My history hero: Krystyna Skarbek

Children’s author and poet Sir Michael Morpurgo chooses Krystyna Skarbek as his history hero

Krystyna Skarbeck, also called Christine Granville

This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Born in Poland, Krystyna Skarbek – also known as Christine Granville – was an agent for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), which conducted espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance operations in Nazi-occupied Europe. Celebrated for her daring wartime exploits, she was stabbed to death by a spurned admirer in London in 1952, aged just 44.

How did you first hear about Krystyna Skarbek?

Because of two extraordinary uncles of mine, Pieter and Francis Cammaerts, who had an English mother and a Belgian father. Pieter joined up at the start of the war and was killed in 1941. Francis joined the SOE and in March 1943 was dropped into France, where he set up a resistance network. In July 1944, before the Allied landings on the Mediterranean coast, Krystyna was sent to join his unit. They worked together closely, providing information and carrying out sabotage missions that were crucial to the Allied advance in their area.

What kind of person was she?

Krystyna became a resistance fighter after Poland, her country of birth, was invaded in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union. She was clever, charismatic, spoke several languages and, just as importantly, got on with and understood people. She also looked striking; everyone in the SOE who came into contact with Krystyna fell in love with her – my uncle included, even though he was married.

What made Krystyna a hero?

She had enormous courage and was committed to getting the Germans out of her country. She loved to wreak havoc on the enemy, blowing up trains and creating chaos. She had a passion for liberty that inspired those around her. She was as strong as any man, and when she set her mind to a task she’d follow it to the end. Lastly, she was a woman in what was mostly a man’s world; a female secret agent was somehow much less noticeable. It was this, along with her tenacity and courage, that helped make her a perfect SOE operative.

What was her finest hour?

For me, it was saving my uncle’s life. Towards the end of the war, the Free French government in London encouraged Resistance forces in the Vercors massif to rise up against the Nazis before the D-Day landings. The Germans responded with fury, brutally massacring civilians and Resistance fighters. Francis was captured and taken to a Gestapo prison at Digne, where he was to be shot. Krystyna brazenly walked in and demanded to see the commander. Claiming she was my uncle’s wife, and the niece of Field Marshal Montgomery (all lies!), she told the Germans to release my uncle – or there would be hell to pay when the Allies arrived. They demanded 2m francs. Within 48 hours the money had been dropped and handed over, ensuring my uncle’s survival.

Do you think she deserves to be better remembered?

Yes, as should all the other SOE secret agents and operatives. I’m hoping that my new book, In the Mouth of the Wolf, will help highlight their efforts, and tell their story in a small way.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

No – I think she was a wholly admirable person. It’s sad that she found it so hard to adjust to civilian life after the war ended, but the truth was that she’d been living on the edge for years. She probably found the postwar world a rather drab and dull place, and was perhaps suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you could meet Krystyna, what would you ask her?

I’d ask how we as a nation could, after the war, have prevented her from falling into this world where she seemed hardly able to swim. More should have been done to help her, and others like her, readjust to everyday life. In a way she was used up and spat out.

Sir Michael Morpurgo was talking to York Membery. Sir Michael Morpurgo is a children’s author and poet. In the Mouth of the Wolf, illustrated by Barroux, is published in May by Egmont

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Listen again: Hear Michael Morpurgo discuss Mozart on Radio 4’s Great Lives: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0076rln