The shadowy conflict of the Second World War, of spies, deception, and intrigue, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the largest conflict that the world has ever seen. During the carnage, the shadow war rumbled under the surface. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was the primary agency that handled British covert efforts during the Second World War. The SOE employed several hundred field agents, and handled a wide range of covert tasks from assisting resistance groups in Nazi-occuped Europe, to intelligence gathering to assist ground forces. Of these several hundred, 39 were women. The stories behind these women are ones of heroism and the extraordinary. The following story is of Krystyna Skarbek.
The very first female agent that served with SOE was a Polish-Jewish Aristocrat known as Krystyna Skarbek. In addition to being the first woman to serve with the SOE, Skarbek was also the longest serving field agent, male or female, during the SOE’s existence. She arrived in London in 1939, after the fall of her home country. Her husband left in order to join the remnants of the Polish Army in exile. She decided that she could not sit the war out and somehow managed to locate the address of MI6 (Military Intelligence 6), and quite literally went to their door and demanded a job. Of course, since Skarbek was not British, this was technically not allowed. However, her unending enthusiasm, skillset, and connections made her a prospect too good to turn down.
In 1940, Skarbek was sent back to Poland, under the diplomatic cover of being a French journalist (she spoke perfect French thanks to her education in France). She smuggled herself into Poland, where her primary objective was to collect a piece of microfilm from the resistance which held valuable intel. Skarbek was tasked with using her contacts to establish a connection with the Polish Resistance, as well as setting up escape lines for those who wished to escape Nazism. She would go on to escape captivity multiple times, and in one of her escapes, she noticed that the prison guards were susceptible to bribery. She intentionally dropped her necklace on the floor, shouting “my diamonds, my diamonds!”, and whilst they were scrambling to pick these up, she and her partner knocked their weapons out of their hands and dashed for the nearby woods.
Skarbek was later captured again in Hungary, and during interrogation, she intentionally bit her tongue causing it to bleed, a symptom of tuberculosis. In response to a misdiagnosis, the Gestapo (German Secret Police) quickly released her and her partner. After her release, she was able to obtain the microfilm she had originally been sent for, which was video evidence of the massing of German tanks and equipment on the border with the Soviet Union, suggesting that Nazi Germany was preparing to launch an invasion. When this microfilm arrived on Winston Churchill’s desk, he proclaimed that Skarbek was his favourite spy.
After her escape from Hungary, Skarbek and her partner trekked across multiple different countries until they reached one of the SOE’s headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. She was frozen out of the SOE for a short while and feelt personally insulted. Unbeknownst to her at the time, the SOE believed that she was a double agent. Given the fact that she escaped captivity twice, in addition to the uncertainty of the trustworthiness of the Polish Resistance, this was actually quite a reasonable assumption. As one of the investigators noted, Skarbek being a double agent was “the only possible explanation as to how she [was] still alive”. However, she was able to clear her name and was eventually deployed into occupied France.
In occupied France, Skarbek, again, became known for her ingenuity and bravery. She was second-in-command to Francis Cammaerts, the head of all clandestine operations in France. Skarbek, now given an English name, Christine Granville, travelled with Francis around the country. They endeavoured to keep the lines of communications open between the resistance groups. One of her most notable achievements was when Francis and two other SOE agents were captured by the Gestapo, and Krystyna mounted a daring rescue operation in order to release them. She approached the Gestapo as a British agent, posing as a niece of Field Marshal Montgomery. She claimed she had the authority to demand their release, and threatened reprisals against the Gestapo agents holding them, as the British offensive was imminent. With the support of a Belgian liaison, and a bribe of a hefty two million francs, she was able to secure the release of Francis, and the two other agents. This would prove to be her last mission during the war.
Her exploits, reminiscent of a spy movie rather than real life, earned her an OBE as well as the Croix de Guerre from France. However, Skarbek’s post-war life is unfortunately a much darker story. After the war, she was unable to return home due to Poland becoming a Soviet puppet state. Similarly, her aspiration of working in the Diplomatic Service fell through due to her not being British. Skarbek was unfortunately killed in 1952, by an obsessed stalker. Her story remains under-recognised to this day.