Churchill’s Favorite: Christine Granville, the SOE Spy With Cyanide In Her Skirt

Some spies remain hidden in history’s shadows but that wasn’t the style of Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville), the daring and enigmatic WWII operative often dubbed "Churchill's favorite spy." 

Her incredible life and heroic deeds are the focus of Hollywood’s The Partisan starring Morgane Polanski which traces her exploits after she fled Poland in 1939 and was recruited as a British operative.

As Sam Leith notes in The Spy Who Loved, hers was a life of daring missions, exploding cigars, and microfilm sewn into the lining of Krystyna's gloves. At one point, she was issued a loaded revolver, a razor-edged commando knife, a compass hidden behind her hair clip, a magnifying glass in the end of a cigarette lighter, and a round, brown, rubber-coated cyanide tablet sewn into the hem of her skirt.

Christine’s lovers were apparently as exciting as her missions - and there were plenty of both.

​​

Churchill's favorite spy Christine Granville
The Partisan starring Morgane Polanski 


Krystyna Skarbek aka SOE spy Christine Granville

Krystyna Skarbek was born into an aristocratic - albeit financially challenged - Polish family in 1908. Her father was Count Jerzy Skarbek, and young Krystyna excelled at languages, horseback riding, shooting, and playing with knives. Her mother was from a Jewish banking background and they lived a somewhat idyllic life until her father died in 1930.

The family moved from the countryside to Warsaw, where Krystyna worked in a salesroom above a garage. Following a short-lived first marriage, Krystyna met a Polish diplomat, Count Jerzy Giżycki, on the ski slopes. They married in 1938 and spent most of their time traveling and socializing before Germany invaded Poland.

The Giżyckis were in southern Africa at the start of WWII and, determined to help defend Poland, made their way to London where Krystyna introduced herself to Brigadier George Taylor (although some reports also have her marching into the HQ of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6 and demanding a job).

“She proposed a fantastical scheme to travel to neutral Hungary, ski over the mountains to Poland and bring out volunteers and information,” according to English Heritage. She also planned to smuggle money, propaganda, and explosives into Poland and return with microfilm. It was a plan that tickled British PM Winston Churchill, himself a war veteran.

Krystyna Skarbek, Churchill's spy in WWII
Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was born in Warsaw in 1908 


Churchill’s Favorite: Christine Granville, the SOE Spy With Cyanide In Her Skirt

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Some spies remain hidden in history’s shadows but that wasn’t the style of Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville), the daring and enigmatic WWII operative often dubbed "Churchill's favorite spy." 

Her incredible life and heroic deeds are the focus of Hollywood’s The Partisan starring Morgane Polanski which traces her exploits after she fled Poland in 1939 and was recruited as a British operative.

As Sam Leith notes in The Spy Who Loved, hers was a life of daring missions, exploding cigars, and microfilm sewn into the lining of Krystyna's gloves. At one point, she was issued a loaded revolver, a razor-edged commando knife, a compass hidden behind her hair clip, a magnifying glass in the end of a cigarette lighter, and a round, brown, rubber-coated cyanide tablet sewn into the hem of her skirt.

Christine’s lovers were apparently as exciting as her missions - and there were plenty of both.

​​

Churchill's favorite spy Christine Granville
The Partisan starring Morgane Polanski 


Krystyna Skarbek aka SOE spy Christine Granville

Krystyna Skarbek was born into an aristocratic - albeit financially challenged - Polish family in 1908. Her father was Count Jerzy Skarbek, and young Krystyna excelled at languages, horseback riding, shooting, and playing with knives. Her mother was from a Jewish banking background and they lived a somewhat idyllic life until her father died in 1930.

The family moved from the countryside to Warsaw, where Krystyna worked in a salesroom above a garage. Following a short-lived first marriage, Krystyna met a Polish diplomat, Count Jerzy Giżycki, on the ski slopes. They married in 1938 and spent most of their time traveling and socializing before Germany invaded Poland.

The Giżyckis were in southern Africa at the start of WWII and, determined to help defend Poland, made their way to London where Krystyna introduced herself to Brigadier George Taylor (although some reports also have her marching into the HQ of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6 and demanding a job).

“She proposed a fantastical scheme to travel to neutral Hungary, ski over the mountains to Poland and bring out volunteers and information,” according to English Heritage. She also planned to smuggle money, propaganda, and explosives into Poland and return with microfilm. It was a plan that tickled British PM Winston Churchill, himself a war veteran.

Krystyna Skarbek, Churchill's spy in WWII
Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was born in Warsaw in 1908 


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Churchill’s favorite spy

Churchill recruited the young bride into Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the first female British agent to serve in the field and the longest-serving of all Britain's wartime women agents. Throughout the war, she displayed unmatched courage and resourcefulness, undertaking numerous dangerous missions in Nazi-occupied Europe. 

Using her code name Christine Granville, she trained as a wireless operator in Cairo in 1944 and parachuted into Nazi-occupied southern France to act as a courier for Francis Cammaerts, an SOE officer in charge of subversive activities. She was soon his top assistant ferrying messages between members of his network.

Granville’s most legendary exploit involved rescuing Cammaerts and two other agents held by the Gestapo. Posing as a powerful British official, she persuaded the captors that a British invasion was imminent and they would meet a horrible death if they executed Cammaerts and the others. Granville also reportedly greased their palms with a 2m franc ($2.2m) bribe so the Brits would walk free.

Christine received the George Medal, OBE, and France’s Croix de Guerre for her bravery. Her fearless spirit and exceptional espionage skills inspired admiration from colleagues and lovers alike. Indeed, Krystyna's love life was equally adventurous with a string of passionate affairs, including one with one-legged Polish war hero Andrzej Kowerski who used the nom de guerre Anthony Kennedy.

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Christine Granville circa 1940


The lives and loves of Christine Granville, OSE spy

She met Kowerski on her first mission to Budapest and they became lovers and soulmates for the rest of her life. In 1941 the Gestapo arrested them in Hungary and, following a lengthy interrogation, Christine reportedly bit her tongue so she appeared to cough up blood. A chest X-ray revealed lung scarring (she’d breathed in fumes while working over the garage during the lean years), and she and Kowerski were released as likely Tuberculosis sufferers.

Her charisma and charm seemed to captivate all who encountered her, earning her the admiration of countless men. However, as the war ended, Krystyna's life took a tragic turn. With no place in a Soviet-backed communist Poland, she struggled to find stability and acceptance in post-war Britain.

Christine adopted her code name as her own but faced rejection for various military positions, leaving her to work menial jobs. Her life was cut short in 1952 when another jealous ex-lover, Dennis Muldowney, stalked her. He waited for her at her central London hotel and stabbed Christine to death in the lobby. He was convicted of murder and hanged 10 weeks later. 

It was a bitter but perhaps fitting end for a daring woman of adventure. The film The Partisan seeks to shed light on this extraordinary spy, showcasing her struggle for freedom and her unwavering fight against tyranny.

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