Born a member of the Polish aristocracy, Krystyna Skarbek became one of Britain’s most important and daring secret agents during the Second World War.
She was born Maria Janina Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908, the second child of Count Jerzy Skarbek and Jewish mother, Stefania Goldfeder. Charismatic and extremely talented, Krystyna might have been expected to take up her place in aristocratic society following her education. However, her father’s decadent lifestyle had ruined the family financially and his death in 1930 left them in near poverty.
After a brief and unsuccessful marriage in her teens, Krystyna took up a secretarial role at a Fiat car dealership but the vehicle fumes seriously affected her health and caused scarring on her lungs. She left her job and, on medical advice, spent time skiing in the clean air of the Tatra Mountains. It was on the slopes that Krytsyna met her second husband, diplomat Jerzy Giżycki. They married in November 1938 and moved to Ethiopia where Jerzy took up a diplomatic post.
In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland causing Britain to declare war on Germany. Krystyna and her husband immediately travelled from Addis Ababa to London where she was determined to volunteer her services in the fight against the Nazis. Within days of arriving, Krystyna had introduced herself to MI6 and greatly impressed its officers. She soon became part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an organisation formed to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance missions in occupied Europe.
Embarking on her first mission in December 1939, Kyrstyna flew to Budapest to establish her cover as a journalist. She then skied across the Carpathian Mountains, a treacherous journey in deep snow and freezing temperatures, into Nazi-occupied Poland. There she helped to establish a system of couriers supplying funds and propaganda to the Polish resistance as well as facilitating the escape of high-risk refugees.
Krystyna also smuggled valuable intelligence out of Poland and gathered crucial information on transport links between Romania and Germany. One on occasion she skied out of Poland with a vital piece of microfilm detailing the Nazi’s preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the proposed invasion of the Soviet Union, secreted in her clothes. This daring operation is said to have impressed Churchill so much he dubbed her his favourite spy.
In January 1941, together with her colleague, Andrzej Kowerski, Krystyna was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo. Determined to escape, Krystyna bit into her tongue and feigned hemoptysis. Fearing she had tuberculosis, the prison doctor sent her for an x-ray which, as she knew it would, showed up the scarring on her lungs. Believing her to be dangerously ill, the doctor insisted that both she and Kowerski be released immediately.
Following a period in Cairo, in 1944 Krystyna parachuted into France to join the SOE team preparing for the liberation forces. Not only did she establish the first contact between the French resistance and Italian Partisans, she also single-handedly secured the defection of an entire German garrison in a strategic Alpine position.
It was also in France that Krystyna performed one of her most audacious feats. In Digne, in August 1944, she learned that her SOE commander, Francis Cammearts, had been captured by the Nazis and, together with two other agents, was awaiting execution. She marched straight to Cammearts’ captors, purporting to be a British agent and the niece of General Montgomery. She managed to convince them that the Allied invasion was only hours away and terrified them with tales of the dreadful punishment that would befall them should any harm come to their prisoners. All three men were released.
Krystyna’s breath-taking wartime achievements were recognised with an OBE and a George Medal from the British and, in recognition of her contribution to the liberation of France, she received the Croix de Guerre from the French government.
Shamefully, once the war ended, and only a few weeks after the armistice, she was dismissed with a month’s salary. Initially her application for British citizenship was refused, despite her not being able to return to Poland, now under Soviet control. Eventually, the authorities granted her British citizenship but, forgotten and discarded, she was penniless and unable to find employment.
She was forced to take a job as a cleaner on a cruise-liner where, her marriage having formally ended, she formed a friendship with steward, Dennis Muldowney. He became obsessed with her and, when Krystyna returned to London between ship appointments in 1952, he followed her there. He stalked her to her lodgings in Kensington and, in the lobby of the cheap hotel where she was living, he stabbed her to death.
It was a tragic end to a life that had been filled with such extraordinary achievement, adventure and bravery.