beautiful account. And one of the things that I liked in it was that… Wladimir said that Andrzej pictured Christine as being at the centre of his universe and he was the orbiting moon around her planet. And he said there were other planets further out in orbit called things like 'Wladimir' and so on, but they were quite far back. And Wladimir himself later on, less romantically, pictures Christine's life as a railway line and Christine as the train. And her trains stops perhaps more often at Andrzej's station than the other stations called like 'Wladimir' and so on. but that was all it was. I don't think she'd have subscribed to either of those metaphors, and that's not how I portray her in the book, but it just shows how differently you can picture somebody's life. And there were clearly very conflicting versions of Christine.
Later, I found evidence that, after her untimely death, Andrzej actually convened a group of men with whom she had worked in the Special Services, her loyal friends, to protect her reputation by preventing any unapproved books or articles from being published about her. As Jan Ledóchowski said to me, 'You know, there are not many war heroes who need a committee to protect their reputation.' And I think in 1952 they were doing the honourable thing, and Christine led a very wild life and they were trying to protect her reputation. But, as many of them were married, I think they were also actually trying to protect their own reputations to some degree as well. But they did successfully manage to keep her out of the limelight and that's why she's so little known.
Now, my search for Christine in Poland took me to people with both a personal and a professional interest in her. I met Andrzej's niece who was, I am pleased to say, very supportive of Christine now, in our now less judgemental age, and telling this story and gave me a lot of information. And she also kindly showed me these things and let me try on… this is Christine's jewellery. And so it's a beautiful ivory and gold bracelet that Andrzej gave her as a love token.
This is a necklace, probably from Zakopane, a coral necklace. And she must have been very slight, because I started trying to put on the wooden bangle and I couldn't get it over my hand. And I caught Maria's face and I had to put it down again quickly.
And then I also met various people with a professional interest in her, including a Polish biographer called Colonel Jan Loretski who was working on her. And we met in a café and he kind of chain drank espresso coffee and he chain smoked as well. He's the only person I have ever met who said, 'Hello, I am a communist spy.' 'Oh my goodness. I'm a mother from Saffron Walden.' Anyhow. And every time he had a cigarette he lit it and the lady on his lighter lost her clothes! Anyhow, so he spent an awful lot of time talking about things and I thought I've got an awful lot of information from him, that's good. And then when he clicked his heels and kissed my hand goodbye and walked off, I thought, 'Gosh! I've got nothing from him and I told him loads.' So, he was obviously a very good spy - he knew how to do it.
Various archives gave up other things and I found, in archives in Poland and in France and in Britain as well, I found things like Christine's school reports. Apparently, she was a very bright child, but unruly. And she was actually expelled because one morning in Matins all the girls had to stand with candles waiting in the cold and she thought, 'Gosh! This is interminable. When is this going to end?' And she wondered if she could speed it up by setting light to the priest's cassock and so she did. And apparently he kept going with the catechism, so he was very faithful. But she was expelled.
I found her first marriage certificate. She was married to a soft furnishings magnate, so you knew that was never going to last. And I found this press coverage of the 1930 'Miss Poland' competition and you can see her looking rather gorgeous in a fur coat. You can't really tell what she is wearing underneath, but she was awarded a star of beauty in Poland before the war.
And I met her distant cousins, Count Andrzej and Countess Marise Skarbek, in London and looked through their photograph albums. And various friends and children of friends of hers from Budapest, Cairo, London, Nairobi pulled out letters and memoirs and so on.
Some of the documents themselves had this extraordinary provenance, like this one. This is Christine's Polish passport issued in 1938 and it was found between the pages of a book in an antiquarian book market in Warsaw - and it's actually in a private collection in Italy now, but kindly they let me have a photograph of it - and we don't know how it got there. It seems possible that when her face appeared in all the train stations in Warsaw, her mother realised she had this incriminating document and didn't want to destroy it. So, she hid it perhaps between the pages in a book. And when she was taken away as a born Jewish lady, perhaps the books were requisitioned or sold and so on, and so it made its way.
Many other documents came from private collections as well. And one of the things I did I put ads in the Special Forces Club newsletter and in the FANY's [First Aid Nursing Yeomanry] newsletter and so on. And one day there was a ping in my email box and I had an email from a gentleman called Michael Ward who was a special agent as well, who had known Christine in Cairo in the Gezira Sporting Club - here it is. And he said, 'I knew Christine, but it was such a nice note I thought I would reply, but there's nothing really I can tell you.' So, I sort of pressed him a bit and he said, 'Actually, I saw her across the pool in the club.' And here she is sitting across the pool. And, despite being an agent and brilliant at most things, Christine never learnt to swim, so she was always sitting next to the pool.
And he said, 'She was a damn fine looking girl and already had a reputation as a bit of a superstar and very courageous, so I invited her out for lunch.' I said, 'Yes, go on.' He said, 'Well, we had a very nice lunch, but Christine wanted dinner and I think she wanted what came next and I didn't really want that so I kind of ran away.' And he said he spent the next two weeks terrified of her. And he said she was very predatory and he was sort of desperate to go on another active service mission instead.
I emailed him again and he kindly sent me this photograph he took, which he wasn't meant to take as it was a secret base, but he had taken it. And he said it was OK now, so he sent it over to me. I emailed him to thank him and his son emailed me the next day and his father had died. And I feel… I mean six of the people I interviewed for the book are now no longer with us and I think, as the human coast erodes, if you like, it is so important to try and catch these stories now. So, I hope I've done some of that.
Anyhow, Christine had plenty of time to lounge around the pool because this was when she was being kept on ice, when she arrived in Cairo. And I'm just going to give you a little flavour of the things that she was doing in Cairo and then in France.
So, you will know this picture probably. In Cairo Christine's role was really, as a spy, to report back on the plans and the military gossip between the various different warring Polish factions. This was a very difficult year, '41, for the Poles. It's the year that the terrible discoveries were made at Katyn. Of course it's the year that General Sikorski died and Christine was right in the middle of a lot of that intrigue.
And I think, perhaps, her methods might be suggested by what the British said in a memo they wrote - it was admittedly libellous - the code name that they gave her which was 'Willing'. Andrzej's name was 'Forcible' so, presumably, he took a different approach.
But, anyhow, she was better known as Olga Polovsky at this point, her nickname, which she shared with this lady in the 'Keep Mum' poster. And - as you probably know - this lady is a German spy and the gentlemen around her are representatives of the three different services, the forces, and they are gossiping rather foolishly in front of her.
And the name Olga Polovsky comes from a song that was popular - it was from the 1930s, but it was popular again at this point - the refrain from which is: 'Shame on you, shame on you, / O fi, fi, / Olga Polovsky, / you beautiful spy'. And originally I was going to call the book 'The Beautiful Spy', but anyhow.
So, she was in the middle of a lot of intrigue, sleeping with a gun under her pillow. But she was also being very highly trained while she was in Cairo as well, and then later she moved on to Algiers where she was trained too.
And I tracked down some of her equipment. This is Christine's own kit. The first photograph shows her wireless transmitter. She was trained in wireless transmitting, Morse and coding, all of which she hated - she hated anything desk-bound - but she was good enough to operate. She was trained in Paris - she was one of the few women to earn her wings, and she was trained in the use of guns and explosives. Apparently, she hated guns - she said they were far too noisy. What she excelled in was a course in silent killing, which is using just a knife, and this is Christine's own commando knife. A rope or your hands, that was apparently her preferred method. Although, in fact, I think what she really used was her intellect - she talked her way out of things and we have no evidence that she killed anybody, although she may have.
And she was being so highly trained, she was Britain's most highly trained female agent, in fact, because at this point she was now being prepared to be dropped into France, one of the most dangerous theatres of the war at the time. And she was told before she volunteered that she should consider it fully, because radio operators at that point in France could expect to be tracked - they had these tracking vehicles for the signal - caught, arrested and interrogated and killed within six weeks. And yet she volunteered for a third different theatre of the war.
And she was going in to work with this gentleman here who was a rising star of the SOE in south-west France. This is Francis Cammaerts. He was a very highly honoured gentleman. And it was here that Christine undertook her most daring work. And I get excited with my anecdotes, so I am going to do this quickly. She established the contact between the French and Italian resistance across the Alps. She secured the defection of an entire German garrison on her own, pretty much - I was going to tell you that one, but you will have to read it. And she single-handedly rescued Francis Cammaerts and two of his colleagues when they were arrested by the Gestapo and they are about to be put in front of a firing squad. And basically she tried to get the French resistance cell she was with to come and break them out and they said it was impossible and we need to focus on the allied invasion at the south, the liberation that was coming. So they refused and so she just walked in on her own - well, she cycled over - and demanded his release. And I won't tell you how, but she got him out literally hours before he was due to be shot.
She also helped to arrange some supply drops to the French resistance. The different coloured parachutes show what was in the different containers. And here we are - these are the containers being picked up by the Maquis that they liaised with in that part of France. And this is one of my photos - I mean these containers they open sideways like peapods and they would have been full of guns or ammunition, chocolate and cigarettes as well and they're just left standing against walls in that part of France now.
And this is Christine with her French colleagues. And last time I showed this I was in The Special Forces Club and a lady at the back said, 'Oh, that's my father.' I thought, 'Gosh! Isn't that amazing.'
And these are Christine's medals. She was not just the first but the longest serving female agent for Britain in the war and for her huge contribution to the Allied war effort and her outstanding courage she was awarded the George Medal, the OBE [Order of the British Empire], and this one on the right with the green ribbon is the French honour of the Croix de Guerre with one star. And at the bottom you see that wonderful array of ribbons that I think any general would have been proud of, this shows the different theatres of the war in which she operated.
And yet she wasn't given the award that she valued most highly, which was ongoing employment worthy of her service and abilities, and even automatic British citizenship. Her temporary passport ran out towards the end of the war and there was no way that she could return to a Russian-occupied Poland. Her mother had been killed under the Nazis. Her brother actually died within a year of the Soviet-backed regime in Poland, having been arrested - he contracted TB in a cell. So, there was no way she could return.
I don't know if she knew this - I don't think she knew this - but I found evidence that the British at one point had actually traded her and Andrzej's names with the NKVD - who were the precursors of the KGB - in an information swap earlier on. So, they knew exactly who Christine was and, if she had gone back, I'm sure she would have been killed. So she couldn't go back. And yet she is left in Cairo. The British did dismiss her and gave her £100, which wasn't insignificant in those days. But the last memo that relates to her simply states, 'She is no longer wanted.' That's how we treated her. Not our finest moment, I fear.
Now seven years after the war, on 15 June 1952, Christine was murdered. I don't think it's giving the game away. This is what she is most famous for, which I think is appalling. She was stabbed through the heart with a commando knife, ironically, very much like the one that she had carried herself throughout the war, and not far from here in her hotel in South Kensington. She was buried under a handful of Polish soil in London's Kensal Green Roman Catholic Cemetery and here is her grave.
This is Andrzej paying his last respects - there he is. And this gentleman is one of his cousins and broad family cousins, Ludwig Popitille, with whom Christine had actually worked on managing to secure… well he brought a Polish anti-tank rifle out of occupied Poland into Budapest and she saved it from being taken away by the Hungarian police. So, there they are paying their last respects.
I think, ultimately, unable to protect Christine's life, Andrzej dedicated a lot of the rest of his life trying to protect her reputation and that's why her story has been so hidden. There is a possibility that just the day after, the morning after she was killed, she was due to fly out to join Andrzej and he told his niece that they were going to be married. So, a terribly tragic ending. And 30 years later when Andrzej died, of cancer actually, they were kind of reunited. This plaque here covers Andrzej's ashes and he was interred at the foot of her grave, which is rather wonderful really.
As I said, all too often people, if they know something about Christine Granville, it's that she was murdered at the end of the war. And there's lots of conspiracy theories around it, which obviously I do look at in the book. But I think all too often women in the resistance are remembered as tragically romantic figures and I don't think that's right. Perhaps the best known female special agent in this country is Charlotte Gray who (a) is fictional and (b) Sebastian Faulkes has her going out to try and find her lost boyfriend. Well, that is not why these women went out. They're really highly trained. They went out with a strategic plan, they knew exactly what they were doing - very specific missions.
And even some of the wonderful real British female agents, like the fabulous Violette Szabo or Odette, perhaps they're most known for their outstanding courage and, in Szabo's case, for her paying the ultimate sacrifice. But they are remembered for their courage rather than for their achievements. And I hope that if my book contributes anything it will be to highlight both the role and the use - and the abuse - of Poland during the war, and also to rebalance the view on the effectiveness of female special agents.
It is only now that a lot of the files have been released and I got more information under the Freedom of Information Act, such as surrounding her murder, that I think her story can be told in full. And I hope that this book presents a more balanced picture of a remarkable woman who can only, I would argue, be seen in the context of her country, although it often excluded her, and in the context of her time, although I think she was in many ways ahead of her time. And I hope at least this book catches some of the fierce independence and the slight vulnerability of a woman who loved and was loved by so many, and the courage of this fiercely patriotic Pole whose greatest tragedy, I think, was perhaps that she didn't live to see her country, Poland, free again.
It was a real honour for me and a great adventure to research and write this story, and I hope that you will enjoy it. Thank you very much for listening to me.