Comely, Courageous Countess was Churchill’s Call Girl

You probably have never heard of the Countess Krystyna Skarbek, a gorgeous countessPolish woman who was Winston Churchill’s favourite spy during the second world war. That’s hardly surprising. Her reign was during the 1940s and like it or not, that was the attitude toward women at the time. However Churchill  rated Skarbek his ‘favourite spy’ because in the spring of 1941 she passed minute details to London of Hitler’s plans for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. Churchill forwarded them on to Stalin, who  binned them. Skarbek’s life is a fascinating account and her death, a tragic and painful end. Six decades after the woman’s murder a biography has begun about her life. I look forward to reading it.

So heroic and cunning was Skarbek’s espionage technique that she was the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s fictional character Vesper Lynd, in the James Bond film Casino Royale. (The enclosed picture is of the actress Eva Green, playing the role of Lynde). Skarbek was born in Warsaw. No one is entirely certain of the year (women Vesperlyndhate to admit their age) but it is rumored to be anywhere between 1908 and 1912. She lived an upper-class childhood as the daughter of bank official Count Jerzy Skarbek and his wife, Jewish-born Stefania Goldfelder. By marrying Goldfelder in late December 1899, the extravagant Jerzy Skarbek was able to use her dowry to pay his debts and continue his lavish life-style. This left the family in difficult financial circumstances, and they had to move to Warsaw.

Physically stunning from the very start of her life, Skarbek entered the Miss Polonia contest, an early beauty pageant, in 1930 and placed sixth. Not bad for a national pageant. In 1930, when Skarbek was 22, Count Jerzy died. The Goldfeder financial empire had almost completely collapsed, and there was barely enough money to support the widowed Countess Stefania. Skarbek, not wishing to be a burden to her mother, worked at a Fiat car dealership, but soon became ill from automobile fumes and had to give up the job.

russia-anna-chapmanSkarbek left Poland with her second husband in 1938.  She got involved with the war effort in London after her home country was invaded. Her confidence and good looks helped land her first mission, to Hungary, in 1939. Skarbek reminds me of the beautiful Russian spy Anna Chapman, a woman so attractive and heroic that she earned a cover on the men’s magazine Maxim. Coincidentally, Chapman has acquired the image of a Bond girl. She was outed and returned to Russia. From Russia, with love.

Death of Stefania Goldfelder
Upon the outbreak of World War II, the couple sailed for London, where Skarbek sought to offer her services in the struggle against the common enemy. The British authorities showed little interest but were eventually convinced by Skarbek’s acquaintances, including journalist Frederick Voight, who introduced her to the Secret Intelligence Service. she pleaded with her mother to leave Nazi-occupied Poland, in vain Goldfelder refused; she was determined to stay in Warsaw to continue teaching French to small children and died in Warsaw’s Pawiak prison. Ironically, the prison had been designed in the mid-19th century by Skarbek’s great-great-uncle.

Skarbek’s Skills

La comtesse polonaise Krystyna Skarb dit Christine Granville (1908 1952) Espionne en Pologne et en France pendant la seconde guerre mondiale (1939 1945) Ici a l age de 19 ans Mention obligatoire ©Rue des Archives/PVDE

La comtesse polonaise Krystyna Skarb dit Christine Granville (1908 1952)
Espionne en Pologne et en France pendant la seconde guerre mondiale (1939 1945)
Ici a l age de 19 ans
Mention obligatoire ©Rue des Archives/PVDE

February 1940 Skarbek, who was supposed to be under cover, was hailed by a woman acquaintance: “Krystyna! Krystyna Skarbek! What are you doing here? We heard that you’d gone abroad!” When Skarbek denied her name the lady answered that she would have sworn she was Krystyna Skarbek; the resemblance was positively uncanny.

Skarbek met a Polish army officer, Andrzej Kowerski, who later used the British name Andrew Kennedy.” Six times she trekked and skied across the Tatras, ‘exfiltrating’ high-risk Polish refugees into neutral Hungary, accompanied by her one-legged, long-term lover, Andrzej Kowerski (aka Andrew Kennedy). When she informed her husband that she was in love with Koweski, he left for the United States and filed for divorce.

Seldom conducting an operation without a lover (proof of the 007 notion that sex and extreme peril often make for inseparable bed-mates), Skarbek showed her penchant for stratagem when she and Kowerski were arrested by the Gestapo in January 1941. She won their release by feigning symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis; she bit her tongue until it bled.

Most Famous Exploit
Skarbek’s situation changed in 1944. Her most legendary exploit happened in southern France. Her British boss (and also, naturally, lover), Francis Cammaerts, one of SOE’s top operatives, had fallen into a trap and was awaiting execution. She located his cell by humming ‘Frankie and Johnny’. Cammaerts responded by singing the refrain. Skarbek presented herself boldly to the milice officer holding Cammaerts, as a British agent, and a niece of General Montgomery no less, who was sent to obtain the release of the prisoners. She persuaded Cammaert’s captors, that the invasion was but hours away and terrible reprisals would be exacted if the prisoners were killed. Coupled with Skarbek’s devastating charm, the ruse worked. All three agents walked free.

Several years later she told another Pole and fellow World War II veteran that during her negotiations with the Gestapo she had been unaware of any danger to herself. Only after she and her comrades had made good their escape did it hit home: “What have I done! They could have shot me as well.” Skarbek thrived on this type of risk.

2-Krystyna-Skarbek-300x211Madame Pauline
Fluent in French, she was offered to SOE’s teams in France, under the nom de guerreMadame Pauline“. The offer was timely. SOE ran short of trained operatives to cover demands before the invasion of France. New operatives were in training, but the work took time. If they entered Europe before they learned the necessary physical and intellectual skills, the operatives would compromise themselves, their SOE colleagues, and French Resistance members.

Skarbek was known for being a successful courier and she needed only a little refresher work. There was one particular need that required urgent attention. A SOE agent named Cecily Lefort had been captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo. Skarbek was selected to replace the agent.

The Women of SOE
SEO women were all given military rank, with honorary commissions in either the Women’s Transport System (FANY – originally the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry – not to be confused with fanny, I’m sure), officially part of the Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS) though a very elite and autonomous part, or the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Skarbek was a member of both. She was one of the few SOE female field agents promoted beyond subaltern rank to captain, or the Air Force equivalent: flight officer, the WAAF counterpart of the flight lieutenant rank for male officers. French recognition of Skarbek’s contribution to the liberation of France came with the award of the Croix de Guerre.

End of the War
Just after the war, Skarbek was only in her late thirties but young officers viewed her as skaran ‘older woman’, to be respected and admired from a distance. The stresses of war were obvious. At times she looked contused, injured but not broken. Her famously elegant legs were battered yet there came across an exceptional life-force, an irresistible and uncontrived charm that had no doubt been honed by her life as a spy. One SOE captain (Douglas Dodds Parker, a future MP) reckoned that Skarbek ‘had some kind of magic in her that men could not resist’. Her seductive appeal even extended to the fiercest German guard dogs, who would nuzzle at her feet.

After the physical hardship and mental strain she suffered for six years, she needed security for life. Yet a few weeks after the armistice she was dismissed with a month’s salary and left in Cairo to fend for herself. She applied for a British passport after the betrayal of her own country but the papers were delayed. Skarbek abandoned all hope of security and embarked on a life of uncertain travel. This time all of her courage and charm failed to avert the end Fate had in store for her. Unable to find any employment, an impoverished Skarbek was forced to work as a cleaner on a cruise ship.

During her time aboard the ship, she rashly encouraged an Irish steward, Dennis Muldowney, who became an obsessive stalker. In 1952 he followed her to a cheap hotel in South Kensington hotel where she had been further reduced to support herself. In June, in the lobby, Muldowney stabbed her to death. After outstanding service in FANY and WAAF, this was the end of the Countess’s remarkable life. The devoted Andrzej Kowerski died of cancer in December 1988, aged 78. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were flown to London and interred with Skarbek’s. During the rest of his life after his lover’s death, Kowerski presented himself as a often riotously funny Pole who possessed a joie de vive. Yet there was an unmistakable deep sadness without Skarbek. Perhaps Skarbek should have worked as a spy for the Nazis. They might have shown her more gratitude after the war ended.

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