Clare Mulley, an award winning author, has succeeded in her 5-year campaign to secure an English Heritage blue plaque to honour the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent in WW2, Krystyna Skarbek aka Christine Granville. Initial permission has been given by the hotel owners.
The campaign got a big press attention and the building owners who had ignored calls to honour the legendary Polish World War II spy Krystyna Skarbek, who inspired Ian Fleming’s first Bond girl Vesper Lynd, had changed their mind.
The hotel 1 Lexham Gardens, in London’s Kensington district, has repeatedly brushed off requests by English Heritage to place its famous blue plaque outside the hotel to commemorate one of the war’s most successful secret agents, who Winston Churchill said was his favourite spy.
Skarbek was murdered in 1952 in the lobby of the 3-star boutique hotel, then called the Shelbourne, which was at the time a downmarket guesthouse for Poles stranded in post-war London after their country had been occupied by the Soviet Union.
An ex-lover, Dennis Muldowney who she met while working on a ship, had followed Skarbek into the lobby and stabbed her in the chest with a combat knife after she told him she’d burnt all of the love letters he’d sent her.
Muldowney stayed beside her corpse until the police arrived, admitted murdering her and asked to be executed as soon as possible, believing he would be reunited with his love after death.
He was sentenced to death and hanged three months later, declaring “to kill is the final possession” as he was lead to the hangman’s noose.
In a statement sent to TFN, Howard Spencer, a senior historian with English Heritage, said that Skarbek “was one of the most remarkable secret agents of the Second World War, undertaking many successful missions and saving countless lives.
“We are very keen to celebrate this brilliant and brave woman with an English Heritage blue plaque.”
He added: “The building is the only suitable London address for her blue plaque but – as in all cases – we need the owner’s permission and despite our many requests, we haven’t received any response.
“We understand that people lead busy lives, but we would love to hear from the owner and ensure Granville’s wartime achievements – and the building in which she lived – are recognised.”
The plaque that English Heritage wants to place on the building reads: “CHRISTINE GRANVILLE (KRYSTYNA SKARBEK) 1908-1952 Secret Agent lived here 1949-1952”.
A spokesperson from the hotel said he was not aware why the owner had not answered requests from English Heritage to place its blue plaque outside the building.
The Polish wartime spy’s stay at the down-at-heel hotel reflected Skarbek’s reduced circumstances after war, when, despite her wartime achievements, she had to scrape a living as a shop assistant, a hat-check girl in Harrods, a waitress and a toilet cleaner on passenger ships.
This was in marked contrast to her aristocratic life in Poland before the war and the excitement and danger of operating behind enemy lines during the global conflict.
Beautiful and charismatic, though unconventional and restless, the half-Jewish Skarbek couldn’t settle into the role assigned to her by Poland’s pre-war class-delineated society and when the war started, she made her way to Britain.
She made contact with Britain’s Special Intelligence Service (MI6) which recruited her and sent her to Budapest, from where she gathered information on the situation in Poland and reported it to the British.
On secret missions to Poland she gathered valuable evidence on Nazi German crimes against Jews and Poles, and she smuggled out a microfilm detailing German troops deployments that clearly indicated that they were preparing to invade the Soviet Union, information that was highly valued by Winston Churchill.
She was eventually arrested by the Gestapo in Budapest, but faking tuberculosis she escaped and was taken to Romania in the boot of a diplomatic car. She ended up in Cairo where her career as a spy ground to a virtual halt for three years as the British were suspicious of the alleged ease of her escape from the hands of the Gestapo and suspected her of being a double agent.
It was only when the SOE gained a new general that she was reactivated and sent to France, where she would perform feats of astonishing bravery and audaciousness.
In July 1944, she was dropped in France under the name Pauline Armand to be a courier for the Southern France resistance leader Francis Cammearts.
She made her way to the Italian border where groups of Poles reluctantly pressed into German service were garrisoned at frontier posts overlooking the winding Alpine passes. Her job was to persuade them to change sides and hand over their arms.
One of her victories was at a 2,000 foot high stronghold surrounded by dense forests. Although bloodied and bruised after a day’s climb to reach the top, she convinced the entire garrison of 200 Poles to desert their posts and swap sides.
This work gained her respect among her counterparts, but the next episode would make her a legend.
In late 1944, on the eve of the Allied Forces’ invasion of southern France, Francis Cammaerts was arrested along with two other SOE officers. Because Francis and the two officers were carrying banknotes with consecutive serial numbers the Gestapo decided they were spies and sentenced to them to death, to be carried out within 48 hours.
Upon learning this, Christine immediately used all her influence and skills to arrange a meeting with Gestapo liaison officer Albert Schenk, even though she knew there was a price on her head in every Gestapo office.
She threatened Schenck with terrible retribution if harm came to the prisoners, but sweetened the threat with an offer of two million francs for the men’s release. Schenck then introduced her to a Gestapo officer further up the line of command, the Belgian Max Waem.
He agreed, and after receiving guarantees of Schenck’s and the Belgian’s safety after the Allied invasion, they released the three men just a few hours before the planned execution.
That evening, the BBC broadcast a short message: Félicitations à Pauline.
In May 1947 she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an award normally associated with officers of the equivalent military rank of lieutenant-colonel, and a level above the most usual award of Member of the Order of the British Empire given to other women agents of SOE.
The French recognised Skarbek’s contribution to the liberation of France by awarding her the Croix de Guerre.
Skarbek’s legend would surely have reached the author of the James Bond series of novels Ian Fleming, who also worked in intelligence during the war.
Though there is no evidence, it has been suggested that she was the inspiration behind the duplicitous femme fatale Vesper Lynd in his novel Casino Royale, which was turned in a hit movie in 2006 starring Daniel Craig, with Eva Green playing the role of Lynd.
The Polish Embassy in London told TFN: “The Embassy of the Republic of Poland and the Ambassador always support initiatives in the UK which commemorate Polish people.
“It is no different in the case of a plaque commemorating Krystyna Skarbek, “Churchill’s favourite spy”, one of the longest-serving of all of Britain’s wartime female agents, who was portrayed so well by one of the campaigners for the plaque, Clare Mulley, in her book “The Spy Who Loved”.
“Skarbek’s contribution to the Allied effort in the Second World War is undeniable and her story is inspirational.”
The British Poles Portal will inform the readers when the ceremony of unveiling the plaque will take place.
Author: Stuart Dowell, The First News/M.B.Poles in UK