Magazine article The Spectator

The Bravest of the Brave

Magazine article The Spectator

The Bravest of the Brave

Article excerpt

The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley Macmillan, £18.99, pp. 424, ISBN 9780230759510 I suppose I may be one of the few people still alive to have known Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville), though, perhaps regrettably, not as well as many others in her brilliant, stormy but eventually tragic life. Today she would have been over 100.

Of all the women agents who risked their lives in Nazi-occupied Europe in the second world war, Polish-born Krystyna must surely rate as one of the bravest of the brave. As they used to say in army vernacular, the George Medal (which was about as close to a VC as a foreign national could get), the OBE and the Croix de Guerre did not exactly 'come up with the rations'.

Churchill is alleged to have rated Skarbek his 'favourite spy'. The reason? In spring 1941 she passed minute details to London of Hitler's plans for Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. Churchill forwarded them on to Stalin, who promptly binned them.

Krystyna's father was from the lesser Polish aristocracy, but her mother was Jewish (she was eventually swallowed up by the Holocaust) - a fact that would have made Krystyna's repeated journeys under the noses of the Gestapo infinitely more dangerous.

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).

Seldom conducting an operation without a lover (proof of the 007 notion that sex and extreme peril often make for inseparable bed-mates), Krystyna's reckless exploits smacked more of the age of Baroness d'Orczy than of the vile century of Heinrich Himmler.

Several of the witnesses in Clare Mulley's scintillating and moving book, such as the late Paddy Leigh Fermor, testify to the fact that Krystyna did indeed thrive, quite irrationally, on danger. With her 'fierce, almost blind pride, ' she reminded one British officer of the Polish cavalry that had charged Nazi Panzers in 1939. Arrested in Hungary, on one occasion she bit her tongue so hard as to draw blood, persuading the interrogators that she had TB. They released her.

Krystyna's most legendary exploit came in summer 1944, in southern France, pending the Allied invasion. Her British boss (and also, naturally, lover), Francis Cammaerts (DSO, Croix de Guerre, Legion d'Honneur), one of SOE's top operatives, had fallen into a trap and was awaiting imminent execution. She located his cell by humming 'Frankie and Johnny'. Cammaerts responded by singing the refrain. Then Krystyna presented herself boldly to the milice officer holding Cammaerts, as a British agent-and a niece of General Montgomery, no less - sent to obtain the release of the prisoners. …

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