Introducing Christine Granville by Ron Nowicki
The Polish-born Christine Granville (born Krystyna Skarbek) was one of the most enigmatic of British SOE agents during the second world war.
(Links to the book can be found at the bottom of this page)
There are reports that she was recruited by the British before the war but for the record, her espionage career began in Budapest in 1940. From there she hiked across the Tatra mountains and slipped into occupied Poland carrying anti-German propaganda . For 6 weeks she travelled around the country seeking out German troop emplacements and meeting with Polish Underground leaders.
Christine successfully dodged Nazi train conductors and border guards to make her way back to Budapest where she delivered her intelligence reports to SIS. Two other attempts to enter Poland were thwarted. On the third attempt she was arrested by Slovak border guards but managed to make a dramatic escape. This beautiful British agent was arrested in Budapest but escaped interrogation by faking a TB haemorrhage. With the help of the British consul she fled Hungary hidden in the boot of his Chrysler. Her lover and colleague Andrew Kennedy followed in his Opel sports car. Once safely across the border they drove across southern Europe to the relative safety of Palestine.
Christine began using the name Christine Granville in 1941 and legally adopted it in 1947 on naturalisation as a British citizen.
Christine is most famous for saving the life of her section chief Francis Cammaerts in southern France in 1944. She rescued him from a German prison just hours before he and two other agents were to be stood up in front of a firing squad.
Once the Allies had taken most of France there was no longer a need for agents in western Europe and Christine along with many other colleagues was sent back to London. She wandered through a series of menial jobs before signing on as a stewardess with a passenger ship firm. It was there that she met Dennis Muldowney, the man who would eventually murder her.
Below is an abridged extract of Ron Nowicki’s book, The Elusive Madame G. The copyright belongs to the author. All rights reserved.
The Elusive Madame G – A Life of Christine Granville
by Ron Nowicki
Christine Granville was born in an occupied country, in a city whose cobbled streets were still being patrolled by Russian troops more than a hundred years after the final partition of Poland in 1795.Her birth in 1908 followed decades of riots, strikes and armed clashes led by Polish rebels demanding an end to tsarist rule from Moscow. Unable to dislodge their oppressors they retreated from the streets to re-deploy and prepare for the next round of fighting, unaware that Europe was about to explode and would leave in its wake, ironically, Poland’s long-cherished independence.
Christine’s birth in such turbulent times may have presaged the course her life would eventually take though her childhood in the Polish countryside seemed idyllic and unaffected by personal trauma or by political chaos. Even the tumult and destruction of the first world war passed her by.
Her parents’ marriage however was not as blissful. The Skarbeks were an ill-matched couple brought together by the manipulations of Christine’s grandfather Adolf Goldfeder, founder of one of Poland’s most successful banks. The marriage between Count Jerzy Skarbek and Stefania Goldfeder came at a critical time for one of the nation’s most prestigious families and at an opportune moment for Goldfeder and his daughter. Centuries of war and occupation had devastated the fortunes of the Polish aristocracy and, entering the twentieth century, their very survival was threatened for lack of heirs and money. Desperate measures had to be taken to maintain ancient family lines and so society just had to look the other way when the sons of titled families took Jewish brides. Provided of course that they came to the altar bearing large dowries.
In 1899 Adolf Goldfeder had contrived to introduce his only daughter Stefania into the exclusive company of the landed gentry through marriage to the indigent count. He engineered this social coup by presenting Skarbek with a dowry of some 340,000 rubles plus a country property. In such a predominantly Christian country arranging a marriage between a Jew and a Catholic was no simple matter, especially when the scion of one of Poland’s most storied families was involved.
After the terms of the marriage between the young count and Stefania had been agreed, and money changed hands, Skarbek ‘donated’ an undisclosed sum to the Bishop of Warsaw to secure his blessing for the wedding to proceed. But there were other conditions to be met, primarily Stefania’s conversion to Catholicism. The ceremony eventually took place in the secluded chapel of a women’s cloister reserved for those of noble heritage (kanoniczki ), out of sight of the good burghers of Warsaw.
Christine’s father had the most to gain from this arrangement for he had neither property nor money. As a young man the count had led a dissolute life and had exhausted whatever allowance he had by the time the couple’s engagement was confirmed. Among the aristocracy he was disparagingly known as a kopertowy hrabia, an ‘envelope count’, one who assumes a title of nobility without permission. That could only be granted by the tsar himself. In return for her generous dowry Stefania gained entry into an exclusive segment of society with the rank of countess. She wore her new status with pride even though her husband’s title was of dubious provenance.
Christine was born eight years after her parents’ marriage, seven years after the birth of her brother Andrzej who has all but been written out of the Skarbek family history. The established facts of his life are three. After the first world war he wed a German woman, Irena von Arndt, who later dropped the ‘von’ and substituted the more sociably acceptable ‘de.’ He allegedly participated in the calamitous Warsaw Uprising of 1944 but there is no evidence to substantiate this claim. The Armia Krajowa (AK or Home Army) roster of some 250,000 combatants survives but does not include his name. Aside from these items and a year in a concentration camp, little else is known about him.
Christine was born in the Goldfeder family home at number 45 Zielna street in the shade of Warsaw’s lush Saxon Gardens. It must have been a desirable neighbourhood in its time, given the close proximity to the Zamek, the royal castle, and the historic Old Town. It seemed a peaceful setting compared to the frenetic plotting that was taking place elsewhere in the city and at a time when rumours of war in Europe were rife. Bloody street fighting between Polish fighters and Russian troops occasionally erupted in the capital and in other Polish cities. This stand-off between the upstart Poles and the Russians continued up to the eve of the first world war.
A year after Christine’s birth her mother purchased a modest estate some sixty kilometres southwest of Warsaw called Trzepnica. This was Christine’s first home and apparently she remembered it so fondly that she occasionally cited it or the county seat of Piotrkow as her places of birth. Christine’s life at Trzepnica was a comfortable but solitary one. Her father, when in residence, and his stable boys were her main companions. She had no primary school education. Instead the count enriched her imagination with tales of his family’s fabled ancestry, stories of men who had been knights and warriors dating back to the thirteenth century. Some of her ancestors had fought with great courage against the Teutonic knights at the Battle of Grunwald (1410) and with King Jan III Sobieski in breaking the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. Christine must have inherited her father’s talent as a raconteur, for colleagues and family members often used the words ‘fantasist’ and ‘story-teller’ when describing her personal qualities.
The Skarbek family were not all warriors however. Shortly before the final partition of the country by Russia and its allies, the clan divided in two. One branch turned its attentions to farming and social work, the most notable of whom was Fryderyk Florian Skarbek who became a prison reformer in
Russia and Poland in the mid-nineteenth century. He once owned the estate of Zelazowa Wola, famous as Chopin’s birthplace. Fryderyk’s children had been tutored by Chopin pere who asked his patron to stand as the boy’s godfather. Fryderyk agreed and also gave the future great composer his name. He also initiated construction of Warsaw’s infamous Pawiak prison. It was a bitter irony that Stefania Skarbek became one of its inmates 100 hundred years later during the second world war.
It was obvious from early childhood that the dark-eyed Christine preferred the rough-and-tumble of country life to her mother’s more feminine pursuits. Not that she lacked femininity. She made no attempt to disguise her handsome features (as early photos show) and in company could be quite charming. But she preferred to spend her free time exploring the Skarbek estates and nearby countryside on horseback rather than learning the domestic skills that would make her a desirable marriage partner. Breeding and selling horses had always been the count’s main pre-occupations, aside from his passion for a day at the races with all its attendant joys and temptations. He was at one time local president of the Polish Horse Breeders Society. But he did not neglect his daughter and had taught her to ride when she was still quite young, a sport which she took to with great enthusiasm.
Christine appears to have been the centre of attention within the Skarbek household perhaps because so little is known about her brother. There are no surviving photos of him, no recollections of his life passed on either by Christine or by her parents. The entire correspondence that his daughter carried on with Christine during the second world war was either lost or destroyed in a case of bureaucratic bungling by Warsaw social services. Those letters might have supplied clues to the exact nature of the relationship between brother and sister. Much later, after Christine’s murder in 1952, her forlorn lover disposed of her personal effects. None of her papers and documents have ever surfaced.
After the dust and clamour of the Great War had settled Stefania prevailed upon her husband to extend their daughter’s education beyond her knowledge of the Skarbek family history. At the age of fourteen Christine was enrolled at a convent boarding school in Polska Wies (now Pobiedziska) in western Poland, operated by the Catholic order of Sacre Coeur. Academic records unearthed by a Polish biographer indicated that she did reasonably well academically. But it was here that she began to exhibit the sort of impulsive behaviour that would one day colour her relationship with both British and Polish intelligence services, as well as with civilian employers.
Only one of her former classmates ever spoke about their school days together. She described the young Christine, or Krystyna as she was then, as a very active child who loved playing pranks on her unsuspecting victims. There is an apocryphal tale that she once attempted to set fire to a priest’s cassock as he was conducting the Holy Mass. Fortunately for all concerned the garment did not go up in a blaze. This was the proverbial last straw as far as the nuns were concerned. Christine was sent home, not unhappily one assumes, where she must have looked forward to spending her days riding and bantering with her father’s stable boys. But her parents wasted no time in finding another placement for their mischievous daughter. She was quickly packed off to Jazlowiec, a boarding school in southeastern Poland.
The hard-working nuns of the Immaculate Conception, clad in their distinctive blue and white gowns, presented their new pupil with a regime more determined than the one at Sacre Coeur. They achieved the desired effect, guiding Christine towards a more serious interest in academic work with a focus on the French language. She had the advantage however in that she would have been exposed to it before Jazlowiec because it was customary for the gentry to speak Polish in civic and religious matters while conversing in French at home and at social gatherings. French was still considered the language of a cultured society throughout Europe and young people from the best homes all spoke it to a greater or lesser degree.
Her education completed without further incident, Christine returned to Trzepnica a poised and well-mannered young woman with a rather autocratic bearing. This was mistaken by some as hauteur but by others as a pose to conceal a deep-rooted inferiority complex. The British author and journalist Daniel Farson, upon seeing photos of her, remarked in a newspaper article:
‘. . . photographs of her convey a characteristic that I particularly dislike – self-satisfaction – but this is belied by all who knew her. Perhaps the look is one of self-confidence and perhaps this concealed an inner uncertainty. But here I am guessing.’
Daniel Farson, ‘Riddle of the woman pimpernel’. Observer Magazine 20 Oct 1974.
Christine’s taste for adventure hadn’t been totally suppressed by the nuns. At her father’s urging she rode astride in local flat track races on mounts from his stables in what must surely have been an unusual sight in polite society. Though Skarbek was frequently absent from the estate he managed to impart much of his knowledge of horses to his young daughter.
The financial collapse that began in America in the late 1920s and spread to Europe also put paid to the Skarbeks’ comfortable way of life. Even if the count had been more astute in business affairs it is doubtful whether he could have coped with the wild fluctuations of the Polish inter-war economy. With Stefania’s dowry squandered after years of high living the family had little choice but to sell their properties and prepare for the hectic pace of city life. Christine left the family home first and arrived in a bustling Warsaw in December 1928, a few months ahead of her parents. Their departure from Trzepnica had been delayed by the legal entanglements that accompanied the forced sale of their beloved home. Their second estate which had been part of Stefania’s dowry was sold off in 1929 and they then joined Christine in Warsaw where they took up residence in more modest quarters.
Before she could settle into her new life Christine had to obtain the requisite ID card. In response to the question ‘place of residence,’ she wrote ‘unknown,’ indicating an uncertain future for herself as well as for her parents. She gave 1908 as her year of birth although there are documents extant in which she has inserted 1909 as the actual date. For many years after her death, and to further complicate matters, the myth persisted that she had been born in 1915, the birth date etched on her gravestone in London’s St Mary’s cemetery. That date first appeared on a bogus transit visa arranged for in 1941 by the British consul in Budapest to facilitate her escape from Hungary.
Documents – her applications for the ID card, entry for a beauty contest and her application for a British entry visa – surfaced only in the late 1990s. Shortly afterwards her baptismal certificate was discovered by a Polish genealogist in the parish of Beczkowice near the family estate. That document revealed that Christine had not been baptised until 1913 on the occasion of her fifth birthday. The reason for the gap between birth and baptism may have had to do with the Russian custom of delaying the sacrament until the child had lived for more than a year. Given the high mortality rate for infants in the early twentieth century in eastern Europe (and elsewhere), it was simply more convenient and less expensive for the authorities to wait until they were certain that a new-born baby would survive. The discovery of these various documents revealed for the first time that the 1915 date was a hoax though one born of necessity.
Despite Poland’s near anarchic political life following the first world war, climaxed by a coup against the elected government in 1926, Warsaw was in the midst of a cultural and building boom. With people pouring in from the countryside and from smaller cities in search of work, the capital’s population quickly surpassed the one million mark. A reorganised state school system led to a general increase in the nation’s literacy rates, attendance at operas and theatres was up, a cabaret life had taken root and the number of poets, writers and periodicals seemed to grow by the day. A promising economy, if only temporary, provided Christine with her first job opportunity, at the Fiat auto garage and showroom.
The company cleverly paid homage to Poland’s glorious and troubled history by locating its business between the modest Krasinski Square, named after the poet, and the larger Traugutt Park, so called to honour a hero of the 1863 Uprising. As Christine had no secretarial skills or sales experience her duties were probably limited to light clerical work and perhaps to greet customers as the friendly, attractive face of Fiat.
Having to spend her days working didn’t dampen her lively spirits however. In 1929 the newspapers Red Courier (Kurier Czerwony) and the Morning Express (Express Poranny) began their sponsorship of the Miss Polonia competition. Prominent members of Poland’s intellectual class were involved in organising the contest including the critic Boy Zelenski and the early feminist novelist Zofia Nalkowska. The following year Christine impulsively entered the contest and became one of 120 contestants for the title. Afterwards the sponsoring newspaper reported that, from a field of fifteen finalists, she had placed sixth in the judges’ estimation. A thumbnail description of Christine, based on information she herself submitted, confirms some facts of her early life along with hints at her playful nature. She gave her birth date as May the 1st, 1909 ‘in Piotrkow, graduated from grammar school and lives in Warsaw where she worked as a clerk in an automobile firm. She continued with this self description:
‘She loves horse-riding and skiing. In 1926 she was awarded a prize in a horse competition.
Krystyna is a tall and slim brunette with a light complexion, and big eyes full of life.’
This extract is part of Chapter 1 of The Elusive Madame G by Ron Nowicki and it clearly shows Christine Granville had a spirited and playful nature even as a young child.
In her adult life Christine’s spirits and rebellion against traditional marriage values are part of a pattern that dominates her life. These are explored later in the chapter and sets the scene for Christine’s life as a Special Executive Operations operative in World War 2.
If you would like to purchase a copy of Ron Nowicki’s book, see the links below:
The Elusive Madame G: A life of Christine Granville by Ron Nowicki
Read an extract from Chapter 1 of the book here.