The biographer Clare Mulley has been in the news recently for her success in obtaining an English Heritage blue plaque to commemorate wartime SOE agent Krystyna Skarbek, also known as Christine Granville, who was said to be ‘Churchill’s favourite spy.’
Krystyna was the subject of Clare’s bestselling 2012 biography The Spy Who Loved and Clare was awarded the Bene Merito by the government of Poland for bringing the wartime role of this remarkable woman to a wider audience.
Clare’s book was one of the sources that inspired Carolyn Kirby when researching her novel When We Fall, which is partly set amongst resistance fighters and undercover agents in wartime Poland.
Carolyn talks to Clare about women at the sharp end of the Second World War and about the ongoing fascination with female spies.
CK: Clare, it’s great to get the chance to ask you about Krystyna Skarbek. The Spy Who Loved had a big influence on my own Second World War research journey because Krystyna’s fascinating yet tragic life comes across so vividly in your book. How did you first get interested in her?
CM: I am delighted that you found Krystyna’s story inspiring, Carolyn, thank you. I admire your work too. These dramatic Polish-British stories are at the heart of the Second World War, yet receive far less attention in Britain than they should.
Poland, caught between Russia and the rest of Europe, has a rich history of invasion and resistance. In 1939 it was the first of the Allies, and exiled Polish forces made a huge contribution to the victory – through intelligence with Enigma; in armed conflict, including the Battle of Britain, which you have touched on; and through the special forces such as Krystyna’s work. Yet Poland left the war under a Soviet-imposed Communist regime and didn’t see freedom for another 30 years.
I was drawn to Krystyna’s story partly as her narrative reflects that of her country; fighting on so many different fronts; great courage, patriotism and achievements; and, ultimately, tragedy.
Yet Krystyna’s is also a hugely positive and inspiring story. The stories of the women who served are still often told in terms of beauty, courage and sacrifice, rather than achievements. Krystyna was beautiful, a pre-war beauty queen, but she was also extremely effective in three different theatres of the conflict.
She not only served clandestinely at different times as a resistance courier and a spy, but also in the heat of battle, and meanwhile saved the lives of many of her male comrades-in-arms. I knew from the start that it would be a great privilege, as well as a great adventure, to bring her story to light.
CK: Congratulations on your success in obtaining the blue plaque for Krystyna! I know that there were many hurdles to overcome during the application process. What motivated you to continue championing her cause?
CM: I first proposed an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Krystyna six years ago. The process is rightly rigorous but, even after English Heritage had approved the plaque, we had to find ways around various other unexpected hurdles – so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I heard that the plaque was finally being installed.
CK: Krystyna was an amazing person; beautiful, resourceful and brave, but she was also conflicted and had many complicated love affairs. In a way, her life seems to reflect the character and the contradictions of her Polish homeland in the first half of the 20th century. Given her multiple identities, how do you think Krystyna would have described herself?
CM: Well, the book is called The Spy Who Loved because Krystyna was a very passionate woman. She loved adventure and adrenalin. She loved men; she had two husbands and many lovers, as you say. But above all, Krystyna loved freedom and independence, both for the country of her birth, Poland, and her adopted Britain, but also for herself personally.
She was very much ahead of her times in that regard and many people, even those who loved her, sometimes sought to protect her and her ‘reputation’ by in effect denying much of who she was. I don’t actually think she cared much about other people’s opinions of her; she was much more interested in what she thought of them! However, perhaps she might have described herself as, above all, a Polish patriot, fighting for freedom.
CK: Like many of the Polish patriots who fought with Allied forces, Krystyna struggled to fit into post-war British society. But her life came to a particularly awful end. How do you see her place in history and what is her legacy?
CM: Krystyna could not safely return to Communist Poland after the war, but Britain treated her pretty shabbily. It was not so much that she struggled to fit in, but that so many doors were closed to her, as a woman, while her male colleagues were redeployed, and as a Polish émigré with some Jewish heritage.
Just seven years after the end of the war, in June 1952, she was stabbed to death in south London by an obsessed stalker. Although hugely dramatic, this is not how we should remember her, however.
Krystyna was the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent in the Second World War, and the longest-serving special agent for Britain, male or female. She was also one of the most effective.
Having undertaken four perilous clandestine journeys into Nazi-occupied Poland, in the spring of 1941 she smuggled microfilm across borders that gave Churchill advance waning of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of their erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. This is what prompted the British PM to tell his daughter that Krystyna was his favourite spy.
She then went on to serve in Egypt and the Middle East, and, in 1944, she was parachuted behind enemy lines into occupied France. It was here that she undertook the work that made her legendary in the special forces; including singlehandedly securing the defection of an entire German garrison, and saving the lives of several of her fellow officers.
Her legacy can be found both in the very significant contribution she made to Allied victory, for which she was awarded the OBE, the George Medal and the French Croix de Guerre, and also in her lasting example of how much a woman can achieve on the front line.
CK: Research is obviously the foundation of your writing and I know that ‘optical’ research is particularly important to you. Can you tell us something about your research trips to Poland and explain how what you saw there helped to bring Krystyna’s world alive?
CM: I do love research and am rarely happier than when in an archive, but, yes, I did have an unexpectedly dramatic research trip to Warsaw. Having interviewed the son of a Polish courier who worked for a while alongside Krystyna, I was delighted to accept his offer to stay in his empty apartment in Warsaw’s Old Town when I went to visit the archives there.
The next morning I was up early and heading out the door when I walked into a Second World War German Wehrmacht unit in the cobbled street outside. One Wehrmacht officer in particular was absolutely livid. Grabbing his hand-held machine gun he started shouting at me, and was soon jabbing its perforated barrel towards my neck. I was absolutely terrified; almost in tears.
Fortunately it turned out that I had not travelled back in time, but had simply stumbled into the filming of a Polish Second World War TV series, ruining a take. Even this taught me something however. Krystyna was arrested more than once in Nazi-occupied Poland, and she was an Allied special agent with Jewish heritage. There was no question that she should have been shot after brutal interrogation yet, instead of almost weeping like me, Krystyna always kept her cool and talked her way out of danger. My encounter really brought her remarkable courage and quick-thinking home to me.
CK: What would be your main tips to anyone who is thinking of writing a historical biography?
CM: Read everything… contextual history books, other biographies, historical novels set in the period, anything by anyone whose style you admire. Ask lots of questions – trace relatives, witnesses, children who might have inherited papers, and ask them everything you want to know, however daft it sounds. Keep a chronology – things usually make more sense when seen in order! Finish your day half way through a piece of writing that is going well, so it is easier to pick up tomorrow. Keep some chocolate in your desk drawer.
CK: Thanks so much, Clare, and congratulations again on your achievement!
Clare Mulley’s books re-examine the First and Second World War through the lives of remarkable women. The Woman Who Saved the Children, about child rights pioneer Eglantyne Jebb, won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize, and is now under option. Polish-born special agent Krystyna Skarbek, also called Christine Granville, is the subject of The Spy Who Loved, a book which led to Clare being decorated with Poland’s national honour, the Bene Merito.
Clare’s third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, longlisted for the 2018 HWA Non-fiction Crown, tells the extraordinary story of Nazi Germany’s only two female test pilots, whose choices and actions put them on opposite sides of history. Clare reviews for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. She has given a TEDx talk at Stormont, and recent TV includes news appearances for Sky, Channel 5 and BBC World, as well as the BBC’s Second World War 75th anniversary coverage, Newsnight, and the BBC series Rise of the Nazis. claremulley.com
Carolyn Kirby is the author of two novels, The Conviction of Cora Burns, which was long-listed for the HWA Debut Crown Award in 2019, and When We Fall, a thriller and dark love story set between Britain and Poland during the Second World War. Her Ladies and Gentlemen appears in the HWA short story collection Victoriana. carolynkirby.com
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, read more from Clare and Carolyn. Clare has spoken to Historia several times: to Elizabeth Buchan about The Women Who Flew for Hitler and to Frances Owen about The Woman Who Saved the Children as well as in a more personal Q&A.
Carolyn’s Historia feature Fifty years of fake news; the cover-up of the Katyn Massacre examines a shameful incident that was a major influence on her writing When We Fall. In ‘Paedo Hunter Turns Prey!’ The ironic fate of the father of tabloid journalism Carolyn looks at a bizarre event which helped inspire The Conviction of Cora Burns.
Join Carolyn and Clare for a Facebook conversation about Krystyna Skarbek and writing about women in war at 7pm on Tuesday, 13 October, 2020 on Historia’s page. They’ll answer viewers’ questions when the video ends.
Clare Mulley with Krystyna Skarbek’s Blue Plaque: supplied by Clare
Photograph of Krystyna Skarbek: supplied by Clare
Krystyna Skarbek’s Blue Plaque: supplied by Clare
1 Lexham Gardens, Kensington, London, location of Krystyna’s plaque: via Wikimedia