Poland’s most famous female spy of the Second World War, Krystyna Skarbek, better known as Christine Granville in Great Britain, has been honoured with a blue plaque put up at the Kensington hotel which was her home until her murder in 1952.
Blue plaques have a long history in the UK, dating back to 1866. The plaque is a permanent sign installed in a public place to commemorate a link between that location and a famous person or event, serving as a historical marker for passers-by.
Skarbek's biographer Clare Mulley stated that she was thrilled with the unveiling of the plaque after having proposed the plaque six years earlier but facing all sorts of issues and hurdles.
The biographer emphasised that Skarbek was Britain’s first female special agent and the nation’s longest-serving wartime special agent, male or female, adding “she was also one of the most effective.”
It is widely believed that James Bond author Ian Fleming took inspiration from her for his character Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.
Skarbek was born in 1908 to a father from a Catholic aristocratic family, closely related to the Hungarian interwar regent Miklos Horthy, while her mother was a Jewish banking heiress who had converted to Catholicism.
Growing up, she had a reputation as a tom-boy and an avid skier. She later married a man working with the Polish intelligence community and left with him for his diplomatic posting in Ethiopia. Following the German invasion of Poland, the couple sailed back to Great Britain where she offered her services in the struggle against the common enemy.
Initially ignored, she was introduced to the Secret Intelligence Service by Manchester Guardian journalist Freddy Voigt. The British intelligence agency described her after their first encounter as "a flaming Polish patriot, expert skier, great adventuress and absolutely fearless". It was the start of a career in the intelligence community which would send her on missions to three theatres of war – the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Western Europe.
Her first posting was in Budapest, where she arrived in December 1939 and from where she went on several missions as a courier to her native Poland. It was from one of those journeys that she returned with the first video footage of the build up of German troops in occupied Poland, leading up to Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The achievement led Churchill to call her “my favourite spy”.
Her most famous daring exploit took place during a mission in France following the allied invasion, during which she saved the lives of two British SOE agents.
Skarbek had found out that her direct superior Francis Cammaerts, Xan Fielding and the French officer, Christian Sorensen, had been arrested by the Gestapo and were facing imminent execution. Skarbek travelled to the prison where they were held and presented herself as another spy, niece of famous British General Bernard Montgomery and wife of Cammaerts.
Mixing threats levelled against the commanding Nazi officers, detailing the terrible retribution that would come if they harmed the imprisoned agents, with offering a bribe of two million francs for their release, Skarbek managed to convince the Nazis to release all three agents.
Cammaert’s nephew, the writer Michael Morpurgo, welcomed the unveiling of Skarbek’s plaque, saying “her extraordinary courage was forged by a love of freedom, a hatred of the invader and a love of her beloved Poland”.
Despite surviving numerous close encounters with death as a spy, Skarbek died a dramatic death as a civilian in 1952, stabbed to death in London by a jealous man who she was said to have earlier left after a short relationship.
Skarbek is the third female agent, following Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan, to be commemorated with a blue plaque.